Show, don’t tell! – How prototyping influences the design process

Post-its, Legos, markers and posters in the hands of over 20 overly-excited students can be the makings of a chaos. But with an experienced teacher or a facilitator it can actually turn into many nice service ideas or concepts. As part of the study unit of ‘Design Thinking’ we got to learn that a lot of this thinking is actually doing.

The power of making it visual

Being it a quick sketch of your new classmate with even more quickly scribbled words on post-its describing the person or a marker taped to a 35mm film canister as a prototype of an apparatus for nasal tissue operations – sketching and especially prototyping makes you work faster. As stated by Tim Brown in his renowned book Change by Design (HarperCollinsPublishers, 2009) most problems worth worrying about are complex, and a series of early experiments is often the best way forward. “Fail fast” is a well-known notion and that’s where sketches and prototypes come into play.


Left: Prototype of an apparatus used in nasal tissue operations, right: The final product (

During the two-day session with Katja Tschimmel (founder of Mindshake, we experienced the divergent and convergent process of design thinking. It’s not the easiest start for your Saturday morning when you’re put to the task of spilling out as many ideas as possible from your coffee-thirsty brain, just to next visualise them and later on create a quick prototype of your most promising idea. But with prototyping you can really make your ideas concrete, and as our group in session realized, really open your idea for discussion within the small group, but also with others. With only one round of feedback, our group collected many good suggestions to our original idea.

So what exactly is a prototype?

By nature, prototypes should be quick and dirty. In our session we used Legos to showcase a digital service offering, but any material is fit for prototyping. As mentioned before, a designer from IDEO built a tool used in nasal tissue operations from a whiteboard marker, 35mm film canister and a clothes-pin (picture above).  As long as it refines your thought or idea, it’s good to go.

lego prototype

Building a prototype should take as little time, effort and investment as possible to gather feedback and to push the processing of the idea forward. The goal of a prototype is to learn, through feedback, what are the strengths and weaknesses of your idea. Also, the purpose of early prototypes might be to define if your idea has functional value (Brown, 2009). This helps in finding new ways forward, towards the next evolution of your prototype.

The prototypes should be shared early and often. Eventually, the prototype should find its way to potential users for more concrete evaluation. Prototypes can also be mock up space portraying a service or as Tim Brown showcases in Change By Design: a gallery or immersive environment for HBO, which conveyed the their ideas for next generation environment (see more here:

Since visual perception is the strongest of our senses, it’s hard to dismiss prototyping as part of your Design Thinking toolkit. (Tschimmel, K, 2012) Being the manifestation of your concept/idea or an early visualization taking physical form, it essentially makes you slow down to eventually go faster. Spending time with prototypes, you avoid unnecessary complexity and working too long with a weak idea. (Brown, 2009)

Next time you face a challenge in getting your thought or idea across, look around for any material to build a prototype of it!

Good reads about prototyping and Design Thinking methods:


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