Recently, after finishing a major piece of work, we took some time out for a creative design exercise. Similar to our previous #100 Shots experiment, we again challenged ourselves to think from a different discipline point of view, and a different topic all together from what we usually spend our days thinking about. We knew we wanted to do physical prototyping, we wanted it to be quick and we wanted it to feel like purposeful play (so not just “fun”).

We were prompted by the CAPITheticAL exhibition currently on at the Gallery of Australian Design. The exhibition shows the entries to the competition to design a hypothetical Australian capital city.

Our challenge: Design a civic square in a capital city in three hours!

We chose not to do any pre-research on urban design and town planning – except for the exhibition and our own experience and exposure to cities around the world.

Our approach
1.    Taking a small burst of inspiration/research move quickly from
2.    Concept and sketching, to
3.    Three dimensional prototype.

Bonus incidental activities also occurred such as sharing travel stories of favourite cities, scalpeling fingers, discussions about the amount of static electricity generated when cutting into Styrofoam.

The result
The People Mega-vista                                                                                             The Nation’s House




What did we learn

  • We are not urban designers.

Physical prototyping

  • Having a concept is critical – regardless of the type of design. It meant that the design could change during implementation (i.e. as we prototyped) but the intent remained true.
  • Making is dictated by the level of skill with material or knowledge – which means unfamiliarity with materials or the subject can end up dictating a design because you do what you can with what you know.
  • Scale is hard – when you’re drawing a building in relation to a lake, and then you try and do that in three-dimensions, it’s a particular skill.

Design is design is design (but it’s still a skill)

  • Thinking in physical dimensions is challenging. While we think it is learnable with study, practice and a design mindset, it is not instinctive (like we’d expect of visualising being a design skill across the board).
  • No research means you spend time changing as you build/prototype because you have no rationale to back you up or give you direction.
  • Where you position your concept informs the build – too much detail too soon may mean you may miss the big picture (because you’re focused on details like getting the little tram right) or miss the concept intent (because you forget that the environment needs to cater for people living nearby).


So what did we learn from all that

Amongst the obvious (such as concept is king in design, prototyping is a way to learn how to make the design better because you understand and can solve implementation challenges quickly) the overwhelming feeling we had was that experimenting with technique is fun for learning, but when something is on the line – like a real outcome or generating a real solution is sought – experienced professionals leading the application of tools and techniques means you will get a better result.

We reckon this is pretty relevant when we go into organisations who question the value of design and have tried to do it themselves without experience or aptitude towards design as a discipline. It makes demonstrating practical design over theory or espousing “design thinking” without contextualising it to actual human and business outcomes even more important.