HackSpace magazine

The Art of PCBs

By Drew Fustini. Posted

Image credit: Trammell Hudson, https://trmm.net/PCB_art

We live in an age where it’s easier and cheaper than ever to create printed circuit boards (PCBs), and the hardware hacking community has embraced them as a way to practise and show off their technical and creative talents. If designing and making your own circuit board is an electronics rite of passage for many hardware hackers, then DEF CON’s Badgelife has got to be our Olympics.

At DEF CON, the iconic Las Vegas hacker conference that has been running since 1993, your conference badge is not just proof you’ve bought a ticket, it’s a PCB with electronic components that forms part of a conference-wide puzzle. Cracking this puzzle is a social and technical feat rewarded with the coveted Black Badge, which gives you free entry to DEF CON for life, plus a big bucket of hacker kudos points.

Inspired by these DEF CON badges, groups and individuals in the hardware hacking community started creating their own badges, creating what is now known as Badgelife. Sophi Kravitz made a fantastic short documentary on Badgelife for Hackaday that you can watch at hsmag.cc/YPHvYr.

Badgelife is a great representation of the community of hardware hackers and programmers who design and make electronic conference badges as a form of artistic expression – for example, the iconic Bender Badges from AND!XOR, and the work of Twinkle Twinkie. Searching the internet or social media for Badgelife, especially during a big electronics conference, will provide many more awesome examples of these artistic PCB badges and badge add-ons, often referred to as SAOs.

SAOs follow a community standard for connecting badge add-ons, providing power, ground, and an I2C bus, with more recent connectors also providing GPIO. Making these little add-ons proved to be much more accessible – in terms of time, money, and knowledge required – than full-blown badge design, so the number of people making their own blinking, bleeping, blooping, and sensing PCB art soared.

But PCB art isn’t just limited to badges and SAOs. Boldport has been making stunning DIY circuit art kits for years, Andy Sowa has transformed a series of photographs into PCBs, and I’ve seen some incredible art making use of the different textures and colours of fibreglass, metal traces, silkscreen, and solder mask that you find on the different layers of a PCB. If you want to explore these techniques more, I wrote a blog post a little while back with examples and links to some of my favourites: hsmag.cc/3pR1NH.

There is a whole world of PCB art out there to discover!


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