Craft & Design Paper Crafts Workshop
Foamcore Lamp design.
Foamcore Lamp design.
The SEAMstudio Lamp Project is constructed from a single, continuous sheet of foamcore.

Foamcore is a great choice for quick prototyping. It is light and stiff, and can be easily adapted as you iteratively work out features of your design. Using simple tools such as a matte knife, a pencil, and a straight edge, you can easily score, fold, and cut foamcore.

Making low-resolution prototypes with materials like foamcore is an important part of any design process. When the flow of ideas is crucial for divergent thinking and ideation, low resolution models are a great way to explore what is possible. By giving ourselves permission to experiment with quick, rough, iterative sketches, we avoid investing too much time and energy in a single idea from the outset.

Cutting Foamcore

Always make sure to be focused on your work, work on a flat surface, and keep your fingers out of the path of the blade. Keeping your blade sharp will go a long way to getting clean, accurate, and safe cuts. I find myself changing blades often, keeping my used blades nearby for other tasks, such as cleaning up unruly globs of hot glue.

Cutting Foamcore

Useful tools: self-healing cutting pad, metal ruler, matte cutter with snap-off blades, t-square.

By scoring the material, taking care not to cut through the bottom layer of paper, and folding into the cut, you can achieve sharp corners.

Shaping Foamcore

By scoring a series of parallel lines, as in the example below, you can fold the foamcore into a curved shape.

Scored foamcore

Foamcore cylinder

Building upon this principle, you can develop a wide range of forms. Last summer in STEAMstudio — a course developed in collaboration with students from the Brown and RISD STEM to STEAM — we explored some of these methods for prototyping in foamcore. You can make your own version of the lamp prototype featured above by clicking here.

STEAM Studio: 3D Sketching: Foamcore from Brown SPS on Vimeo

Lamp Template
The template for STEAMstudio’s foamcore lamp is available as a PDF.

Joining Foamcore

Methods for joining are also dependent on the level of resolution you are going for. For low resolution prototypes, a dab of hot glue is a fast and effective way of adhering pieces together.

Push pins can be used to hold pieces in place, which can be further reinforced with hot glue, masking tape, or mechanical fasteners.

For refined models, edges and connections matter more. When building volumes, give consideration to how the edges are expressed. A strategic fold or designing a part in multiple pieces can go a long way to refining and celebrating these details. Note in the example above how the light socket not only creates an affordance for mounting the bulb, but also serves as a fastener to hold the whole thing together.

Mounting Electronics

In the robot design courses I teach, prototyping in foamcore is essential for working out design features and creating “works like” and “looks like” models at low resolution. Like cardboard and other similar materials, you can laminate (stack and glue) layers together to create volume and mass, in which you can embedded parts like servo motors.

Servo encased in foamcore

Foamcore is a great material to demonstrate proof of concept, as is the case with these telepresence robots we developed in class. Building upon a tablet and a Roomba, students worked out the form using foamcore to create a quick, functioning, low resolution prototype that begins to hint at how people might interact with it. It provoked questions that we could build upon in subsequent iterations.

Foamcore Robot

Subsequent iterations can integrate multiple techniques and materials. We further developed our designs for telepresence robots by integrating smart phones and servo motors to help us imagine how the robot might interact with its environment.

Foamcore telepresence robot

Foamcore robot

Taking it Further

We were able to iteratively develop our robot designs by making many low resolution prototypes. We used foamcore to quickly mock up elements of the design, integrating feedback and giving ourselves the option of exchanging foamcore with more permanent materials, such as laser-cut acrylic, in subsequent iterations. Each iteration is an opportunity to ask a new question, and the materials you choose frame and constrain those questions.

More information about low resolution prototyping in foamcore and other materials can be found at STEAMstudio.com.

4 thoughts on “Here’s Why You Should Prototype with Foamcore

  1. Love the article, I used high density cardboard to prototype my robotic / prosthetic hand. More dexterous than anything around. cost pennies to workout the bugs and

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Ian Gonsher is a artist, designer, and educator at Brown University. His interests include the interdisciplinary intersections of design process and creative practice, with a focus on the ways we can learn and teach to design better experiences for everyone. He enjoys collaborating with students on design projects, with current interests that include STEAM, critical design/critical futures, and making things like robots and furniture.

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