This Is a Prototype

The Curious Craft of Exploring New Ideas

About the Book

A practical guide to prototyping as a way to revolutionize your work and creative life, from Stanford University's world-renowned Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, aka the

Prototyping is a way to test an idea to see if it can be successful before investing too much time and too many resources. But it's not only designers who "prototype" as they work. A skateboarder tries a new trick; that's a prototype experience. A chef experiments with a new dish and new ingredients; that's a prototype experience, too. Once a prototype is made, the creator gains knowledge about what worked and what didn't, what should be used again and what should be trimmed from the experience.
This is a book about becoming better at prototyping by building things and experiences that will help you learn from your attempts, no matter what you're aiming to achieve. Readers will learn how to not only create prototypes but also how to reflect on the success and failure of those attempts. Scott Witthoft, who teaches courses in design and prototyping to students around the world, introduces a comprehensive number of tools and materials for prototyping, including digital platforms and physical objects. And he breaks down real-life examples of prototype experiments with accompanying photographs for the reader to observe large- and small-scale prototyping in action.
With Witthoft as your guide, you'll put the principles of design into practice and bring your vision to life—one prototype at a time.

*Includes a downloadable PDF of visual references and illustrations from the book
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Praise for This Is a Prototype

“This sharp little book will get you making more with less. Dozens of methods show how designers can use prototypes for asking questions, framing experiences, and observing behaviors. The bright illustrations and concrete examples will show you how to ground your prototypes in crystal-clear intentions.”—Ellen Lupton, co-author of Health Design Thinking

“This Is a Prototype is filled with actionable tactics and a terrific emphasis on how to ask good questions, the prerequisite for all the world’s best answers. This book is the Lonely Planet guide to your brain, for people who want to get off their own beaten paths and make new ones.”—John Cassidy, founder of Klutz Press
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This Is a Prototype


How do you close the gap between I wonder and I know? You make a prototype. A prototype is a tool that gives you a chance to investigate your ideas and explore what could, should, or would come next, whether you are designing a new product, working out a new routine, or rearranging your furniture. It’s a modest tool for the lofty goal of testing the future, or for at least testing a question you have about your future.

Prototyping helps lower the stakes for exploring new questions by reducing risk—using fewer resources like time, money, and emotional commitment— especially when anxiety about outcomes might keep you from starting. Prototyping is a primary tactic for designers, but it’s a tool that also shows up in faraway fields. Skateboarders and chefs, for example, know that being intentional doesn’t require being perfect at first. A skateboarder tries a new trick: that’s a prototype experience. A chef experiments with a new recipe: that’s a prototype experience. We know from watching both the skater and the chef that the next try comes after understanding what happened the first time. This is a strategy of repetition, not a singular performance. This is also a strategy of learning, with discovery embedded in every outcome. Through knowingly imperfect attempts, prototype experiences illuminate possibilities for your next move.

Unlike finished products ready for purchase, prototypes are imperfect and impermanent by design. Their value comes from efficiency, helping you learn the most from the fewest resources. This makes them a unique type of tool, such that the best prototype doesn’t have to be of “best-built” quality right now.

The low-resolution nature of prototypes invites a behavior of breaking the things you make. Making and breaking is how you learn through experience. This means that prototyping is provocative by nature, with an undeniable element of fruitful sabotage. It’s often misrepresented as an act of trivial trial and error or of recklessly moving fast for the sake of a crash. Sure, swiftness is a virtue, but a prototype’s job is to teach from the broken bits, before fallout is let loose in the world. In some ways, that means prototyping is a slow art of figuring out by fumbling around; it takes practice to create prototypes that fail well.

This book presents tools, mindsets, and methods of prototyping that will serve your success no matter what project or product you undertake. Asking questions, speculating about answers, listening to responses, and understanding implications are all parts of an approach that we’ll explore.

Prototyping is a reliable response in the face of the unknown in your career, your health, and your relationships. What should I do? What is the right thing to do now? These are common starting points. It’s also common practice to seek answers in the same way you always do. What happens when you deliberately try to do something in a new way, one for which there is no known precedent? This is the perfect point at which to prototype—to skip past the fear of not knowing an answer and start with a question, without rushing to be “right,” right now.

Stanford Library Series

Experiments in Reflection
Make Possibilities Happen
Design Social Change
This Is a Prototype
You Need a Manifesto
Creative Hustle
Navigating Ambiguity
Drawing on Courage
The Secret Language of Maps
Design for Belonging
View more

About the Author

Scott Witthoft
Scott Witthoft works as an educator, designer, and author. Drawing from his past practice of forensic structural engineering, he incorporates that expertise with current pursuits in space, furniture, and product design—teaching and speaking widely. He is the co-author of Make Space, a tool for creating collaborative environments. His work has been featured in The Design Museum and publications such as Fast Company, Architecture and Urbanism, and Metropolis. More by Scott Witthoft
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About the Author

The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, known as the, was founded at Stanford in 2005. Each year, more than a thousand students from all disciplines attend classes, workshops, and programs to learn how the thinking behind design can enrich their own work and unlock their creative potential. More by Stanford
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