Screenprinting for tangible interaction

Most of our work at SANDS looks at bottom-up participation in conventional science fields (e.g., biology, environmental science, food science). In parallel, I recently started a new project that focuses on creative practice as a space for public techno-scientific literacy. I am interested in screen printing as a new material for tangible interaction and soft electronics.

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Our current set-up uses the vinyl cutter for stencils (though our photo-emulsion unit is coming soon!)

I want to create conductive, magnetic, and thermochromatic inks and methods for screenprinting. I am envisioning some pretty exciting outcomes: scaleable (stencil-based) and novice-friendly methods for interaction design and soft electronic fabrication.

To be honest, my only background in screenprinting comes from an overview course at Techshop, and some basic internet research. Even with this limited knowledge, I am psyched about screenprinting because it is flexible (there are so many ways of making stencils), versatile (you can print on almost any material), and also accessible to beginners for pretty cheap. I also love how it’s been around for centuries: some sources claim there’s evidence of stencil-based printing in Ancient Egyptian tombs!

Luckily, I have amazing screenprinting experts to collaborate with here at ASU. Working with Mary Hood (Associate Professor, School of Art) and Emily Ritter (MFA student in Studio Arts), I am experimenting with conductive powders, photochromic and thermal pigments, and magnetic powders to create interactive prints.

Althea’s early work on this project was really helpful in eliminating several approaches. For instance, contrary to what I would think, mixing metallic powders with ink does not work too well.

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Althea’s early attempts at making conductive ink with copper powder.

Recently, I started working graphite powder, which seems to be fine enough to press through regular meshcount screens (around 110) and works super well with low mesh counts (e.g., 38 or 60 for glitter ink printing).

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Graphite-based ink basically looks like graphite, no matter what color you start with.

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I’ve been playing a lot with different amounts of ink, gel medium, water and graphite, and making these ‘conductivity contact sheets’ to figure out ideal ratios.


Since I also know nothing about music, the other night I made a music-based demo using a really simple stencil, graphite-based ink, and capacitive sensing.

We hope to pilot the materials and techniques we develop in workshops with artists, activists, and hobbyists. This would allow basically anyone to embed interactive behaviors into a variety of materials such as textiles, wood, metals, plastics, etc.

What makes this project truly bold and exciting is that the outcomes are unknown. While making screen printing inks that change color in response to heat or UV radiation, conduct electricity, or have magnetic properties is certainly possible and we have already had some success, how these would be used in creative practice remains to be seen.

This project is also productively challenging us to negotiate complementary disciplinary commitments, audiences, and purposes across our research: I hope learn more about screenprinting while my collaborators turn to me for insights into electronics and circuit design. With this blend of expertise, the work has the potential to advance multi-disciplinary research methods and nurture collaborations between AME and the School of Art.

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