The Power of Prototyping

prototype header

A prototype in it’s most basic form is the difference between thinking and making. In advertising terms it’s the initial scrawled drawing of a print ad, or the TV idea scribbled on the back of a napkin. It’s turning an idea from an abstract thought into a physical reality. A well executed prototype can be the difference between a great idea, campaign or product, and a bad one.

In this video, Firefox lead creative Aza Raskin discusses and demonstrates the power of prototyping for creative software development. I’ve referenced a lot of his principles in this post because they are creatively universal and very easily applied to advertising.


It’s simple really: an idea means nothing if you haven’t executed it.

This is what Scott Belsky’s excellent book Making Ideas Happen is based on. If you have an idea, that’s great, lots of people have ideas. The difference between you and everyone else is whether you execute that idea.

Prototying is the first stage of execution.

It provides you with the immediate internal and external feedback your idea needs to grow. Think about it: how many times have you woken up with THE GREATEST IDEA EVER KNOWN TO MAN!!, then attempted to explain it to your girlfriend or boyfriend only to discover they have no idea what you’re talking about and frankly neither do you? A well executed prototype allows people to see your idea the way you want them to see it.

A prototype isn’t the finished article.

If you present your client with a fait accompli at the very first meeting they’re not going to be impressed, they’re going to feel left out. By presenting a work in progress the client recognises you’ve done a lot of the initial thinking, but crucially, they feel like the idea won’t be complete without their input. If you present your idea correctly you’ll inspire people to contribute and take part in a positive way.


Talk about your idea.

Talking about your idea in its early stages will help you optimise it quickly and prevent you from going too far down the wrong track.

For us advertising folk it’s discussing your idea with your teammate. It’s meeting one of your colleagues from client service in the kitchen and talking to them about it. It’s sticking your sketch up on a noticeboard or in the corridor and inviting people to comment. As creatives we need to welcome and enjoy talking about the idea in its initial stages. The more opinions you get early on, the quicker your idea becomes great.

Accept that you’re always wrong the first time.

No one is good enough that they get it right the first time. Pushing ego aside and admitting that your first idea is not the absolute solution allows you to embrace other peoples opinions. If you believe that the first draft of your TV script is comparable in greatness only to the works of W. B Yeats, than you’re in for a big ego-bruising when you present it to your CD. Factor this stage into your workflow and you’ll allow other people’s opinions to positively influence your idea.

Move fast.

I saw Mike Schroepfer, the Vice President of Engineering at facebook, speak at the Science Gallery in Dublin as part of the Innovation Dublin Festival. When he discussed how they fostered innovative ideas within facebook, he described the need to prototype rapidly. One of the ways this is achieved is with the infamous facebook hackathon:

“Hackathon is a chance to work on the ideas we have been thinking about for last couple of months, to change the,’That would be hot!’ sentiment to something real and live on the site. The objective is to create something interesting by the end of the night that you can get feedback on from your peers and coworkers.”

Forcing yourself to make a prototype of your idea in a day will allow you to concentrate on the things that matter, the broad strokes, and not to get bogged down in inconsequential details.


In the spirit of what I’ve discussed above, here is an idea I had after reading and discussing with Caprice, her “The Draper Cycle” Knot Collective post:

What if we applied the idea of the hackathon to an ad agency? For 24 hours creatives, client service, production, the receptionist, everyone, came together to turn their ideas into working prototypes that could ultimately help the agency, the agency’s clients, or a not for profit organisation? A burst of collective, rapid energy could produce more in one day than countless meetings over the space of months ever could.

But, what if we made it bigger than that? What if we gathered a diverse group of people virtually, in one space for 24 hours and aimed to have an idea and a working prototype by the end of the day? As Caprice put it:

“What you’re suggesting is to allot a finite time to workaholism and turned it into a commodity and resource which can then be applied.”

Yes, that is what I’m suggesting. What do you think? Good idea or bad idea? Let’s get talking and doing.

Article Info
Posted by: Ciaran McCarthy
Thinking About: Advertising / Creativity
Location: Sydney
Twitter: @formeandu
  1. Jamie Murphy

    A well formulated piece of writing, which surely began as an idea and in itself has become a fine example of your subject matter.

    Thanks for sharing Ciaran!

  2. Caprice Yu

    Great article Ciaran. Between your thinking, and Leon’s Nike Plus – the Creative Edition, I feel like we’re all on the same wavelength. This idea of a virtual studio that allows us to be each other’s ‘other side of the brain’ and focus our energies and ideas is really exciting. It might be the thing that helps us get from idea to the all important prototype.

    After working with in-house developers and UX people who can turn a prototype around in a few days, I’ve realized they’re the key to the kingdom. In an industry filled with talkers, do-ers are invaluable.

    So… let’s make the Nike Plus Creative Studio/24 hour of Burst Collective going. What’s the first step?

  3. Tim Geoghegan

    Sounds great. I’ve always wanted to have a ‘concept off’ to show what people really are capable of in 24 hours. Of course, that happens in practice every day for us as creatives. It also happens when we have 2 days off and want to do a side project.

    For example, I’ve had a ’3rd tier’ idea floating around for quite a while. 3rd tier – because it’s on a blue post-it note on a wall of over 50 ideas. In my system, blue delineates ‘cool ideas’ but not necessarily the best or most profitable ones I have.

    But when the latest TSA uproar started to happen, I figured this idea had a chance to get out there and grow fast. So I teamed with a co-worker, Matt Ryan, to respond to the zeitgeist. We took my ’3rd tier’ idea and quickly turned it around – we created underclothes printed the 4th Amendment of the US Constitution in metallic type. That way, it would theoretically appear in the TSA body scanners when X-rayed, and you could make a statement without saying a word. We prototyped it up, created a site, and PR’d it through social media and a few well-placed emails.

    So was born.

    Within 2 days, we had over 3 million media impressions, 400k+ unique page visits and coverage that included the WSJ, Gizmodo, Dailymail, Huffington Post, Refinery29, etc.

    Which proves – it’s about the idea. And then, it’s about making it happen.

    But the idea needs to be great enough. I tend to hear ‘ideas are a dime a dozen.’ That’s usually the refrain from people who ‘curate’ ideas but don’t understand where they come from. When you creative direct, you see many ideas worth a dime a dozen. You want the ones that are worth at least a dollar. So ideas DO have value. But that value is lost unless executed.

    There’s just way too much talk out there from ‘innovations experts’ and ‘idea people’ who don’t really ever prove it by doing the very thing they say they’re experts in. The Twittersphere is filled with people posting links to ideas – but never actually putting their own ideas out there.

    By doing this, I may not have proven myself an ‘expert’ in anything. Nobody’s an ‘expert.’ But perhaps this quick 2 day media experiment can serve as an example that Doing beats Talking any day. And we just did it.

    So prototype, make things happen.

    • Ciaran McCarthy

      Leon the metallic print is an amazingly simple idea, brilliant!

      I agree with you that some ideas do have more value than others, and they’re the ideas worth expending your energy on. I think a lot of the time people believe they have one of these “dollar ideas” and can either become precious about changing them or reluctant to create prototypes out of fear of finding out that their idea isn’t as good as they believe. You have to be open to using prototyping as a way of testing ideas, or even turning a dime a dozen idea into a dollar one.

      Like you, I recently created a project rapidly that responded to the zeitgeist. Myself, my partner in work and one of our in house developers teamed up last Friday to produce something in response to the economic crisis in Ireland. It’s called Ireland’s Good Side:

      It’s a very simple positive news twitter aggregator. As the country plunges into a state of depression and debt, we felt we needed to promote the positive conversations, the type of conversations that will bring the economy back to where it was and restore the countries optimism about the future. Like you we sent out a few carefully chosen emails and tweets and we’re getting a great response.

      We had to prototype and produce rapidly as it’s very dependent on responding to the zeitgeist. If we’d taken to long or been to precious about it, it would never have been made and realised, or it would have come too late.

    • Steve Peck

      Yeah I’m excited to see what comes out of Odopod’s “Hack days” They’re closing down the agency for two days to make some stuff. Every agency should be doing things like this!

  4. Shane McDonnell

    Hi Ciaran. Another good post and Tim’s too. I’m sure you’ve seen that RSA Animate Drive clip on YouTube where they talk about motivating people to create & work better, given the right conditions and incentives. They refer to an example by an Australian software company called Attlassian about halfway through – very interesting stuff.

    I wonder could the same principles of prototyping you talk about be applied with the right people to help the country on a national level…?

    • Ciaran McCarthy

      Hi Shane. I have seen that video, it helped me a lot with the research and ideas for this post actually. I’m going to have a look at it again now though, just because I like it so much!

      Have a look at the project we created: it’s not quite saving the country but we hope it’ll do something to help!

  5. Ciaran McCarthy

    Thanks for the comments everyone.

    Caprice, in-house developers and UX designers are definately the key. After working on a few small projects with the guys in my agency it’s amazing how quick something can go from idea to prototype when it’s put in the hands of the right people.

    My suggestions for moving the project’s forward would be:

    Find a backend developer or developers we could work with. Maybe we can ask amoungst our colleagues, explain the projects and see if they’re interested?

    Produce some pre-viz’s of both projects and begin to collectively figure out the logistics and features of both. Leon mentioned he was going to work on some for Creative Nike Plus, and me and you have both offered our services in helping him with that. Likewise I’ll have a look at the 24 hr Burst of Collective and if you want to have a look at it too that’d be great.

    Let me know what you think. I think they’re two projects with great potential, we have to keep the momentum going.

  6. Leon Fitzpatrick

    Whoa I’ve been on another planet the past few days, and am pretty excited to land back in reality and read this post…the timing couldn’t be more perfect.

    Speaking of momentum I put the Creative Plus thing aside for other posts and ideas but I should perhaps re-divert energy into V.2.0. As I said to Caprice, we need this system to design this system!! Visualizing it is key, and I think ‘getting together’ somehow is the first logical step. Multi-skype conference perhaps?

  7. Caprice Yu

    Developers – yes. I definitely will talk with developers/back end friends. Multi-skype conference sounds like a good idea. Name a time!

  8. Ciaran McCarthy

    Multi-Skype sounds like a great idea. I’m free whenever you guys are, we’ll just have to figure out the time difference.

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      wish i was in China to have a chance to lisetn to your idea. do you have a sort of doc or sketch of it? i’m thinking about start-up too. Very curious about how much overlapping we could possibly have. My email: if you feel comfortable to send me a copy of whatever you call it

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