Prototyping Part 2 – Visual Prototypes

This post is the second in a series of three dealing with prototyping. In the first instalment, I discussed why we prototype. This post deals with visual prototyping , probably the most common sort in the exhibit and signage field. Semantics comes into play a bit – I’m including things that others might call “mock-ups”, models or even renderings here under the broad classification of “prototyping”. Semantics aside, the objective of any visual prototyping exercise is to gain a deeper understanding of form, and sometimes scale and colour as well. In my work, I can define the following distinct types of visual prototyping:

– appearance models – these are full-scale representations of the design, often in inexpensive materials, that are finished in colours and textures that closely approximate the final design. This is obviously only practical for certain types of designs – furnishings, discrete exhibit elements, some signage, etc. The project needs a healthy budget for this to be workable, but can really pay off if there are many multiples to be produced of a single design. This is the gold standard as far as having everybody on the same page visually.

– massing or form studies – a less expensive approach than a full-blown appearance model, but can be just the thing if the primary objective is to find out about general scale and form. It takes colour and finishes out of consideration, which can often be helpful in avoiding situations where a client (or designer) becomes more hung up on colour than the big picture, and just can’t see past it. Often the medium is styrofoam, painted white or a neutral grey.

– scale models – very useful for larger installations where an entire space needs to be represented. These have long been used in the exhibit field, but physical scale models have given way more and more to the next category…

– virtual models – Computer generated 3D models, while not strictly a prototype, can be used in place of them for some purposes. The creation of accurate 3D models allows objects to be view “in the round” with ease from any vantage point, and rendered at scale against photo backdrops with very convincing accuracy. For models of a space, virtual walkthroughs provide an invaluable viewpoint unavailable with physical scale models. Depending on the model type, the 3D file can be used to create a 3D “print” of the object using rapid prototyping technology, if a physical model is required. It should be noted that while the technology for 3D printing has improved, the resolution and lack of real colour capabilities often requires considerable post-print work to make the 3D print look like the renderings.

In my work, I’ve used all of these types of prototyping to inform the design process on various projects. I use virtual models extensively, often beginning in the concept phases. On some projects, this is all that I or the client need. In other cases, a physical model helps to clarify the design, particularly for furnishings or other similar elements produced in quantity. Sometimes for larger elements, a model of only a certain aspect is required – perhaps an attachment detail or joint. I’ve deliberately left the very important category of pre-production prototypes off this list, as I’ll deal with them in the third and final post of this series on functional prototypes. Until then, I encourage you to share your thoughts about prototyping from either the designer’s or client’s perspective in the comments below. All comments will receive a thoughtful reply.