Try prototyping to jump-start your next project

It was the night before a client meeting where we would be discussing ideas for a brochure, and I spread out on my kitchen counter some photos I had pulled off the Internet and some preliminary copy I had drafted. Using Scotch tape and a pair of scissors, I created a prototype of what I thought the brochure should look like.

I went to bed feeling pretty good about my art project. The next morning, seeing it with fresh eyes, I was less enamored. “I can’t show this,” I thought. “It looks like something from elementary school.”

But I did, and it was a hit. After the meeting, the designer on the project remarked on how my little prototype had pushed us forward in the creative process and saved us valuable time in what was a very tight production schedule. Now I’m no designer (far from it), but most of the ideas we adopted came from my prototype—or at least they had their genesis in that first meeting where I “unveiled” my creation.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about what it was about my model that sparked such a good discussion. Just a few pieces of paper, taped together, crystallized our thinking, helped us visualize solutions and see more clearly what would work and what wouldn’t. It truly jump-started the “ideas” phase of the project.

Pro•to•type: a first, preliminary model of something from which other forms are developed or copied.

Industrial designers and engineers have been building prototypes for years, but prototyping doesn’t have to be just for manufacturers. It can be employed by creative people, entrepreneurs and small businesses with great results. As I discovered, a rough prototype can often better communicate ideas to clients than words or pictures.

In doing some research on prototyping, I kept finding references to IDEO, the international design, engineering and innovation firm that has developed thousands of products and services across a broad range of industries. One of the keys to IDEO’s success is the use of prototyping as a tool for rapid innovation.

If you’re a tinkerer like me, prototyping just comes naturally. As a kid, I was always making things out of scraps of wood and metal, not worrying about what they looked like or whether they really worked.

As it turns out, the folks at IDEO do the same thing, only they have perfected an approach now studied and emulated by businesses around the world. Essentially, it boils down to three simple concepts: Right, Rapid and Rough.

Right: A prototype should be designed to answer the “right” question. And the right question is the one that your client really needs answered. That means, fundamentally, you have to understand your client’s needs. It’s also important not to try to answer too many questions with a single prototype. (My prototype addressed my client’s need to promote a new product.)

Rapid: IDEO says prototypes should be built quickly (in just a few minutes if possible). By limiting time, energy and resources on the prototype, you can afford to fail and move on to prototypes that do work. The classic example of a good prototype is pictured below. This is a real prototype an IDEO designer made on the spot at a client meeting with otolaryngology surgeons. That prototype evolved into the finished device below it. IDEO teams have also been known to use LEGO blocks to quickly show a concept.



Rough: A prototype doesn’t have to be pretty. My brochure proved that. The advantage of a rough prototype is that you don’t become too attached to it, so you can afford to try new ones. A key IDEO concept is the willingness to “fail early so you can succeed sooner.”

There’s a lot more to this innovative company and its pioneering founders, so I’ll follow up in my next post with a few other gleanings. Until then, here’s a fun homework assignment: find some scraps of wood, bits of paper, glue, nails, tape, whatever, and make something!

Want to learn more about prototyping? Here are two good articles:

ParisTech Review: The Power of Prototyping (also the source of the two photos above)

NASA Ask Magazine: Right-Rapid-Rough

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2 Responses to Try prototyping to jump-start your next project

  1. Jeff Ghannam says:

    Great post. You took a risk by forging ahead and building that prototype but that’s what leadership is all about, isn’t it? It’s about taking a chance and coming to the table with ideas and giving people a chance to react. It’s much more than safely canvassing the room and building consensus, as some would have you believe. Don’t get more wrong, collaboration is vital. But people want leaders who come prepared to drive the discussion forward. In other words, people want to be lead!

    • Jay Morris says:

      Jeff, great comments! It’s surprising how just a little initiative can propel a discussion or project forward. But you are right, you have to be willing to take a risk. Most of the time, however, the results are more than worth it!

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