Dominoes Can Teach Us About Engineering-Design Processes


Domino, the game of laying down tiles that each have a group of one to six spots on two ends, is a fun way to spend time with family and friends. It also has an unexpected side benefit—it can teach us how to break down large tasks into smaller ones, and then focus on the most important ones first. This lesson can apply in business as well as in life.

A domino is a rectangular tile marked with two groups of spots. The traditional set contains 28 pieces: one unique piece for each possible combination of ends with zero to six dots (the highest-value end is called a double six), plus four blank-end pieces. Most games are played with a single player against another, and the winner is the person who scores the most points after a certain number of rounds.

Dominoes can be used to play a variety of positional games, in which players place dominoes edge-to-edge against each other to form rows and columns. Each tile must be connected to a previous domino on all sides in order for it to remain standing. A domino has potential energy based on its placement in the layout; when it falls, much of this energy is converted to kinetic energy, which allows the next domino to topple. As each successive domino falls, the momentum builds until all the pieces are in motion.

Hevesh, a professional domino artist who has worked on projects for movies and TV shows, says that she follows a version of the engineering-design process when creating her mind-blowing installations. She starts by considering a theme or purpose for the project. Once she knows what her goal is, she brainstorms images and words that will be incorporated into the design. She then selects the appropriate materials and begins to assemble them into a chain reaction that will be seen by thousands of people.

Physicist Stephen Morris, who studies the forces that affect the movement of matter and energy, says that while Hevesh’s work requires an incredible amount of patience as she waits for the dominoes to fall, they’re all falling according to the laws of physics. “When you stand a domino upright, it has some potential energy, or stored energy based on its positioning,” he says. “As it gets pushed over, some of this energy converts to kinetic energy.”

When playing a domino game with a group, the tiles are generally shuffled before play begins. The person who draws the highest-value domino, which is usually a double, goes first. If there is no high-value domino, the player who draws the highest-scoring domino goes first.

The word domino is derived from the Latin dominica, which means “flip over.” It has also been suggested that the word may have come from the French term for a long hooded cloak worn with a mask during carnival season or at a masquerade. An even earlier sense of the word existed, denoting a garment that contrasted with a priest’s white surplice.