Developing model/prototype class brief - need advice

Hello all!

I am a new to teaching a modeling and prototyping class at the university level. It’s a 15 week semester (1 class per week). The students simultaneously will have a ‘product design’ course where they will work through the complete design process to produce a product.

I am struggling to decide how to shape the briefing for the product the students will design within the modeling and prototyping class. Initially I was thinking to create a really open-ended brief that allowed the student to research to find a user problem within the framework of the project description (ex: product that helps combat waste in the home/handheld).

I’m second guessing myself now, thinking perhaps I should shape a brief with a specific user problem already developed, so that their research time is shortened in order to give them more time to focus on building and testing their models/prototypes.

One fear is that I might be sacrificing potential problem identification/development/research experience while also narrowing the diversity of the projects by pre-identifying a specific user problem for them to solve. My other fear is that if I leave the project too open at the start, students might struggle to identify a strong user problem, and take away from time I’d like them to focus on building models/prototypes.

I would so appreciate any thoughts/opinions/advice any of you are willing to give! I’m thankful for this supportive space :slight_smile:

If it is a modeling and prototyping class I would skip the design process. This is a skills class. I’d make several exercises (one every two weeks for example) for them to duplicate. IE demons modeling technique one week, have them duplicate it and present their work. For my classes in this area we had to do some pretty rudimentary but painstaking work that taught craftsmanship.

I recommend leaving the design process for their studio class. That is where they should be focusing on and learning that. If they have two classes on that in parallel they likely won’t be doing either justice.

Agree with Michael here. Hard to teach model making if you have to also review and teach research, design, ergonomics, etc. as well. If it is strictly a model and prototype class I would suggest projects that can use an existing student’s design as a base, or even more abstract source material.

You didn’t mention what resources the class has. Do they have a shop? Power tools? Do the classes have to get everything done in the studio time or are they expected to do things at home or in the shop after hours?

What experience do students have with different materials? I was surprised in some classes I taught where students could barely use a drill, let alone know how to lathe something.

A suggestion would be to break the course down to different modeling/prototype purposes and align projects accordingly. ie.-

  1. desktop modeling. Using things like cardboard, tape, glue guns, foamcore. Quick and dirty iterative process. Could be something simple like the classic cardboard chair. Focus on basic skills here (cutting, measuring, planning)
  2. Ergonomic models. Adjustable to test certain functions. An ergo buck model for something like a power tool is good. Adjustable handle angles, weights, center of mass, button positions, etc. Focus on more advanced skills (hand tools and basic power tools, thinking a model through with function, etc.)
  3. Display modeling. formed and shaped foam models, painted, applied graphics, etc. I did a project once that was to make an abstract model based on the appearance of a target industry, such as a medical device. Key was to mimic colors, finishes, materials, details, etc. but the object didn’t have to be any specific design or function. Just look like a random medical device. Focus on finishing and detail here.


Thank you both so much for your responses. I’ve significantly narrowed my lesson plan to focus on understanding how to work with specific materials with an importance placed in craftsmanship, along with projects that help them work through different stages of modeling and prototyping!

The class will be taught in a 3D lab (shop), and they have full access to this outside of class as well…

Nice, I think access to the shop is key. They need time to mess about and experiment :slight_smile:

I just completed a ‘visual communications’ course which was familiar material for me, but required for my degree. Looking back on the course, the instructor did a good job of focusing on the fundamentals and processes, and less on big concepts or ideas or capital-D design topics.
Every week built on the week before, starting with composition, adding typography, then adding color, then combining those foundation elements into design systems. Having only 2-3 weeks per element kept the focus on ‘doing’ and away from trying to scope the ideal design problem (though I confess to having come up with some overwrought concepts.) The instructor cared less about the design integrity of the final result, and more about “did you go through the process” and execute the final submissions with care and craftsmanship.
An analogy for your course might be starting with a more malleable or inexpensive material, perhaps foam-core, wood, or foam, before progressing to metal or plastic. I mean - learning how to make nice clean cuts on foam-core with x-acto knives is a topic worthy of study!

Definitely agree. I think it’s valuable to know how to build prototypes outside of printing everything. Pretty sure I spent 50% of my study time sanding body filler and primer.

Change knives every cut? :slight_smile: I cut some foam-core the other day in a hurry and absolutely butchered it.

Depends who’s buying the blades. Expensed blades, sure change them every three feet. You can also have a block of 2000 grit wet-sand next to your work area and swipe the blade across it every cut to keep it sharp. We used to do this back when we’d walk 5 miles uphill each way in a raging snowstorm.


We used to joke around saying that our BS degree stood for Bachelor of Sanding.
Back in the day we had to take dedicated classes for Wood, Metals and Plastics before junior level. Then we had to take Production Techniques where you put all your skills to work making prototypes of your designs. I think we did a camera, an extrusion project, and something else. Probably overkill now but I can definitely see how some students now don’t have a clue how things are made. In a professional setting I have seen designers make unreasonable requests for production parts.
I would stick to designing something simple and familiar (no research). Drill, coffee maker, pencil sharpener, camera, etc. and have them make a prototype. Make them think how the product will be made. Where will the part lines be? Screws? etc.

Also, would love to see some updates from the class! Let us know how it goes. I miss classes like this. Sometimes I wish I could go back and do it again!

Once the project is done maybe you should also have them get an RP quote just as a learning experience. Make them research RP processes and materials and lead time. I’ve also seen designers request RP parts that could be done in 10 min in the shop.

Thats a great idea!

The digital workshop guy flipped out a number of times during busy periods when someone, cough architects, brought in a sheet of mdf to be lasercut into 300mm squares.

It’s definitely valuable to know rough prices on prototypes. I still remember being shocked at getting a cnc quote in my final year that was $1200US. I couldn’t afford it and had to find another way.