Screenprinting and DIY fabrication of smart materials

Screenprinting is one of the most popular DIY printing methods, which has been, for many years, used to produce static visual representations in various scales and forms.


Part of our work at SANDS explores screenprinting as a DIY fabrication process that can be used to embed interactive properties into a range of substrates including paper, fabric, vinyl, wood, or acrylic. This project is aligned with recent trends in “smart” materials, whereby instead of using external components, responsive behavior and/or visualization is incorporated into the material itself.

Using off-the-shelf materials, we developed low-cost light-sensitive, temperature-responsive, and conductive screenprinting inks. We applied these inks in manual screenprinting to consistently reproduce photochromic, thermochromic and conducive properties across different substrates. To explore possible application areas, we held a workshop with local artists who experimented with our screenprinting methods and applied them to their practice. The workshop resulted in two interactive pieces showcased at a local gallery.


This summer, we set out to explore the opportunities for applying DIY smart material fabrication in youth STEAM (STEM + the arts) domains. We developed a week-long summer camp module for junior high school youths as part of a Digital Culture outreach program at our university.


During the first day, students explored photochromism by mixing UV-responsive pigments with screenprinting inks and exploring the colors with a UV light and sun exposure. Students also worked in groups to set up screens from pre-cut vinyl stencils and make their first prints using the photochromic inks they created.

Days 2 and 3 introduced basic electronic concepts and students worked on designing their own stencils in Adobe Fireworks and screenprinting a folding switch circuit. This project also taught students the concept of “registering” or aligning multiple printed layers on the same material. The final project included a conductive strip that served as part of a folding switch, an LED and coin cell battery that completed the circuit, and a thermochromic image that was printed to decorate the switch.

Days 4 and 5 were used to create a screen-printed storyboard that illustrated a narrative created by the entire class. The inks and concepts learned in the class served as prompts for each frame of the storyboard and served as action points in the story (the final story consisted of four frames which used regular, photochromic, thermochromic, and conductive elements).

Key Takeaways

We see screenprinting as parallel to many existing, successful initiatives that incorporate tangible media into art and science curriculums. In our work, screenprinting combines elements from the fine arts, including one of the oldest forms of printmaking, with modern technologies such as vinyl cutting, and advancements in material science.


A particularly unique feature of screenprinting is that it naturally supports collaborative making. The physical aspects of the printing process and the reproducibility of the prints enables individuals to make and keep a copy of the group project. This makes screenprinting an exciting platform for STEAM, as collaborative exploration is a key tenet of informal learning.


Our STEAM course shows the potential of manual screenprinting as a DIY fabrication technique for youth makers. Our overall findings demonstrate several unique features of screenprinting: a low barrier to entry for smart material fabrication, a collaborative maker practice, and a creative integration of STEAM concepts.

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