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Nine product design tools to help develop your first prototype

Duncan Geddes

by Duncan Geddes

When it comes to designing your first product, knowing which tools are available and most suitable can be a challenge. Without years of experience in that field, the product design tools on the market can themselves feel overwhelming. That’s why we’ve created this guide, to help you choose the tools you need to get your design off the ground.

1. Knowledge

Thomas Jefferson said knowledge is power. And it will certainly be a powerful tool in the development of your first product. Acquiring the skills and knowledge you need doesn’t have to be as hard – or expensive – as it may at first seem.

If you’re new to some of these product design tools, you may find you need more guidance, whether related to a given industry, materials, the production process or the product itself. Purchasing books in your chosen field is an ideal way to immerse yourself in the topic and provide you with a better understanding of what your project may involve. Never take free resources for granted – from the books available at your local library to blogs and videos from universities and other organisations.

Understanding what you need to know is the first part, developing the skills to use those tools is the second. For example, once you know which tools or skills you need, you might look for online classes or look into courses at your local university or college. You may need training in the best software for product design or even want to learn how to do your own programming. Software companies usually have tutorials on their site, or you may even find that some keen hobbyists have created helpful videos on YouTube.

2. Pinterest

The image sharing social media platform, Pinterest, can be great when designing a product. The perfect site for curating inspiration, Pinterest allows you to create mood boards. Search for your desired product or theme, and the app will help you collect and organise the pictures you like. You can also upload your own pictures, integrating them into your boards, and allowing others to pin them for their own inspiration.

3. Pen and paper

Sometimes, the simplest tools at your disposal are the most effective. When initially developing a product, having a pen and paper to sketch out designs can be the best way to visualise and explore ideas. Many people assume that they should start by using design software such as Adobe Illustrator or CAD, but drawing allows you to authentically capture the various iterations of your concept for later review. Do not under-value this powerful process.

Jorn Utzon’s initial sketch of his idea for an opera house in Sydney

4. Adobe Photoshop

Photoshop is an important tool for product design and many people have some experience using the software. It can work as the next step up from hand drawings to help you fine-tune your design. There are many in-depth tutorials on how to improve your Photoshop skills online.

5. 3D animation software

Animation can be helpful when working with product design. The more realistic the animation, the more valuable it becomes in bringing your product to life. For example, 3D animation enables you to see a more complete view of your design – looking at every angle to help you visualise your creation, as well as introducing textures.

There are many free 3D animation tools available – ideal if you’re looking for the best product design software on a budget or want to try one out before purchase. Blender is suitable for Linux, Windows and Mac computers, and can support modelling, rigging, animation, simulation, rendering, compositing and motion tracking.

Lumion is a little more expensive but can be used for a range of purposes, from product design to architecture. With Lumion, you can create still images, videos or 360 panoramas.

6. Blueprint software

Depending on what product you are designing, blueprints could be a vital step. Software such as Adobe Illustrator and AutoCAD are multi-purpose – ideal if you want to invest in a platform that can be used for multiple aspects of the project.

7. 3D printer

3D printing can provide a great way of creating your first product prototype to be tested, before spending money on an expensive prototype from a third party. You can either ‘print’ the whole item or even its parts to be assembled, helping to inform decisions about colour and texture. You may find flaws within your design that otherwise could have gone missed. And you can do it all from home.

There are plenty of 3D printers out there, ranging in price and capabilities. In our guide to the best gifts for engineers, we recommend the Creality Ender 3. The machine is easy to assemble, while still offering long-time printing and the ability to print in a range of sizes.

The Dremel Digilab 3D45 is more expensive, but offers state-of-the-art innovation: utilising four materials, the 50-micron resolution printer provides ultimate quality and protection against volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

8. Arduino

If your product is tech-based, the single-board computer, Arduino, can be a great tool when designing. The computer is the perfect example of building a product to your needs, and once built, you can use Arduino to write programmes and upload them to your board.

There are plenty of boards, ranging in price from around £10 to upwards of £70 – perfect for whatever project you’re working on.

9. Figma

Figma is a collaborative interface design tool that combines design features and efficient working methods to help when designing with a team. The features include a modern pen tool, instant arc designs, auto layout and OpenType, while the collaborative elements allow you and the team to access libraries together using the cloud. You can also open several artboards at once and create a team hub.

No matter what project you are working on, these tools can help you along the way.

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