Introduction: How to Design Pop-up Cards

About: I am a paper engineer, writer, maker and chemist wannabe. In addition to pop-up cards I design and build furniture, lights, costumes or whatever I happen to need at the time. Lipstick, a mixing studio, all-pur…

I have published a few instructables on how to make specific pop-up cards (such as the dove, pop-up room, or the gift card), but this time I'd like to share tips on designing your own cards from scratch. There are many types of pop-ups, but to keep things from getting too complicated and long, in this instructable I will only discuss the style known as OA (for Origamic Architecture), and limit myself to cards which are best viewed when they are opened at a 90° angle.

Would-be paper engineers have many craft book options to choose from, and though I have a few of them in my library, I find it much more helpful to learn by making -- so my first piece of advice is to stop reading this instructable, click on the links above and make those cards. You can also get a few extra free templates from my website.**

Once you're done with that, come back and read the rest...

** you get my free templates via email -- in other words, you have to enter a real email address, then you'll get an automatic reply from me with links to the PDF files. I set it up this way so I can easily keep track of downloads, but I do NOT share your information with anyone.

Though many of the links in the instructable are for my free templates, I have also linked to some which are not free. I included those designs because they illustrate the points I'm making -- you won't need to download these templates to teach yourself to make pop-ups, so there's no need to spend a cent -- but seeing the photos and watching the videos will be helpful.

Step 1: Tools and Supplies

You will need:

  1. A scalpel knife, often called by the brand name Xacto knife.
  2. A self healing cutting mat is recommended, but you can also protect your table with a piece of cardboard.
  3. Another very important tool is a scoring tool, which will allow you to make clean, neat and precise folds. A scoring tool can be any instrument which will put a dent in your paper without piercing it; a ball point pen is perfect, except when you don't want to see the ink. They sell bone scoring tools in art supply stores, or you can use a knitting needle, a stylus or even a sea shell or the edge of a plastic ruler. If you are serious about designing pop-up cards it's worth getting something which feels comfortable in your hand, like this one.
  4. A ruler. You don't need to measure anything, but you do need to make straight score lines. I like using a metal one, in case I want to use it for cutting as well as scoring (the knife will cut a plastic ruler and ruin it)
  5. Glue. I like white glue best (this Neutral pH Adhesive, because I hate Elmer's tip which always gets clogged) but you need to have a light touch if you want to avoid making the card bumpy. Rubber cement is another option.
  6. Choose the right paper... generally the thicker the stock, the more your pop-up will hold its shape, but depending on your design you might want something lighter than card stock (if you have lots of tiny, delicate folds, for example). Postcard weight is generally too thick to look good. A really nice (though expensive) paper with just the right weight for many of these cards is called Canson Mi-Teintes. When I'm designing I'll often use regular paper for drafts, because it's easier and quicker to cut & fold, and good enough for me to see if I made a mistake in my drawings. I'll only use the nice paper when I'm convinced all the kinks have been worked out.

    More than anything else, however, you will need a huge amount of patience!

    (Full disclosure: if you buy any of the items I linked to here, Amazon will reward me with a few pennies -- however these are all tools I use and would recommend even without the nickel)

    Step 2: Cuts and Folds

    When making a pop-up card all folds must be straight lines.

    Mountain folds look like the top of a mountain, and valley folds look like the bottom of a V -- like a valley.

    Cuts don't need to be straight lines, but they must go from valley fold, across a mountain top, to the next valley fold.

    What I call the "main fold" is the fold in the middle of your pop-up card, which will almost always be exactly in the middle of your card, so that when the card is closed both sides line up.

    Step 3: Basic Shape #1 Rectangle

    I call this shape a rectangle, but the end result can look like anything: the Brooklyn Bridge, castles (part of my chess set), or a chair. The heart in step two is also based on the rectangle shape.

    What characterizes the rectangle pop-up is that all the fold lines are parallel. When the card is opened at a 90° angle, the empty shape, when the card is viewed from the side, is a rectangle.

    Looking at my first picture, the blue sides must be the same length, the red distances must be equal, and (unless you want the pop-up to stick out of your folded card) the yellow distance must be greater than or equal to the blue, and the green distance must be greater than or equal to the red.

    In addition to the photos I've uploaded a 2D sketch which might help you visualize how to draw your own shape.

    Step 4: Basic Shape #2 the Triangle

    Triangles can be super easy, especially when they are symmetrical, but you can also design them so they slant to the side, like the dove pictured in the introduction.

    To make a symmetrical triangle you can just fold a piece of paper in half, cut a single slit from the fold, then fold the your shape at any angle, as shown in the second photograph. If you're drawing it, just make the tip converge with the main fold, and draw identical angles on either side of the main fold. (I don't have a template available for the heart since I just cut that one freehand -- and so can you!)

    The Eiffel Tower pictured is an example of symmetrical triangles drawn at different angles, and the camel shows a triangle shape which is cut out -- your fold lines don't have to go all the way to the main fold, you can cut it anywhere from valley fold, over the mountain to the next valley fold, as long as all the "virtual" fold lines converge on the main fold. You can watch me make the Eiffel tower here.

    I have drawn 2 sketches to show how the asymmetrical triangle pop-ups work -- it's much easier to understand those visually rather than with words.

    A big advantage of the triangle is that it gives extra dynamism to your pop-up as you open and close the card: look at the last photo, for example. The face with the flower could easily have been made as a silhouette with a rectangle pop-up, but since it is drawn with a triangle, as you close the card the face leans down towards the flower. Open it, and the face pulls away. Pretty cool!

    Watch out though, once you move beyond the classic bird beak and try to combine triangles on different planes they can get complicated fast, but as long as you keep your design simple triangles are easy and fun to make.

    Step 5: Sketching Ideas in 3D

    When I start a new design, first I imagine the shape in my head, then I draw a very rough sketch with paper and pencil and cut it out. I use that pop-up sketch as a guide to draw the cut and fold lines on my computer, then, depending on the situation. I add photos to the design. Sometimes I'll find photos to trace the cut lines, but those shapes always need to be modified so they will fit my cut and fold lines; in this case, most camels don't have their feet form triangles, so I had to stretch the legs and move them around to make the camel fit the pop-up.

    Don't start a card with the graphics, always start by drawing your cut and fold lines! You can adjust your cut and fold lines to your images later, but you will waste a lot of time and ink if you start out with the graphics. First get the pop-up to work, then decorate.

    Side note: this camel card is a bit of a hybrid. To make the camel stand up the card is opened at more than 90 degrees, but less than 180 degrees (if opened all the way, the camel lies flat, but at 90 degrees it doesn't work so well either). I designed it this way intentionally to make the card simple and quick to make. No need to fuss with tabs or gluing.

    To see this card being made watch the video tutorial.

    Step 6: Combining Shapes

    Just by using and combining triangles and rectangles you can obtain an astonishing variety of shapes: the house shows a square combined with a triangle roof, and the ship is almost identical, just upside down. The martini glass is made of a square stem with two symmetrical triangles forming the base and the glass. The violinist is made from 2 asymmetrical triangles, but her head is a rectangle set on one of the triangle's valley folds. This combination of shapes is what give the card its wonderful movement, the illusion the violinist is really playing.

    When you design any card you'll be making several drafts, trying out shapes and then adjusting them. To make the Phoenician ship, for example, in my first draft I adjusted the shape of my standard ship hull (adjusting the bow) then added a square sail -- but it looked too chunky, so I re-drew the sail cut lines to make it look like the wind was blowing and puffing it out.

    You can watch a video tutorial of the knights here.

    Step 7: Irregular Shapes

    Sometimes a rectangle shape will have one part extend a little farther -- for example, in this figure 8, the lower O is wider than the top 0. On the shopping cart, the handle is higher than the front of the cart, and on the school bus the roof is higher than the front -- besides these variations, theses designs are all basically simple rectangular pop-ups.

    Step 8: Take It One Step Further -- Then Another

    Another irregular shape is a staircase. It has one vertical plane (orange in the first illustration) and then many horizontal planes, making the steps. This series of photographs show how you start with one fairly simple shape (stairs), then add to it to make stairs with a landing, then add graphics for extra realism, or instead keep on adding one series of steps after another to make an Eicher-like set of impossible stairs

    Start simple, then add layers. If you first try to draw a complete and complex pop-up you'll drive yourself crazy, but take it one step at a time and you can make almost anything. Start simple, then add layers. I cannot repeat this enough.

    Step 9: Start Simple, Then Add Layers

    There, I said it again. Start simple, then add layers.

    Step 10: Wield Your Knife Wisely

    While you've got your knife out you may as well make a few extra cuts: the village and Statue of Liberty pictured here have extra cut-outs which contribute to the sense of depth and space. In one of my favorite cards, the Matterhorn is just a cut-out silhouette, with only the foreground hills popping out of the page. You can also, of course, get a similar effect by drawing graphics but there's something quite special about an image made from a single sheet of paper with no visible ink.

    In some cases cutting out the extra paper will remove a distracting shape, as you can see in the stork pop-up. Without the cloud you see and recognize the shape of the beak, which gives the stork an odd shadow. Add a cloud in the sky and you only see the stork.

    Other times you might like to use that shadow. When I wanted to create the effect of a gaggle of birds flying out of a bush, the shadows doubled the number of flying birds.

    Step 11: Have Fun!

    So many of my instructables end with this step! But it is particularly important in this case: don't try to design pop-up cards if you are driven by the desire for immediate results, rather than curiosity and enjoyment of the process... the experience will be very frustrating if you're only interested in a quick result. I've been designing these for years and I still make mistakes, I still go though reams of paper as I make one draft after another (and each draft -- depending on the complexity -- can take hours to conceptualize, draw, cut and fold).

    You will be successful if you are motivated by the love of geometry and art, discovery and fun!

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