A great pleasure of mine is enjoying an overpriced hot caffeinated beverage while having esoteric conversations about design around like minded individuals. We rhapsodize about the coolest things we have designed, the crazy hours, and hurdles we overcame. We debate the merits and pitfalls (usually pitfalls) of different 3D printers and CAD packages. And, of course, discuss our approach to, and philosophies on, prototyping. But none of that is prototyping. Prototyping is about action.
Prototyping is rolling up your sleeves, finding where the rubber meets the road, moving the ball forward, removing vowels for apostrophes and gittin’ ‘r dun. Do you know what time it is? That’s right, it’s business in the front, party in the back time. It’s houseboat time. It’s time to go MacGyver!
A Prototyping Mindset
Adopting a prototyping mentality means embracing the unknown and saying those three dirty words “I don’t know”. What do you mean you don’t know? You are an extensively trained, highly qualified, and exorbitantly paid professional. How can you not have all the answers? Because no one does.
The prototyping process works best when removing limitations. Particularly the limitation of preconceived notions, past experiences, and the false idea of being able to see the end at the beginning. Great design comes from breaking out of the calm familiar and going into uncharted waters. And that never stops being scary. A prototyping mindset means having the confidence to know that you have the skills and resolve to figure things out along the way.
While there is no certainty in the outcome, there is certainty in the process. Prototyping works. It breaks new ground and finds new and innovative solutions to difficult problems. The more disciplined and consistent the effort that is put in the more and better the results will be. And the better the practitioner will become at “navigating” the process.
A willingness to take a leap of faith is a part of it, but the more talent and knowledge the designer possesses the more likely they are to produce exceptional results. The art of prototyping itself is a skill that develops overtime. There is a clairvoyance that develops about which paths to choose but you also need to know how to use a proton pack.
“I’ve found from past experiences that the tighter your plan, the more likely you are to run into something unpredictable.” – MacGyver
A Prototyping Outset
Prototyping should start at the onset of every project and continue until its end, so always.
As unscientific and potentially infantile as it sounds, there is magic in prototyping. The start of new projects can feel overwhelming and daunting. With more unknowns than knowns it can be difficult to fathom where to even begin. By making initial guesses on some of these unknowns and iteratively prototyping until solutions are found a path can emerge. Time and again I have seen that once engaged in the process of prototyping, serendipity takes over and solutions begin to materialize. It is as if there is a mystical external force at play, available only to the true disciples. Prototyping can also be the cure for design block. Start doodling, take something apart, or pick up an abandoned project and watch what happens.
There are countless stories of “happy accidents”, some of which have resulted in many of our favorite toys and devices. It may sound like I am speaking in hyperbole, but in reality I am downplaying what is possible.
“Another day, a whole ‘nother set of possibilities.” – MacGyver
A Prototyping Ruleset
When it comes to prototyping, there are no rules. That is to say that within the rules of basic human decency and conduct, anything goes. If a prototype accomplishes its task and then disintegrates or bursts into flames, fine. A Shake Weight lashed to a roller skate with human hair? That’s a prototype. A taxidermied raccoon holding a nerf gun? You better believe that’s a prototype. A frozen burrito attached to a chain being swung around your head while scream singing “You are the wind beneath my wings”. Judges? We’ll allow it.
While there may be no rules to the actual physical prototypes, there is one rule of thumb about the concept of prototyping. “It typically takes three iterations or more to get to a working first article assuming you aren’t doing a new to the world design work”. Understanding this rule of thumb, and more importantly getting your organization to understand, can be very powerful. If anyone tries to give you a hard time about needing at least three iterations, remind them how it famously took Dyson 5,127 prototypes to develop his vacuum. He is doing okay.
“Desperation tends to make one sort of flexible.” – MacGyver
A Prototyping Toolset
We understand the need to hone the tools we use in our specific industries. Prototyping often involves stepping outside of our normal worlds to use cheap and temporary materials and faster, lower cost processes. These are areas we are less familiar and comfortable with, but they are the realm of the master prototyper. Unlike your regular tools, these prototyping tools may be used infrequently, sporadically, or never. But the benefits to having them when the situation arises can be huge.
Tools are what allow us to turn the intangible into the tangible. Tools are the bridge and the more bridges we have the more places we can go.
One of the best all purpose “tools” is the tool of resourcefulness. This is the ability to, in the interest of expediency, make due with what is available instead of what is ideal. This is where you get to be MacGyver, get that instant gratification, and iteratively learn at rapid fire speed.
When most people think of tools and prototyping, the first thing that comes to mind is the 3D printer. I can’t argue that the 3D printer is a staple but I think this view is myopic. A trend that I am seeing is an over reliance on the newest, most expensive, and complicated tools. We should make the most of the tools at our disposal but not having access to the most cutting edge tools should not be seen as a hindrance. Tools range from the simple to the complex, from general use to extreme purpose built, and from hi-tech to old school. Simple, reliable, and time tested tools exist for a reason and don’t dictate that the designs need to be simple. Designer Jude Pullen makes amazingly complex designs with little more than cardboard, a sharp implement, and some serious skillz. That is material you can scrounge for free and a tool that costs about as much as a latte. What is your excuse?
“There’s nothing you can’t do if you have a Swiss Army Knife, a roll of duct tape, and your wits.” – MacGyver
A Prototyping Culture? You Bet!
Let me describe a situation that I have found myself in many times, I bet you have too. You have a great idea and you develop a quick prototype to validate the concept. Eureka! Your idea works. Full of excitement, you rush to show off your idea to the higher-ups. But instead of matching enthusiasm you are met with a mix of apathy and confusion.
Is that the way this is going to look? Is there going to be a gum wrapper and a bent fork in your final design? Of course not! Ignore the materials! Focus on the concept! These are your thoughts.
I want to channel an old New York real estate agent showing an apartment with a bad paint job and no furniture and yell “you have to have vision!”. This naysayery creates a cultural shift where the designer becomes hesitant to share a non-polished prototype. This, in turn, eliminates the risk mitigation and “course correction” that comes from a fully open and iterative design approach.
I have had a company crush on industrial design firm IDEO since I first saw their special on Nightline in 1999 (I also had a crush on Jenny McCarthy at the time). When I got to see IDEO CEO, David Kelly, speak at the graduation of the Stanford Design School I was star struck. Their love of prototyping and adherence to its principles and values is legendary. This is a company that talks about prototyping with the level of fanaticism and blind belief of a professional wrestling fan.
IDEO takes particular pride in how crude and rudimentary their early stage prototypes are. Consequently, IDEO has been tremendously successful. Most organizations are full of individuals brimming with potential, waiting to be unlocked by a prototyping culturep.
“Some people are scared of anybody who runs free.” – MacGyver
Start prototyping immediately and never stop. Be faithfully confident, relentlessly pushing, diligently learning and be ready for a journey that will humble and invigorate. The clock is ticking and there are a lot of wires, good thing you have that paper clip.