Why this Sprinter van conversion shows us what good prototyping looks like

Have you ever held a wooden surfboard?  What a revelation.  In my humble opinion they are some of the most beautiful objects around

Paul Jensen is a master craftsman who, among other things, creates truly gorgeous surfboards out of wood.  He also does the occasional van conversion, transforming the inside of a Sprinter van from this:


… to this format, fully fettled for far-flung adventuring:


In this photo blog, Paul documents almost every build step and design decision of this conversion.  As a builder, I love to see someone else's creative process tick.  It's pretty amazing to see how Paul takes a bunch of rather humble materials and transforms them into a bespoke interior for this Sprinter, in turn transforming it into an adventuremobile.  I want one!

We can learn a lot about good prototyping process from Paul.  One of my principles for innovating is "anything can be prototyped, and you can prototype with anything".  Speaking of prototyping with anything, Paul used 1/8" thick plywood to create this quick mockup of the interior of the Sprinter van:



Each square represents one square foot in the actual van, making this prototype a very effective way for Paul to check his initial plans, improve his design ideas, and communicate them to his client.  The little plywood dude there helps everyone translate the scale model to reality.  It's also a fast and cheap medium to work in, so even if his initial design direction took them down the wrong road, there's not much ego to be lost in chucking the whole thing and starting over.  Much, much easier than going from drawings directly to the van and only then realizing that your client thought that "left" meant behind the driver and now the sink is on the wrong side. 

Now, for those of you busy pivoting your startup's iPhone app to one that actually might make money, putting cabinets in a Sprinter van may seem simultaneously quaint and trivial and even passé, but path dependence is for real.  Getting on the wrong design trajectory bites even the biggest and most expensive of endeavors.  Earlier in my career I was part of a massive online software project, and via a lack of prototyping we overlooked some key user needs and ended up spending years engineering a platform that was ulitmately a dead end.  Careers weren't ruined, but it would have been a lot more fun and profitable to build the right thing in the first place. 

Whatever you're working on right now, I want you to build a prototype of it tomorrow.  No matter what it is, you can figure out how to make a quick prototype.  I know you can.  Give yourself and hour to create the prototype, and then spend an hour showing to people.  Just build it like you mean it, and listen like you're wrong.  It'll be awesome.