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  • Alana

DESIGN: You don't have to be an Artist to be a Designer

Part 3 in a series exploring how we use the Engineering Design Process. The third step in the engineering design process is DESIGN.

The brainstorming phase comes up with the broad ideas for a solution. The design phase tackles the details: What is our solution going to look like? How is our contraption going to move? What is it going to be made out of? Where are we going to make it?

This DESIGN step is sometimes also referred to as PLAN and can involve sketching, writing, or modeling.

Sketch it out!

You don’t have to be an incredible artist to jot down your ideas visually: the goal is to make a plan, not create a lasting piece of wall art. Simple 2D lines and shapes can communicate a lot of information. For example, I like to use circles for balls and pulleys and triangles for ramps.

Use arrows to show movement and forces! Use numbers to show what order steps will occur!

When I was sketching my early designs, I used a similar notation to plan out my ideas for prototyping.

Even now, before I build a machine, I like to sketch out a plan to make the act of building less chaotic and feel less overwhelming.

Click the photo to see how the sketch came to life.

Click the photo to see how the sketch came to life.

Sometimes building goes according to plan, like the examples above. But sometimes a sketch just serves as a starting point-- because the apple isn't rolling how you want it to and you don't have any rocks so you feed your robot a meal of paper clips instead. The realities of the three-dimensional world can't totally be predicted on paper (at least if we're leaving hardcore calculations out of this).

The pet rock-feeding machine above evolved into the robot-feeding machine below.

Kids can do this too! When working with a class of Kindergartners, we posed the question: how might we knock a stuffed animal off of a desk? Then we did step #2, brainstorm, together and then had them design their own machine. As an added planning step, we asked each of them to explain their design to us and their group.

Kindergartener's designs for knocking a stuffed animal off the table.

We love how black hole was included.

Write it out!

If drawing feels intimidating, write out a description of your invention and how it will work, step by step, instead. For maximum clarity, you can annotate your drawings at each step like a technical drawing. Giving kids an option between drawing and describing their plan in writing makes the design phase inclusive to all styles of thinking.

Before moving on to the building phase, write a Bill of Materials (a list of what supplies you need) so that it’s clear what items are making up your machine.

Model it!

Modeling software can be a useful design tool for when you want to think in three dimensions or manufacture prototypes. For us, Fusion 360 has been an indispensable tool for visualizing our toys, designing the exact dimensions, and programming machinery to actually create prototypes.

Making the base sketches for some Momentix pieces in Fusion 360

A model of an earlier Momentix lever design rendered in Fusion 360

Modeling software, such as Fusion 360 and TinkerCAD (Fusion's kid-friendly counterpart), helps transform 2D designs into 3D components. This process is done through pushing and pulling parts of a sketch. Imagine when you cut a paper snowflake-- it starts flat but then you pull it apart and it becomes three dimensional. A slinky is another good visual for 3D design: it starts out relatively flat, but as it stretches out it goes from a circle to a cylinder.

Playing around with Momentix Models in TinkerCAD to create a Rube Goldberg Machine. Basic shapes can make great dominoes, ramps, balls, and platforms.

TinkerCAD is a free online tool and easy for anyone to use-- adults or kids. Interested in modeling a chain reaction machine with Momentix pieces? Shoot an email to and we'll send you the STL files you can upload into TinkerCAD.

Whether you prefer to think in flat sketches, written lists, or 3D shapes, the design phase creates a blueprint for prototyping, the next step in the engineering design process!

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