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Designer Diary 6 - Prototyping

In this post I’ll be sharing some of my prototyping process for The Emerald Flame, and will include a bit of an intro to some basic prototyping tools and materials. In the future I plan to write about more specific topics, such as tips for digital prototyping, laser cutting, and using adhesives.

Useful materials for prototyping:

  • Chipboard - Reasonable enough to prototype at home with chipboard if you need something sturdier than cardstock, but if you are closer to a finished prototype, you could also get components printed or die-cut out of chipboard at websites like That’s how I made these!

  • Foam core - Good for sturdy tiles, boards, or containers. Standard foam core is a little under 1/4” thick, but you may also be able to find 1/8”, which I personally prefer since it is about equally sturdy but less clunky and easier to work with. To avoid the messy edges, make sure your utility knife is sharp, and make several small passes, going deeper each time, rather than trying to cut through the foam in one go.

  • Projector slide sheets - Good for clear plastic components or transparencies, but can also be used as overlays to write on and erase information as you iterate.

  • Legos - This will only work for some things, but if you have a mechanism you need to work out, Lego makes mechanical sets with gears and other fun gadgets you can play around with.

  • Clay - Good for making tokens or unusual shapes. FIMO and Sculpey are easy to use oven bake clays. You could also use an air dry clay like Crayola Model Magic, but it has a kind of springiness that is less conducive to detail work. You can easily paint these with acrylic paint.

Here are some beetle pendants made with modeling clay. They took about 20 minute to bake. I made a hole in them before baking (you can use a toothpick and swirl it around a bit) and then drilled it out after painting them so that the chain could fit through.


I started writing about glue in this post, but then it took up wayyy too much space and I realized adhesives deserve their own spotlight. I'll be writing about them soon.

My favorite tools

  • Olfa utility knife - My favorite model of this knife allows you to hide extra blades inside the plastic casing, and the bottom comes off to help you safely break the most recently used blade segment off the knife. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear to be readily available anymore, but I still like the ratchet mechanism these knives have, and the quality blades that snap pieces off so you don't have to replace the entire thing every time.

  • Rubber cutting mat - This is a must so you don’t destroy every table surface. I suggest going a little bigger than what you think you need, since it can easily be stashed away.

  • Paper cutter - I prefer cutters with the sliding blades as they are more precise than their guillotine-like cousins, however if you have a lot of volume and care less about precision, the latter may be better suited for your needs. I can't say this model is the best on the market as it's the only one I've used, but it works pretty well.

  • Pilot FriXion erasable pens - These changed my life. No joke. They don’t smudge like a pencil but they erase well off most surfaces and don't leave crumbs everywhere! I now take notes almost exclusively with these. My only complaint is that they seem to run out of kind of fast, but I just found out that they sell refills! They also make them in other colors, as well as markers and highlighters.

  • Lightbox - As I mentioned in my post about digitizing and drawing analogue artwork, a lightbox can be really useful if you just want to trace over something quickly. I currently use this model, which is very light, slim and super affordable, but I do wish it could charge and work cordlessly.

Here is a pile of paper pieces I drew, scanned, cut, redrew, rescanned, recut… a few times... and then drew a final copy with an ink pen using a lightbox for accuracy.


I’ve written before about ciphers, and how I prefer to make up my own symbols. I try to make these specific to the puzzle, so the shapes are usually inspired by the theme. Here’s an inside peek at some symbol brainstorming for an ancient language found in The Emerald Flame.

Iteration can be especially hard when working with 3D objects. In the instance below I came up with a complicated shape, which would have been difficult to cut by hand, so instead I used a vinyl cutter (Cricut Maker, specifically) to cut it out of cardstock, only to quickly realize that this piece wouldn’t work unless it was transparent, because too much of the graphic underneath would be obscured. For the next attempt I got a piece of acrylic laser cut, but the clear acrylic made it surprisingly difficult to see where the shapes were landing, especially with such a light background. I ended testing a few different colors with varying degrees of opacity, and finally landed on a green-tinted acrylic with an approximate 75% transparency. I created a darker background to contrast the shiny acrylic, which made the top layer feel more solid while maintaining the visibility of the star chart underneath.

That's all for now!

Do you have any questions about prototyping?

What are your favorite prototyping tools and techniques?



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