You know, for kids!

In 1994 the Cohen brothers released a film called The Hudsucker Proxy. It was a both a financial and critical flop, though I have to say I liked it. It was quirky, and for the first third of the film it really kept the audience guessing about the simplest question… what the heck did Norville Barnes (played by Tim Robbins) mean when he kept showing people a circle saying “you know, for kids!”

SPOILER ALERT! The movie is about the creation of the hula-hoop.

If you haven’t seen it and it comes on cable some rainy Sunday afternoon, I do recommend it, but that is not what I’m writing about today.

Last fall, I had a project come across my desk that on the surface seemed simple, but ended up requiring quite a bit of clever thinking and tinkering. I was working for an educational software company and they had been awarded a grant to develop a really neat combination card, and augmented reality game to teach basic chemistry to students as young as nine.

As the educators and designers toiled away to figure out the very best way to teach a fourth-grader about atomic and molecular structure, they concluded that the cards in the game needed to be round, and about 3.5 inches in diameter. Not a big deal, right?

Making something round is sometimes easy, like a drop of liquid or a pizza. In those two cases, any shape other than round is actually harder.

Then there are the cases where shape is a non-issue, like baking a cake or pouring concrete. Select your pan or make your form, pour in the liquid and wait. Square, round or any other shape… when you start with liquid you have options.

The world of printing takes an entirely different view of circles. For those who put ink (or toner) on paper, straight lines are the norm, anything curved is going to cost you.

Let me set the stage. This was a grant from the Department of Education. The majority of the funds (as it should be) were to be spent developing the educational value of the project. This is a very polite, roundabout way of saying there was a tiny printing budget.

The good news was we didn’t need to make too many cards for the testing, around 2,000. The bad news was, when making circles out of paper, you need to produce a lot to make each one cost effective.


An expensive printing die being made.

The most common method for cutting circle shaped playing cards is to use die-cutting. This requires an expensive process of designing and making a die, then paying the printer to run your job to line up perfectly with the die, and then finally running the printed sheets through the die-cutting machine. The problem in this situation was that the cost of the die alone was more than our printing budget, let alone the fact that the set-up costs would be the most expensive part of such a small job.

So, what were we to do? We entertained several options, but one at a time we eliminated all of our ideas… none of them were going to work. I was stumped.

After a few days of despair, I remembered that a couple of years ago I solved a different problem using a tool intended for scrap-booking, so with the idea that those are some pretty crafty and creative people, we started looking at scrap-booking tools. There are a lot of them.

Eventually we found a 3.5” circle punch on Amazon. It was only $15, so we bought two.

A few days later the punches arrived, and as expected they punched out a perfectly lovely 3.5” circle, but we now faced another problem. Scrap-booking tools are designed to punch shapes out of paper without regard to lining-up or “registration” of any kind. We needed to line up the art on our cards rather precisely with the punch… to within about 1mm.


The $15 Amazon scrap-booking circle punch

So, one weekend I took one of the punches and some sample card prints home and got to work in my workshop.


The jig that saved the day!

The result was the jig you see above and it works like this:

  • The card images were printed 3/8” from the edge of the paper, two across
  • You slide the paper all the way into the jig, line it up on the left side and punch, this punches-out the right-most image and drops it thought a hole in the bottom of the jig
  • Then you slide the paper to the right and repeat
  • The stops on the sides are adjustable to accommodate any variation in the printed pieces
  • The whole process takes about 5 seconds

Now, don’t get me wrong, 2,000 cards were still a pain in the butt to punch out, but we were able to produce what we needed on time and within budget.

Before we started looking at scrap-booking tools, we were pretty sure the situation was going to get expensive. But, we took a few steps back, looked at the challenges afresh and came up with another path. In fact, once we started looking at scrap-booking supplies, we were overwhelmed with options.

What was the difference? We asked a similar, but different question.

Instead of continuing to ask: How can we get these things die-cut within our budget?

We shifted to: Who in the world makes circles of paper and how do they get them?

It was a subtle difference to be sure, but one that made all the difference.

Of course throughout the entire experience I kept visualizing Tim Robbins showing me a circle and saying, “you know, for kids.” And since the cards were for kids, that was okay.


Copyright © 2016 – Stephen S. Nazarian – All rights reserved.

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