Prototyping Part 1 – Why we do it

Rarely in life do we get to try out a big decision before committing to it. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to try out some scenarios, take them for a test drive and see if they’re all we thought they’d be? Unfortunately life rarely offers us that chance, we usually have to make the best choice we can, often with incomplete information, and then live with the consequences. In design however, we have an opportunity to look before we leap – it’s called prototyping. This post will be the first in a series of three that will look at prototyping within my sphere of design – the intersection of industrial design and environmental graphic design. The bulk of the projects I tackle are in the interpretation/exhibits/signage realm, mixed with some public furnishings and amenities. I use prototyping extensively in all my work and I hope I can show you, whether designer or client, what the options are, and why you should be doing it.

The first and most obvious question anyone might have is “why should I bother?” If you’re a real thrill-seeker, I’d say you shouldn’t. There’s really nothing more exciting than building a bunch of expensive, custom stuff for a client who hasn’t paid you yet, and not really being sure if it’s going to work, or even whether the client fully understands what you’ve proposed. It’s waking-up-at-3:00-am-hyperventilating exciting. Me, I don’t care for that kind of thrill.

There are several reasons why prototyping is useful, beyond ensuring uninterrupted sleep. At it’s core, prototyping confirms the validity of the design, by confirming form, scale, ergonomics, functionality and readability. As useful as plans and elevations are for designers, they are not universally understood and interpreted the same by everyone. It often takes the third dimension to really make an object more fully understandable to all.

In my experience, prototyping efforts fall into two broad categories: visual, and functional. Sometimes they can even be both at once. Visual prototypes are used to gain a full understanding of complex forms and scale, and in environmental graphics work, to ensure readability. Functional prototypes confirm that mechanical details or ergonomic factors work properly. In my next post I’ll expand on the role of visual prototypes in the design process, and explain how technology has changed how designers work with them.

Have any thoughts on prototyping? Any success stories you’d like to share? Please leave a comment, I will answer them all.