Designing Domino Installations

A domino is a flat, rectangular piece of rigid material used as a gaming object. It has a pattern of dots, or pips, on one side, and a blank or identically patterned opposite side. Like playing cards or dice, a domino is generic, and many games can be played with it.

Lily Hevesh started collecting and building domino sets when she was 9. She loved setting them up in straight or curved lines, flicking the first domino, and watching all the others fall one after another. Now, at 20, Hevesh is a professional domino artist who creates mind-blowing setups for movies, TV shows, and events—including an album launch by pop star Katy Perry. She also makes YouTube videos of her creations, which have more than 2 million subscribers.

The word domino derives from the Latin “domino” (meaning “little king”), which itself may have come from a word for a long hooded cloak worn together with a mask at carnival season or at a masquerade. Both the cloak and the domino were made with contrasting blacks and ivory faces, which may have prompted the association. The word and the game are often confused, and it is not always clear how to differentiate them.

Physicist Stephen Morris, who studies the dynamics of dominoes and other systems, says that when you pick up a domino and stand it upright, it stores energy as potential energy because it’s lifting itself against gravity. When the domino falls, much of this energy is converted to kinetic energy, which can push the next domino over. This continues from domino to domino until the whole chain is complete.

When Hevesh designs one of her domino installations, she follows a version of the engineering-design process. She starts with a theme or purpose, then brainstorms images or words she might want to use in the design. She then creates test versions of different sections—and films them in slow motion so she can make precise corrections if needed. Finally, she puts the whole installation together, starting with flat arrangements and moving to 3-D structures.

Hevesh says that the most important thing she learned from her experiments with dominoes is to be patient and to never stop trying. She’s worked on more than 30 projects, and some of them have taken more than a year to finish. But she’s still fascinated by the power of a well-placed domino. “There’s something really magical about it,” she says. “You can build a structure of so many pieces and see it come to life.” She hopes to continue creating domino art for a long time to come.