Product Development

How many prototypes will you need?

By 11th May 2011 July 26th, 2021 No Comments

Businesses want to develop great new products in the most cost effective manner. One question that often arises is ‘How many prototypes will I need?’ Or sometimes ‘Why do we need to build a prototype? Aren’t you confident that your design will work?’

My iPhone dictionary describes a prototype as “something built for study, testing, or display”. In our design work the ‘testing’ part is key to optimising new and inventive ideas.

Wikipedia lists 5 classes of prototype;

Proof-of-Principle Prototype – These types of models are often used to identify which design options will not work, or where further development and testing is necessary.

Form Study Prototype – Allow designers to explore the basic size, look and feel of a product without simulating the actual function.

User Experience Prototype – This type of model allows early assessment of how a potential user interacts with various elements, motions, and actions of a concept.

Visual Prototype – This will capture the intended design aesthetic and simulate the appearance, color and surface textures of the intended product.

Functional Prototype – Will attempt to simulate the final design, aesthetics, materials and functionality of the intended design.” (

James Dyson famously made 5127 prototypes over several years before launching his game changing DC1 bagless vacuum cleaner. Now a highly successful business with Worldwide sales, the R&D engineers at Dyson are encouraged to explore new ideas by building as many proptotypes as is needed to prove or disprove a new idea. Failure is seen as a good thing, as part of the learning process of discovering new and improved solutions.

A recent article in Develop 3Ds sustainability supplement told the tale of a design consultants work for Herman Miller, developing an innovative new chair. ( The client had been making chairs for over 100 years, but the designers still produced over 100 prototypes during the process as part of a learning and improvement process. The designers were trying something new and innovative, and although CAD tools are very powerful, producing a real object by hand is a much more fluid and intuitive process.

We have mentioned two extreme examples, but in both cases the designers wanted to develop something new and innovative in their market. Prototyping is intrinsically linked to this process. So if someone asks ‘How many prototypes will I need?’ there is no stock answer. But a good design team will learn and improve on their ideas using a cost effective and well thought out prototyping strategy.