Design icons: the drawing pin

From a series written for ABC Radio National’s Blueprint for Living. The drawing pin was first broadcast on 3rd December 2022. You can listen to the audio here.


The office is a treasure trove of clever design. Along with the various clips and binders, most of which we thought would become redundant as the world became computerised and paperless, you’ll normally find a little container of drawing pins. You might call them thumb tacks or push pins, depending on where you’re from, but their essence and their useability is the same the world over. They’re just another in a battery of tiny workplace heroes, always on hand to help out.

Nails and tacks of all sorts have been around since people learned how to forge metal. The idea of tacks being used to pin papers to a board became popular in the eighteenth century as draughting became part of the new professions of engineer and architect. Tacks had long been used for upholstery, keeping stretched fabric or hide in place, but these had a long shaft and were intended only for single use. The drawing pin was small and stubby, just long enough to hold technical drawings in place while they were being worked on and then easy to remove. Officially, it was invented at the turn of the twentieth century but its creation is all a bit murky. Three men in three different countries supposedly had their eureka moment, all within a three year period. That this even merits comment shows the importance of this seemingly insignificant little fastener.

The first was Edwin Moore, an American who, in 1900, came up with what he called a push pin. His pin had an elongated metal head, making it easy to grip and pull out, and very like the multi-coloured plastic-headed pins one can buy today. He started the Moore Push Pin Company and made variations on his theme, adding coloured or longer heads around which thread could be wound, helpful if showing the route of a ship for instance or in some other display. These are now more commonly called map pins.

Over in Germany in 1903, a clockmaker in Lychen called Johann Kirsten came up with his idea for a flat-headed pin intended to hold drawings on a board. It was an all-in-one design,  a flat metal disc with a triangular wedge cut out on two sides and bent down to form the sharp pin. An over-scaled version stands in the centre of the town today as a memorial to their famous son. And yet, in the same year, a Yorkshireman named Mick Clay supposedly came up with the same thing, also intended to be used for technical drawings. No one is quite certain whether it was Clay’s or Kirsten’s pins that a German entrepreneur called Otto Lindstedt saw but he took the idea and patented it as his own in 1905, a touch of unexpected skulduggery in the drawing pin world.

While the origin of the drawing pin remains a tad mysterious, the importance of its presence has never been questioned. Its usefulness might have come under siege with the invention of sticky tapes in America in the 1920s, known as Scotch tape there and Sellotape in Britain, but the fact that a pin didn’t stick to a paper but still helped attach it to a surface gave it a life beyond the drawing board. The beauty of a drawing pin is, in fact, its sustainability, the way it can be used again and again, even when rusty. Its humbleness is its genius. Artists have found beauty in the tiny fastener, too, like Andre Woolery who used the differently coloured heads of drawing pins to create portraits that shimmer like sequins. The drawing pin remains a staple of the noticeboard, enabling information to be passed around or advertised. Tiny in size, shiny by nature, and always useful, without it we might all have been less well-informed.

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