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Real deal

Peter Tennent of Factorydesign is a firm believer in the value of building physical mock-ups


Last week I had a ‘virtual meeting’. Yes, I know, they used to be called video conferences, but now they are virtual meetings… and it was virtually useless. Once a project is up and running, or when you already know the person you need to confer with, I admit, there is value in picking up the phone or the digital camera and having a chat. But if you are trying to make an introduction or discuss a tricky matter, there is nothing quite the same as shaking someone’s hand, getting around a table and pointing at stuff… with a real finger, not a digital one.

In much the same way, you cannot beat a mock-up when it comes to product development. Photo-real renderings and illustrations are now the expected minimum standard in the presentation of new concepts and the technology is getting better all the time. While it is not always feasible with some budgets to achieve Pixar levels of communication, it is still possible with a fairly modest investment to produce very real-looking virtual images of a future concept. Meanwhile, virtual reality programmes enable viewers to navigate their way through a digital world and experience spaces and products that don’t exist, albeit with silly glasses on. But even the very best computer wizardry will be viewed on paper or on screen, and these are two-dimensional interfaces.

Our world is three-dimensional, and so are we. In fact if you add emotion, we are almost four-dimensional and you can’t get that from a visualisation. Perhaps it is something to do with our stereo vision or the sense that alerts us to the existence of someone in the room before we see or hear them. Whatever the reason, we engage and interact with mock-ups in a completely different way than we do with a picture. And that interaction will be a more accurate experience of the eventual product.

Mock-ups come in all shapes and sizes – some to scale, some full-size – and are often made of cardboard or wood or even the sinisterly named ‘chemical wood’. Different techniques are appropriate at different points in a design programme and address different issues, such as size, touch, form, space, function, comfort, ease of use, and so on. They can be held together with string, or built with the appearance of the final product, so much so that some will wonder why they do not actually ‘work’, while others will even include motors and moving parts.

With project budgets being squeezed and with all this technology about, there must be a strong temptation to skimp on mock-ups. They are not always cheap and the more sophisticated variety cannot be made overnight, but as an aid to getting the most from a space or seat, or as a reassurance that your new lavatory is not fit only for dwarves or giants, they are priceless. So dig deep and three cheers for the mock-up.

Peter Tennent is one of three partners at London-based Factorydesign, supported by an experienced and highly skilled team of designers, engineers and modelmakers. Peter has worked with a wide range of aviation clients, including British Airways, Etihad Airways,, Acro Aircraft Seating and Thompson Aero.


23 August 2010


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