An Interview with the Exploratorium’s Adam Tobin, Part 1

The Exploratorium's Adam Tobin talks about growing up as a child-inventor, the Exploratorium workflow, and the challenges of summoning an "ah-ha!" moment on a deadline.

Adam TobinDan Brodnitz: Do you remember your first invention?

Adam Tobin: I started as an electronics tinkerer. I made a burglar alarm to keep my sister out of my room. I took an old car radio that had been abandoned from one of the old family cars and got inside it and wired up quadraphonic sound in my bedroom. I began making wooden toys when I was young as well, like whirligig and rolling marble toys.

DB: Were you raised in a family of inventors, or was it something you got into on your own?

AT: I don’t know where it came from. My father can’t pick up a hammer…. For some reason, with me, I was just a tinkerer from the get-go.

DB: How did your parents respond?

AT: They encouraged it — it meant that things around the house might get fixed that otherwise wouldn’t. I remember I was seven or eight years old and somehow I was the only one in the house that could fix our stove.

DB: What was wrong with it?

AT: It had something to do with the timer. You had to pop open the front of it and get in and tweak the timer. I don’t know if that’s how it was supposed to be or it got broken at some point, but I found the sweet spot and could make it work.

There’s a passage where [Douglas Adams is] talking about how you can fly. And the way he described it was, ‘You have to throw yourself at the ground and miss.’ That’s the creative process. You have to throw yourself at the ground and miss, and that’s how you fly. It’s a combination of action and faith.

DB: How would you describe what you’re doing now?

AT: I direct the Exhibit Development Group. If you’re familiar with the Exploratorium, it’s an incredibly unique and creative hands-on interactive museum. They call it “The Museum of Science, Art, and Human Perception.” The developers are responsible for coming up with the ideas and fabricating all of the exhibits on the floor. That can range from simple demonstrations of scientific phenomenon to more complex multimedia immersive experiences.


Adam Tobin is the Director of Exhibit Development at San Francisco’s famed Exploratorium. Before that he was an entrepreneur and an award-winning toy inventor whose creations included Frigits, Getups, Tub Tunes Water Flutes and Drums, and SuperFort. His creations are sold around the world and have been featured in New York Magazine, Discover Magazine, CBS Morning News, Fox News, CNN, Regis and Kelly Ripa,and the New York Times.

These developers are a rare and special group of creative individuals. The breadth of their creative abilities never ceases to amaze me. Part of the credo of the place is that you pursue your own creative passion — you come up with great ideas through personal exploration. A lot of places, you’ll have someone come up with an idea, then that idea’s passed on to a fabricator and they fabricate the core of the exhibit, then that’s passed on to a designer, or vice versa. Here, the developer fills most of those roles in one person. So they’re both the source of the idea and the fabricator of the exhibit.

DB: What do you think are the benefits of one person handling so much of the process?

AT: There are so many intangibles in trying to communicate what you’re after or what makes something fun or cool or interesting and these handoffs are frequently where good ideas break down…. [Here], with both the creative direction and fabrication centered in one person, our developers are able to iterate and refine their ideas without any dilution of their vision or intent. Another important benefit is the ability for new ideas to come from hands-on experimentation. In other words, sometimes you have an idea and then prototype it, and other times you play with a loose concept or area of interest, and from that experimentation you discover an exciting new exhibit idea. “Do I have an idea and I make it? Or is the idea coming out because I’m cutting wood on the band saw?” It can work both ways because there isn’t a rigid flow with one person doing one stage and then handing it off.

DB: With your own work, what helps keep ideas flowing?

AT: Environment’s a big part of it — the creative space I’m in. The people that I’m around have a big impact. I’m a very strange mix of needing to do everything my way, and needing to be surrounded by creative people with their own big ideas. Everything has to be in its right place, and it has to be clean. And at the same time, when I’m doing what I do, I make a profound mess.

Whatever else might be bugging me, whatever other background thinking — anything else that I’m obsessing over — it all has to be cleared away because I am, in large part, an obsessive creative. My creativity comes in intense spurts; once my mind is seized on something, it can’t let go, and I’ll work on it even to the neglect of my health.

But, you know, eventually I come out of it and there’ll be a space where I’m not focusing as intensely. If you look at what I’ve done, you can see that — there’ll be these three-year spurts, and then a year or two off, and then a three-year spurt and then a couple of years off. That same pattern, like a fractal, can work on a micro level as well, where there’ll be a 72-hour period of intensity and then a 24-hour period of comedown. Once an idea’s in my head, I’ll be almost physically vibrating until I can get to the shop and to a computer to be working it out. I really won’t be able to think about anything else.

DB: Do those periods come unannounced or are there things you do to try and generate ideas?

AT: That’s the million-dollar question. [You’d like to say] “Ready, ah-ha moment now!”, but it just doesn’t quite work that way. But that’s exactly what you have to do in a world filled with real deadlines; imagine if you have a writing deadline, or I have a tradeshow deadline for unveiling a new toy, or an artist has a pending art installation. This paradox presents the very question that I’ve been focusing on, especially in the last several years — how, especially within a group and within a budget, do you summon the muse?

I’ve done this in the past, where in the toy business, we came out with creative toys that stood out from everything else and they were authentic, creatively, and they had ah-ha moments, and we did it on time and on budget…. [When I came to the Exploratorium] I thought, “I’m going to write out a document about how we did it, and then that’s how we’re going to try and do it here.” But when I read what I had written, it sounded so antiseptic and sterile. It sounded just like all of those creativity or startup business self-help books where they say, “These are the steps to creativity: Step 1: Create a Creative Environment, Step 2: Come up with all kinds of possible ideas, Step 3: Come up with the big idea!” And, you know, I don’t know if I can swear in the interview, but everybody who’s creative knows for the most part, that’s bullshit. It doesn’t work that way. And here I was writing that very thing.

DB: What did you try next?

AT: I returned to what had worked well for me in the past — find a way to create a framework that best allows (if you’ll allow me the oxymoron) structured, organic creative flow. For example, if you set up what seems to be a rigid structure for a six-month project where you say, “First stage: for the first two months I’m going to immerse myself in the content. Second stage: for the next two months I’m going to explore many possibilities in a rapid way. Third stage: for the final two months I’m now going to dive into the real thing,” and you adhere to it as dogma, then you wouldn’t get something wildly creative in the output. Or it would be harder. But if you use that as a framework and you say, “This is where I feel like I should be right now,” and you don’t eliminate other possibilities, it just becomes more of a conscious decision at the time where you should be moving from one stage of creativity to another. You can say, “I’m not ready right now,” or, “We don’t have the great thing yet — the muse hasn’t struck.” And by being conscious of that decision, you’re more likely to get something done on time. By not dogmatically sticking to that decision, you allow for further possibility of the muse striking.

DB: So the key was guidelines instead of rules?

AT: Exactly. Guidelines for flow. And if you set them up right, they shouldn’t dictate creative process; they are a reflection of a natural creative process. Given a creative task, people may have different methodologies; one’s going to go take a hike, one’s going to go to another museum. You know, they’re going to need to stimulate themselves without the feeling of pressure. They’re going to need to play around. They’re going to need to give themselves enough time to experiment. And they’re going to need to give themselves enough distance from what they’re doing to allow the muse to strike.

There’s a great analogy for how I view this kind of creative process. I don’t know if you ever read the Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?

DB: Sure.

AT: There’s a passage where he’s talking about how you can fly. And the way he described it was, “You have to throw yourself at the ground and miss.” That’s the creative process. You have to throw yourself at the ground and miss, and that’s how you fly. It’s a combination of action and faith.

I see enough creatives that will wait around, wait around, wait around for the muse to strike, and you can wait a long time. And then you’ll see others who are like, “I have to have it happen this way,” and, you know, that kind of shuts the door in the muse’s face. In other words, you have to keep trying, keep iterating, keep exploring, keep making decisions — don’t wait for the perfect moment, don’t wait for the perfect idea to come to you. If you don’t throw yourself at the ground, you’ll never miss.

As I recall, another important aspect to successfully flying in The Hitchhiker’s Guide, in order to miss the ground, something would have to distract you at just the right moment. And there were even people who would provide the service of giving you the appropriate distraction so you would miss the ground.

DB: What do you do to distract yourself?

AT: I’ll work on something unrelated. If I’m in the shop and I know I need to solve a problem, then I’ll take out a very simple something that I can work on that doesn’t require a lot of planning or thinking, but simple execution. You know, something that broke a while back and I know I need to drill a hole and tackle it and fix it and then it’s done. So there isn’t a lot of, “Oh, my God, how am I going to do this?” It’s just some mindless hands-on execution.

I’ll get out of my environment and go to another place where I’m just stimulated. And generally, I try to do that in completely unrelated places. If I’m banging my head on a toy, I’m not going to go look at other toys because my mind is already saturated in that area. I’ll go to a carnival or I’ll go see a movie or I’ll go hear music or something that’s completely unrelated. And very frequently, I can find the ah-ha moments in those other places.


The interview continues in Part Two.

3 comments on “An Interview with the Exploratorium’s Adam Tobin, Part 1

  1. great new interview, and an interesting and unique departure from earlier guests. adam’s explanation of creating the ‘right’ creative environment was particularly interesting, the difficulty in finding the right balance between guidelines and rules. this interview and his brand of perpetual creativity, with i guess and emphasis on the tactile/learning/experience, was really fresh, honest and enjoyable.

  2. Really dug this one too, Cecil. Partly because Adam’s job is so unique—sort of Thomas Edison meets Willy Wonka—and partly because of the way he acknowledges, in very practical terms, the mystery of getting something “a-ha” done. The bursts versus the fallow periods, years-long sometimes, was heartening to hear about. Bring on Part II!
    P.S. Just learned recently that the Exploratorium was founded by Frank Oppenheimer, “Dr. Atomic’s” younger brother. Make hands-on museums, not bombs!

  3. wonderful interview; looking forward to part II.
    thank you for the thoughtful detail and for the exploratorium–a great museum and a favorite of mine from way back.

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