Invention Class
Lesson 1: Design Supplies
Ask a Question

Introduction: Design Supplies

What's in a Product Designer's Tool Kit?

Even though the computer now plays an important role in most design practices, there are still essential parts of the product design process that MUST be done offline – in the physical world – if you are to end up with a well designed, thoughtful, and ultimately successful product.

Below is a list of the most common tools and supplies that product designers use today. Following the list, I'll break down the tools/supplies by the process they're used for.

*I find buying the markers individually at art supply stores is the least expensive way to get a foundation set (and colors you like!).
**RenShape is a medium to high density polyurethane foam/board that is great for making CNC prototypes and positives for vacuum forming.
***There are many programs out there that are intuitive and really great at helping you draw and 3D render your products. I use Adobe Illustrator for CAD and manufacturing specs (specifications) and Autodesk's Fusion 360 for 3D rendering.

Research, Brainstorming & Project Planning

Your most important asset for this first phase of design is you! Your ideas, senses, investigative / observation / problem solving skills, and your empathy are going to lay the foundation for the direction your design project takes.

Post-it notes, both big and small, are very useful for the brainstorming phase. I like to use them because they feel to me like they support whimsy and creative thinking. Writing something down on a post-it isn't like writing it down in a bound sketchbook or journal – you can easily remove a post-it from the mix if upon review you no longer like that particular idea!

Using a large white board is a great way to help you think BIG. Being able to draw or write at any scale you want, without the limitations of paper size, allows for freedom of thought. There is also the same sense of impermanence that a post-it has – it's so easy to erase – that supports wild ideas. :)

A smartphone is a detective's best friend. When doing topic and user research, being able to take photos, videos, and record interviews with one small device is amazingly convenient!

A computer + the internet has made the process of research SO easy. Most of the answers you'll need for the topic, market, and inspiration (and some user) research can be found by good internet sleuthing. I still recommend that you go out into the world for some of your research, but this device is a big time saver.


If you decide to dive deep into the practice of design sketching, you'll find your own style and favorite utensils. In the meantime, here are the basics that are most commonly used.

Ball point pens and mechanical pencils are the norm for sketching both in sketchbooks and for more refined drawings.

Rulers can be helpful to use when you're just getting started with sketching. Eventually, if you practice enough, you will be able to freehand straight lines, but there's no shame in getting help until then! :)

NOTE: Architectural scales (rulers) like the white one above are used to create drawings to scale. This is helpful is you're designing furniture or other large items.

I like to have a variety of erasers on hand when I'm drawing. The fine tipped Mono one above is great for removing pencil marks from inside of drawings and the kneaded eraser is good for large area erasing. Gum erasers (not pictured) with their nice crisp corners are good at both.

Quality markers are a smart investment if you plan on going down the path of getting good at design sketching. They make quick work of shading, shadows, and feature highlighting.

Good quality 8.5 x 11 (A4) printer paper is perfect for refined sketching.

Tracing paper is invaluable to have when you're learning to draw. It allows you to easily iterate on your drawings by tracing over your first one and making small changes, instead of having to start from scratch.

Circle and oval templates, along with an old fashioned compass, are, like the ruler, a great help when you're learning to draw. Traditionally used for drafting, they can be used to get perfect circles and proper perspective ovals until you get good enough at free hand drawing that you no longer need to use them.

Using sketchbooks is my favorite way to keep track of my written and doodled ideas. There are many different kinds in all different sizes: spiral bound, perfect bound, stapled, with blank, grid, or lined paper. Try a few different styles until you find one that works for you!

If you prefer a more 'new fangled' approach to life, using a tablet is another method of creating and keeping track of your sketches. The device will store all your sketches and they can be easily transferred to your computer (and the cloud) for long term storage.

Rough Prototyping

The most commonly used materials for rough prototyping are foam core, cardboard, balsa wood, acrylic, blue or pink foam (Styrofoam SP-X), and balsa foam. All of these materials are inexpensive and easy to work with – with the exception of balsa foam, which is super easy to shape and great for a beginner, but a little pricey.

Cutting tools are essential to rough prototyping. I routinely go between using all three of the above 'sharps', so I recommend investing in both an exacto knife as well as a box cutter, along with a high quality pair of scissors.

A large cutting mat can turn any surface into a work surface. These are great for home or studio/office use.

The adhesives that I use the most for rough prototyping are: 5 minute epoxy, permanent spray adhesive, white glue, and hot glue. They all shine depending on what kind of 'stick' you need. 5 minute epoxy is the king of subtle strength, spray adhesive is for glueing flat pieces with a lot of surface area, white glue is gluing things into other things (i.e.: a dowel into a hole), and hot glue is good for fast and loose connections. It's strong, but not always tidy looking.

I use tape if I want: removable connections (masking & scotch) or super controlled surface contacts (double stick tape in place of spray adhesive). Masking tape also works well as a binding strap and prototype hinge.

Refined Prototyping

Once you've used sketches and rough prototypes to decide on your basic form, scale, and function direction, it's time to make more refined prototypes that test materials and help you land on your final presentation model.

You can absolutely make this round of models with hand tools (of course, depending on the type of product you're making), but the following tools are very helpful with speeding up this process and at creating clean and professional results.

Laser cutters are the jam. They are easy to use and don't require learning any extra 'middleman' software. AND they are very versatile in that they can cut a WIDE variety of materials like paper, cardboard, acrylic/plexiglass, wood, leather, cork, etc. I'll talk more about laser cutting in Lesson 5.

If you don't have access to one, there's a good chance that there is a business in your town that you can hire to cut things for you. If not, there are lots of great online companies that will make your pieces and ship them directly to you, like Ponoko.

3D printing is all the rage these days and can be very useful for rapid prototyping. You can make whole parts, connectors, casings, really anything you can imagine! They are limited in that most of the materials available to print with are not super 'long term use' durable (with the exception of metal printers), but they are perfect for making prototypes (or parts of prototypes). I'll talk more about 3D printing in Lesson 5.

CNC machines are incredible useful if you're making wood or MDF prototypes. They can be used to cut out shapes or mill out internal shapes or depressions. I'll talk more about CNC use in Lesson 5.

Other useful machines not listed are CNC and manual mills (great for shaping Renshape) and the water jet (great for cutting sheet metal, marble, slate, glass, some wood, felt, etc.). Local maker spaces or businesses should be able to help you cut parts if you don't have access yourself.

Next Up...

I'll do a quick break down of what Product Design is and go over some different schools of design thought.

Be the First to Share