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Patterns for common design and construction situations?

The architect Christopher Alexander noticed that, when designing buildings, you end up encountering a number of common situations. For example, wanting an inviting entry way, or having a comfy, well-lit place to read. The solutions for these tend to be quite similar, adjusted for project specifics. Having a codified way to refer to these common situations and design solutions makes it easier for everyone to discuss and reuse these ideas, and Alexander came up with A Pattern Language (

Software developers copied the general idea after realizing that there are common problems and solutions in coding as well. Now programmers can talk about design patterns such as Singletons and Decorators as shorthand for basic coding techniques. When used right it saves time wasted in re-inventing unessential wheels.

I've been trying my hand at making paper toys, and have run into assorted issues that others must have encountered before. For example, when making a basic box shape, where best to put the glue tabs? If you're not careful you end up with a structure that's hard to complete. Or how best to create tapered or curved shapes? What are simple but effective ways to make arms? Shoes? After some trial and error I find ways to get acceptable results without having to use a million folds and tabs or dozens of separate parts.

It got me wondering if there was anything like design patterns for paper toys. Some book or Web site that cataloged basic techniques or patterns for common results. What I've looked at talks about basic cutting and gluing, but not so much about how to plan a shape, where best to make folds and cuts, when can you get away with leaving a side or bottom open, or how to layout glue tabs for easy construction.

Does this exist? Worth pursuing?

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Interesting topic. You mean like a tips and tricks book or online site? Something that tackles the process, step by step from start to finish techniques, that discuss design pros and cons and that sort of thing?

Matt Hawkin's ( book, "Urban Paper", features the design process of a number of talented paper toy artists, most of them, if not all are members of Nice Paper Toys. You'll most likely get a lot of information there.

I recently started a paper toy blog ( that sort of does the same thing. Cataloging what I learn from my experiments with Paper Toys. The site is intended to feature Paper Toy-related Design processes, tools of the trade, software to use, walkthroughs, reviews, and so on. Hopefully Paper Toy noobs like me will find the stuff in there useful, if not at least help promote the craft. I also included a store section on the blog that has some suggestions on which Paper Toy books to buy along with cartooning, 3d modeling, and illustration books (since they can be helpful with paper toy creation too - I think). I'm not sure if that's the type of information you need though.

Maybe something like what you are looking for can be started on NPT. Sort of like a techniques section, or design challenge ("how would you design a paper toy like this?", or "whats the best way to do a paper toy rubber ducky with curves"). Then maybe the community can chime in. Each paper toyer sharing his or her design strategy.

Just my thoughts. Cheers!
Very good topic.

For most shapes, using your box as an example I find that placing the tabs on the body rather than the top. In other word you fold the body of the box and end up with a top and bottom lid that you simply close down flat onto the glue tabs. Not having the glue tabs on the top and bottom lids where they would have to be folded down and slotted into the body. I feel that adds extra amount of tedium and a chance that one or more of the flaps will not adhere correctly. Weaking the over all structure, or worse. Not being completely square and have a slight twist to it.

I hope that made some sense. It might be easier to illustrate the examples. I'll do that and post them here tomorrow.

"I hope that made some sense."

Yes, it did. I've run into that a few times. I've done shapes using Google Sketch-up, and the used Pepakura Designer to unwrap them, and often the default tab placement end up being really impractical.

Pepakura Designer does a pretty good job of letting you move tabs around, so I go back and make changes so that, as you pointed out, you can close up an area by folding a side down onto some waiting flaps or tabs instead of having to try to slide tabs into a box side (where getting the glue to hold is a problem).
Yes, WillOhio, doing it that way does help a lot. It makes assembly that much easier. It's all about the planning process I guess, foresight and some experience.
I have "Urban Paper" and I've read the main intro as well as maybe most of the designer interviews, but there's very little nuts'n'bolts talk there. More like, "Here's how I get my ideas and flesh them out." It's useful, but limited.

What I was thinking of is sort of tips and techniques, but also something more high-level, maybe more abstract.

For example, there are basic practical tips, such a using a blunt point to score paper before folding. But I bet there are observations to be made about whether a 3D structure is easier or harder to unwrap to 2D if you add or remove certain angles or sides. The sort of thing that one would keep in mind while fleshing out shapes and such to avoid ending up with a difficult model.

Even a collection of ways to create common features (heads, arms, shoes) would be handy. I've assembled maybe a dozen paper toys so far and have been thinking about how they do things, what works, what doesn't. There are some shapes and structures that a few of them have in common.

I think people designing their own toys would do well to start by looking at existing practices and building off the better designs and ideas and then try to push things further with new structures and techniques.

If NPT is a place to track this, that would be great.

BTW, nice blog you have. I'll be following it.
I agree with what you are saying. Maybe cataloging images of other paper toy artists would help, but focusing on certain parts or sections of the toy, just to present the many ways of doing certain things which may help inspire others. Then again, the photos uploaded by the people of NPT already do that.

For example, I just recently had the pleasure of seeing DMC's Stan (link below) and was inspired about how he made the hands a bit more interesting than usual.


Another interesting item to look at is Desktop Gremlin's "The Octopus" where he introduced customization options by including charms.

It might be best to just check out everyone's sites and inspect their creations slowly (sort of what you said in your previous post LOL); or ask people to come up with post mortems? - I dunno.

Nice Paper Toys does help a lot since it made it easier to track down all the paper toy artists, so all one has to do is pick an artist to analyze and study for a certain period. LOL

Thanks for visiting, as well as for the nice comment - very much appreciated. ;)
This is indeed an interesting topic Neurogami. Can paperkits be catched in building-blocks? Thinking from an architectural perspective, I guess they can. But personally, having spend months obsessed searching for these same blocks, I tend to look at it from a sculptural-perspective. To me that delivers more interesting models, more natural shapes and, most importantly, the most variety.

Sure, everybody begins by studying existing, simple models, trying to find shapes you can easily make your own: blocks, tubes, pyramids... It's only natural and everyone picks his or her own favourites to start developing an own style. It's an interesting search and it separates the modellers from the builders.
As I already mentioned, I have long been obsessed by mathematical shapes and the combination of them, so I studied all sorts of shapes all the way to the pentagons (which are a bitch!) and hexagons and glued them together to see what happened. Only to find out that mathematical, the shapes ended up being perfect, but the life was sucked out of the models. So I started to loose folds to get more rounded shapes and made the shapes less mathematical perfect to have them LOOK perfect (to me) when in 3d dimension. Now, I sketch an idea and try to come as close as possible to what I initially sketched. F#ck the blocks and get my idea alive! That alone might take me the rest of my life finding out how to do that easy, clean and proper, but I like fighting this material so I don't mind it too much :) Paper is só much more than 'just' blocks glued together, right?

What I'm saying is that yes, everybody should study the 'classic' shapes, but only to free themselves from them. Learning the rules to break them. If you don't, all your models will end up looking kind of the same, which is part of the charm and the strength with Cubees, Harlancore's stuff and other 'fan'-series, but in the end doesn't help evolve paperkits as a growing and interesting craft. Here on NPT I find a lot of models which simply have been done better earlier by someone else (especially Cubees again) and a different skin doesn't make them refreshed appealing to me. I still love them, they are mostly first-try's and well-done from that perspective, but I'm always hoping to see a better one the next time :)

I DO agree with the fact that having your own models being built by people who you don't know limits your creative space. I constantly have my own grandmother (may she rest in peace) in mind wanting to build my stuff and follow the philosophy that my models should be build by her within one hour (I don't want to waste more of my fan's time) and that the flatpacks can be printed on regular, even cheap/light paper. So I always search for simplification within the design (less is more), don't have parts só small that a pincet is needed and try to end up with one-piece models so there is no discussion where what part belongs. The weaker paper needs to be addressed by the proper amount of folds and glues, since solidness comes from that.

Concerning how to place tabs on a cube, it depends on where the cube is placed in the total form, if you are right- or lefthanded, if you work with or without glue and probably more personal reasons. With every new model you will have to find it out by simply building it. The only 'rule' I have is to get the tabs 'grab each other' (shown in the picture below). It will end up stronger and the shapes 'fall better' when constructing. But also here, I build my models extensively and if it disturbs the building-convenience, they go :)

To end this post, I want to stress on the personal nature of it. I hope someone totally disagrees so it ends up being a fruitful discussion ;)
While I do think people designing new paper toys should build a lot of models and pay attention to the shapes, my hope for something like a catalog of abstract patterns would be to *reduce* cookie-cutter designs.

In software (my professional field) design patterns serve two main purposes. One, they give developers names for common concepts.

For example, if a coder says, "Oh, I solved that problem by using an Abstract factory", then most other developers know, at a high level, what was done.

The second main value is that as a developer is writing some software he or she often comes across common situations, even if the software as a whole is quite original.

In these common situations a familiarity with software patterns can make it easier to focus on the main design of an application and not get stuck hacking on smaller issues.

I see software development as being much like sculpting or playing jazz. Each has a basic vocabulary and fundamental concepts.

You need to know them to build on them, but also so that you can go beyond them.

In the case of paper toys, people should not get stuck trying to figure out where to place tabs if there is a set of basic practices for that.

Designers should be able to look at good examples of shapes and construction not so they can simply copy them, but so they can understand *why* certain shapes and forms work. Any set of examples should have something explaining why it's good and how it works to serve to some purpose.

I see it as analogous to understanding chord construction and progressions in music: It's a leg up to preparing the artist to do novel work.
I agree ThreeEyedBear, the interlocking method(alternating tab placement) does, in most cases, result in a stronger build. It is very useful for euclidean structures such as buildings, etc. And as you say, if it complicates the build process...out it goes. And I like the "Build in One Hour" concept. Actually having design goals clear at the beginning helps with the whole process. It keeps things clear and focused. Especially for those of us whom would otherwise obsessively fiddle with the design ad nauseum. :-)
This is an excellent topic, and more people (perhaps like 3EB, the premier/long time builders) should be invited to weigh in...
When discussing the actual shape and structure integrity, I think there are some basic principles that people who are paying attention will discover.
1. The solution that looks the best on paper doesn't always functionally work best. "If it disturbs the building convenience, they go."
2. Alternating or interlocking tabs feel stronger.
3. Angled tabs in corners are better than right angle tabs in corners--overlapping tabs can be a pain.

I personally dislike folding an un-tabbed paper onto an all tabs surface, and try to avoid it where possible.

In the blank templates group, you will find a wealth of blank shapes and see different ways of doing them, but there is not yet any universal language of papertoys..closest thing we have are the principles of origami, as far as I know.
" The solution that looks the best on paper doesn't always functionally work best. "

Oh, very true. That's a good part of what got em wondering about how to describe or recognize certain situations before you're spent much time trying to build something that is really hard to construct.

I may have to take notes and track my experiments to see if there are tell-tale signs of a folding or tab arrangement that will in practice be hard to manage.

One that finally stuck with me is when creating a curved surface: it's better to have the tabs on the two flat edges and apply the curving paper over the tabs then to have tabs on a curved sheet and try to adhere them to the flat sides. (Pictures would likely help here ...)
Theres a program called pepakura, it's kinda like cheating in my opinion, but it takes 3d models you create and unfolds them. I've been using it to help gain a better understanding the concepts before I venture out into my own designs. There is still a bit of trial and error using this program, printing and checking the design to make sure all sides meet up and tabs are where they need to be. Using Gimp or PS to add tabs and edit lines.
Another thing is you have to learn a 3d design program.
I chose to go with Meta sequoia, because its works hand in hand with pepakura. Pepakura isn't free though. But it's pretty cool, if you got an extra $50 burning a hole in your pocket.
I have to admit, while I like to push paper crafts into a really complex and technical direction, I have alot of respect for crafters who use graph and rulers to design.


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