This article series covers a range of different technologies that can be used to make prototypes of your in-development product. It is often tempting to jump straight into CAD software and start 3D printing, milling, or laser cutting parts.
However, it is often best to begin the prototyping process with simpler, faster methods of refining and better defining your idea. Two prototyping methods that use common tools and materials you likely already have on hand are sketching and making mockup designs.
When you picture a product design team in your head, or look at almost literally any stock photo of a product design team, you will probably see a collection of sketches on paper. And sometimes, this most basic form of “prototyping” is one of the best places to start refining an initial idea for a product.
Product mockups are another quintessential part of product development. Making mockups of design ideas presents an opportunity to pick up and handle a real object which can give designers further insight into their design ideas.
The video below, which is an excerpt from the documentary Objectified, shows the process product design agency, Smart Design, used to develop the OXO Good Grips peeler. One minute into the video, the designers show off a large bin full of numerous product mockups for the peeler’s handle.
Sketching Out a Design
The act of sketching out a design forces your brain to consider the physical aspects of an idea for a product. Often, the simple cognitive act of describing a physical object on paper can allow you to quickly translate an idea into something that could exist in the real world.
As it is most often used very early on in the development cycle for a product, sketching can also be an excellent tool for brainstorming a collection of different ideas.
By jumping directly into CAD software, you can easily get bogged down in the details required to build a 3D model. Sketching, on the other hand, is much more freeform, even if you are using some tools like straight edges and circle templates. In the time it takes to make one model in CAD, you can create a dozen rough design concepts on paper.
Yet another purpose for sketching as a way of “prototyping” is as a communication tool. It can be very challenging to verbally describe a design idea. Sketching, even basic sketching, can help a great deal in getting the idea across to your audience, whether your audience consists of other people working with you on your product, or if it consists of potential customers, investors, or Backers.
If you are planning to launch your product via crowdfunding, Kickstarter actually requires that you show potential Backers a prototype of your product. The best way to do this is to tell the story behind how your product was developed and showing design sketches done early in the process can serve as a great introduction to this story.
Sketching product designs can sometimes be intimidating. This is especially the case after doing a simple Google image search and taking a look at product design sketches done by professional designers that look like works of art.
However, if there are two keys to getting started with design sketching, one is to keep in mind that sketching, like any skill, requires practice. The more sketching you do, the better you will get at the process. The other reality to keep in mind is that your sketches do not need to be worthy of framing. The purpose of sketching out designs is to start working out the challenges involved in bringing an idea to the real world. This can be done with photorealistic sketching, but, often, simple concept sketches work just as well.
Creating Mockups of a Sketched Design
Seeing a design in two dimensions, whether in sketches or, as will be discussed later, designs in CAD, is never quite the same as holding an object in your hand. Even the most spatially-minded designers can miss details, especially when it comes to fit and usability when designing purely in 2D. Making 3D mockups of a design is like sketching in 3D and can be a fantastic way to anchor a design in the real world.
Most of the technologies in this article can be used for creating product mockups but, especially for early prototyping stages where exacting dimensional accuracy is unnecessary, a cheap and fast way of creating prototypes is to make mockups from whatever materials you have available: cardboard, foam, paper, even Play-Doh.
Using these types of quick and dirty mockup prototypes is a way to get a better understanding of aspects of your design idea like the overall size, the shape and feel, and the way different parts roughly fit together.
Using Items On-hand is a Great Place to Start
When beginning the process of creating a new product, some of the most useful early prototyping techniques are the simplest, sketching and making mockups. Designers often begin thinking about the physical characteristics of a product by sketching out design ideas. The simple act of sketching allows product developers to begin working out how a design idea will exist in the real world.
Creating a product mockup that designers or users can hold in their hands and manipulate is also extremely useful for further refining a design idea and starting to understand how users will interact with different product designs.
Mockups can be made from a variety of materials, including cardboard, foam, and clay. As with sketching, the purpose of creating product mockups is to begin the process of overcoming the myriad challenges involved in creating a new product.
The next article in this series discusses the first step in creating product prototypes that, unlike sketching and mockups, are dimensionally accurate: 3D modeling and rendering. 3D modeling and rendering also serve as the first step in using the remaining prototyping technologies discussed in this series.