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Desk Toys

  1. What Are Desk Toys?
  2. Why Use Desk Toys?
  3. Executive Desk Toys
  4. Best Desk Toys

What Are Desk Toys?

Do you doodle, fidget, or fiddle with things on your desk while you work? Do you tap pens, ping elastic bands, unwind paper clips - many of us already unconsciously play with physical objects while we contemplate larger problems. Desk toys are gadgets built specifically for such sensory activities, stimulating through touch, sight or sound.

Desk toys have been around since the late 1960s with the invention of the Newton’s Cradle, which still reigns supreme as the most well-known executive desk toy. One thinks of Magic 8 Balls delivering cryptic messages, Zen gardens with little rakes; retro relics of the 20th century. But today our love for office gadgets has not abated.

The possibilities of what an office gadget can be are endless, from the repurposed everyday object to the DIY, and from the classic to the ultra high-tech.

Ever get so annoyed at that guy who sits across from you that you want to scream at him at the top of your lungs? Perhaps there’s someone you work with who you’d like to torture. Instead, why not engage in some desktop warfare. Website Thinkgeek sell lots of toys designed specially so you can get back at your boss. Prank your colleagues with a pellet gun, a USB phantom keystroker, or a sonic meeting distrupter.

Why Use Desk Toys?

All work and no play makes Jack a dull worker.

Rather than going straight to social media on your break, an executive gizmo can get you away from your screen, offering diversion, provoking dialogue, and relieving stress.

Lately, however, researchers have delved further to show that they’re more than just time wasting distractions. The relatively new field of embodied cognition has shown that engaging with the physical world can be a powerful way to boost brain power.[1] These fiddle toys are actually good for our state of mind, productivity, and cognition.

Manipulating physical objects with the hand has been shown to be a powerful way to activate the brain.[2] For example, writing with a pen or pencil stimulates far more than typing. Researchers also suspect that the brain regulates its base level of activity by activating unconscious bodily motions. That means, that yes, even fidgeting and doodling has a purpose as part of the thinking process.

However, today’s productivity software and word processors provide no “margins” to offload unconscious doodling needs. A desk toy can fulfil this need – so much so that researchers at NYU have created a desk toy called a Fidget Widget that aims to incorporate these positive effects into daily work life, to impact productivity without providing any productivity tools

Fidgeting also acts as a coping mechanism. It is thought that mildly stimulating, interesting, or entertaining sensory-motor-input distracts parts of the brain that are bored, so that other parts can focus on primary work tasks. This allows our brains to become fully engaged and for us to sustain focus on the main task at hand.[3]

Executive Desk Toys

Executive desk toys are a cut above the rest. More than just a tacky toy, these objects are highly stylish, even sculptural and often have a touch of ingenious engineering.

Newton’s Cradle

Most people are familiar with the Newton’s Cradle: four or five steel balls suspended by wires from a frame. If one ball is lifted, and left to swing back to its original position, it will strike the other stationary balls, causing this first ball to stop, while the ball at the opposite end of the row of balls swings away and upwards. When it swings down again it causes the process to repeat. This continues for a minute or two; the heavier the balls, the longer the swinging goes on.

The Newton’s cradle is hypnotic and elegant, with a predictable rhythm that’s mesmerising to behold. But it also demonstrates the Newtonian law of conservation of momentum:

The law of momentum conservation can be stated as follows. For a collision occurring between object 1 and object 2 in an isolated system, the total momentum of the two objects before the collision is equal to the total momentum of the two objects after the collision.

The Hourglass by Marc Newson

For a mere $12,000, you can have this anachronistic chronometer to mark the passing of time in ten-minute stretches.

Yes, this is an hourglass. Blown from a single piece of borosilicate glass, the same material used in space exploration and for immobilisation of radioactive waste (otherwise known as Pyrex), it is filled with 1.3 million ball bearings. Each of these tiny stainless steel spheres is 0.6mm in diameter and coated with fine gold and silver so as to be so regular that together they move almost like a liquid; this gives The Hourglass its mesmerising, multi-sensory qualities.

ForeverSpin™

As one of the world’s oldest toys, a simple wooden spinning top probably captured your heart and some point in your childhood. Today, the metal ForeverSpin can be bought for anywhere from $38 to $195.

Focussing on tactile experience and surface finish, this minimalistic toy is not just for kids: it comes with a lifetime warranty, and the websites states that it is “A timeless elegant piece of art that will be loved by your children’s children”.

Available in 17 different metals, from titanium to tungsten, the heavier the top (up to 60g), the harder to spin, but also the longer the spin time.

If you want to increase the spin time beyond the first few minutes, there is a ForeverBase, engineered with a silica glass concave base for a smooth and stable spin. For the hardcore collector there are also ForeverDocks, available with 24Kt gold playing, which display up to five different spinning tops.

Science Desk Toys

Pioneered by NASA scientists conducting research into how humans could sustain life, the Ecosphere is a miniature aquaria containing live shrimp that are self-sustaining, despite being contained in a completely sealed glass sphere.

At room temperature, and with only low inputs of light, the algae produce oxygen which supports the shrimp and bacteria. Bacteria break down the shrimps’ wastes. The breakdown products provide nutrients to the algae and bacteria upon which the shrimp feed.

Magnetic Desk Toys

The MOVA globe is a magnetic desk toy composed of an outer sphere of clear plastic and an inner sphere with the printed map of the Earth on it. When placed in the light, the inner globe will slowly and continuously rotate. This works through solar power, in which a magnetic field is created, which tries to align itself with the Earth’s magnetic field. In an effort to point north, it spins.

Ferrofluid is a liquid that becomes strongly magnetized in the presence of a magnetic field. Invented for NASA in 1963 as a rocket fuel that would work in an environment without gravity, as it could be moved by magnets. Today, toy designers have begun to use it to create interactive magnetic displays. Concept zero has created a range of ferrofluid sculptures contained in vitrines, which you can tease with magnets from the outside.

The Fidget Spinner

Remember the fidget spinner? This one isn’t strictly a desk toy: When it rose to fame, the gizmo was initially seen as a kids’ toy. Today, however, there are spinner versions made for the more sophisticated fidgeter. The Torqbar has been called “the iPhone of fidget spinners”.

For those who are not yet familiar with the fidget spinner, the idea is that you hold the bar in between your thumb and a finger, placing your fingers on the smooth, concave, button-like finger pads – and just idly flick and spin them.

You can zone out while you stare at the spinner’s helicopter blade-like movement, or, once you’re a practised fidget spinner, do this while you think about another task at hand.

With limited availability, the going price for a Torqbar spinner on eBay can be as much as $400. The retail price varies with the material used, from brass at $139 to titanium at $199.

The heavier the fidget spinner, the longer the maximum spin time – the copper is the heaviest Torqbar. Each metal also makes a subtly different noise.

A Geek’s Desktop

For movie geek in you: the Red Swingline desk stapler may be the most iconic desktop gadget there is. Starring in the 1999 film Office Space as office doormat Milton’s beloved object. But did you know that the Red Swingline stapler didn’t really exist until 2002? The moviemakers spray painted a Swingline stapler, which then became the ebay standard. It wasn’t a few years later until Swingline cottoned on and released their own red version.

Star Wars fans beware: the possibilities for Star Wars-themed desk toys are endless. Light your workspace with the Force (or just with a USB-powered, lightsaber-shaped lamp. Or let Yoda protect your computer with this Star Wars Yoda USB Desk protector, who announces the approach of people to your desk.

Again, Thinkgeek is a great place to geek out on gadgets galore. As well as the Red Swingline Stapler, at Thinkgeek you can find a Harry Potter desktop Mirror of Erised, a Legend of Zelda Master Sword Letter Opener, a Minecraft USB Desktop Nether Portal, and much more.

Mini Tabletop Games

Thought your office was no place to kick a football around? Think again. Almost any field sport or pub activity or arcade game is probably available in the form of a mini game, whether it be executive tabletop golf, pool, or air hockey.

Best Desk Toys

These are the top 10 desk gadgets according to Amazon.

  1. Emotional, Physical, Psychological Health Benefits of Stress Ball”. ePain Assist. 28 September 2017. 

  2. A simple way to explain embodied cognition is that “states of the body modify states of the mind“. “Consumer Behaviour”. 2018. 

  3. Everyday attention and lecture retention: the effects of time, fidgeting, and mind wandering”. 18 September 2013.