Matter’s workshop in their San Francisco studio

Prototyping: the lost art of Industrial Design

By Quinn Huffstetler

The workflow of Industrial Designers is constantly evolving as new technologies and tools are developed to assist within the design process. Increasingly intuitive 3D CAD modeling and rendering software have allowed designers to create photo-realistic images of their designs faster than ever before. As a result, the majority of modern designers have become enamored by flashy renders on a digital screen and have lost touch with the physical world.

The modern Industrial Designer has a tremendous amount of tools and resources at their disposal when tasked to design a product. This collection of tools and skill sets range across a spectrum of different fidelities. Sketch ideation and rough prototyping are at one end, while 3D printing and machining, 3D CAD modeling, and renderings are on the other. Each tool offers its own unique benefit and should be used appropriately throughout the design process.

A seasoned designer knows which tool to use based on the project, phase of work, and projected learnings. Traditionally, designers will transition between sketching, 3D CAD modeling, and prototyping to validate their ideas. This back and forth conversation between mediums and fidelities creates an iterative process where each tool reveals new opportunities and problems to explore and further refine.

Spider Pro Remote Control design process

Many designers now bypass these steps and quickly transition from loose hand drawings to high fidelity computer renderings to define their design. The practice of validating ideas through physical prototyping, whether it be quick and dirty paper mock-ups or high fidelity cosmetic models, is slowly dying. There needs to be a resurgence of prototyping within the modern workflow of industrial designers and here’s why.

Sense of Scale

Some would argue the biggest difference between an iPhone and an iPad is scale. The designs of the iPhone and iPad incorporate many of the same details and share a very similar look and feel. Their scale is what really sets them apart.

Apple iPhone 6 & iPad 3

The iPhone is designed to be small, pocketable, and used on the go for quick interactions such as making a phone call, sending a text, checking email, and getting social media updates. The iPad, on the other hand, is designed for consuming larger media such as image rich websites and streaming video services, like Netflix, in a more stationary setting.

It’s hard to convey the difference in value between these two products through renderings alone. A beautiful rendering of an iPhone scaled roughly three times its original size looks somewhat comparable to an iPad. If you then Photoshop a beautiful, highly detailed image on the screen you can fool anyone.

Apple is known for creating countless numbers of prototypes and form factor models of their designs when deciding on the correct scale. In order to fully understand the value-add of each design and their ideal use scenarios, one needs to understand their scale by holding and interacting with each in person. Only a physical prototype or mock-up can convey this correctly.

Machined high density foam models exploring different form factors of the Xbox One

Understanding Proportions

A slight shift in proportions can make a world of difference in how someone perceives the appearance, function, and value of a product. The automotive industry is a great example of how shifting proportions can lead to very different emotive values within form. Generally speaking, all automobiles incorporate four wheels, an engine and a trunk, a front / back windshield, and side windows and doors. The spatial relationship and scale of all these components is what defines the difference in various types of automobiles, such as SUVs, sedans and station wagons.

Let’s take a look at the difference between a sedan and a station wagon. Both hold relatively the same amount of passengers and have a similar footprint and height. Even though they share all these commonalities, they somehow look extremely different. If you break each car down into four sections, the difference becomes very apparent.

Automobile Body Styles

When digesting a sedan’s proportion from front to back in profile view, you notice it’s very symmetrical. It begins with a low profile hood/engine compartment, then rises in the middle to accommodate the driver and passengers, and then tapers back down again across the rear windshield to a low profile trunk for storing your belongings. The proportions of a station wagon start out very similar to a sedan in that the hood is low profile and then rises into the remainder of the car. The difference is that the last three sections of the car remain constant and then drop off completely at the hatchback. This shift in proportions has led to the development of two completely different body styles.

Automotive designers define proportions by creating full-scale prototypes in the form of tape drawing and clay modeling. Tape drawing allows designers to take their first look at what the overall gesture and proportion of a car is one-to-one scale with accurate line work. This exercise goes hand-in-hand with CAD modeling and hand sketching — often times transitioning back and forth between all three. Once there is a good understanding of the final exterior design, the design team then creates a full-scale clay model representation of the design. This is when the team refines the surface language of the car and gets a true sense for proportion in a three dimensional space.

Automotive designers creating a full-scale clay model


The color, material, and finish of a product are just as important as its form, scale, and proportions. The visual and tactile properties of surfaces separate a premium product from a sub-par product. More and more companies are putting a stronger emphasis on using these cues to differentiate themselves from their competitors as the form language of products become more and more minimal, reductive, and ubiquitous.

Appearance models (also known as “looks like” models) are used to see and feel these material properties first hand. These models are finished to look as if they just came off the production line. The creation of appearance models is no easy task and requires the skills and knowledge of professional model makers to execute accordingly.

August Smart Lock CMF

This type of model is usually the final visual sign-off used before creating the manufacturing tools and processes that will be used for mass production of the design. It also acts as a representation of the ideal tolerances between parts that the design team specifies for their contract manufacturer to meet.


As long as physical objects exist, prototyping will always be a crucial step within the creative process for industrial designers. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a prototype is worth a thousand meetings. There will be no substitution for a model that can be held in your hands, interacted with, and viewed within it’s physical context.

Quinn Huffstetler is a Senior Industrial Designer at Matter.