Left, the original artwork for The Growler’s Issue 61 cover by Sarah Petkus. Right is the rendition of the same artwork for the badge design by Tymkrs
For us commoners, the inner workings of a circuit board are miles over our heads. Most days we’re lucky to manage screwing in a light bulb without any major blowback (or is that just me?).
But living among us are tight-knit communities of hackers who are pushing the very boundaries of electronics. Based in Rochester, Minnesota, design studio Tymkrs (pronounced ‘toymakers’) is making a name for itself as the go-to badge-makers for hacker conventions around the world, from Milwaukee to Las Vegas to China. These badges are much, much more than dinky laminated rectangles dangling from clunky lanyards—within the hacking community, badge design is a lifestyle.
Addie and Whisker, the duo behind Tymkrs, combine their expansive knowledge of printed
circuit boards (PCBs), programming, and design to create mini computers capable of operating both independently and collaboratively. The pair have effectively innovated the arena of badge-making, pushing things further with each custom badge they build.
As the rebels of what Addie calls “circuit art,” Tymkrs are making cutting-edge works combining the functionality of PCBs with imagination and design to create unique, interactive pieces of
technology. To keep the ideas as fresh as possible, each creation is completely original from the last. “Once you’ve done something once, it’s out there. You’ve gotta change it up,” Addie says.
Though the pair commissioned an original piece by artist Sarah Petkus for their work for The Growler, they typically create their work themselves, beginning to end. As with the artistic rendering on this cover (actual, fully lit, badass Growler-original circuit board to come; stay tuned), the importance of balancing art and function is key to all of Tymkrs’ creations.
The duo always operates based on four guiding principles: to make the badge look good, make it interactive, make it collaborative with surrounding badges, and to reward those who get far enough into the more obscure features of the badge. “Whenever we design our badges, function follows form, but also form follows function,” explains Addie.
A good example comes from the badge Tymkrs created for their first conference, which was shaped like a gear and designed to act as a decoder ring. Addie says she and Whisker were eager for the users to dive into the encryption and decryption and solve the puzzles, certain that they’d crack the codes with ease. “So we’re sitting there, and we’re waiting for all the hackers to do their hackery thing, and they come up to us like, ‘Hey, is the goal of this badge to turn the lights on?’ We’re like, ‘Come on! You guys are the ones who are supposed to understand!’” Addie says.
Exasperated with the pros, their excitement returned when they were approached by a group of students who had gotten their hands on the badge. The encounter that followed ended up cementing the studio’s focus for their badges. “They told us, ‘You know, it would’ve been really cool if you guys had a puzzle within a puzzle,’” Addie recalls. “And we’re like, ‘All right, we’re no longer designing badges for those lame-o hackers—we’re designing badges for these students who are crazy thirsty to learn.’”
Tymkrs has been rooted in education ever since its beginnings 10 years ago as a blog and YouTube channel, and it’s there that Addie and Whisker are still invested. “We try not to stray too far from our educational roots, and use the badges as a way to teach people about technologies they may take for granted,” she says.
As innovators on the forefront of the badge-making world, Tymkrs are eager to see how far they can take the format. “It has been fascinating over the last few years, learning just how far we can push it. The design tools do not exist to do this stuff out of the box, so we make our own,” she says. “It is a little bit punk, a little bit hacker, and a fun way to get into building electronics.”
Medium: Printed circuit board