Review: Prototype This

The Discovery Channel has a new show called Prototype This in which a team of engineers put together a wacky project every week. Their warehouse studio is about a mile as the crow flies from the Kicker studio space. It’s a fun show, and one that shows off the playful spirit and deadline mania that creative people can have when working under pressure on something new.

What it doesn’t seem to have (at least not in the first episode when they make a mind-controlled car), is the juice that shows like Project Runway have: namely, real clients and constraints that are as much creative and personal as they are technical. Technical challenge after technical challenge can be interesting, of course, but not as interesting as the projects most designers work on, which combine technical challenges with business, creative, political, and social/interpersonal ones as well.

What’s also glaringly missing for me is a lack of exploration of multiple solutions to the same problem. In other words, design. For instance, the “problem” in episode one is (ostensibly) Road Rage. The solution that the prototypers set about making is a car that responds to the driver’s biofeedback and slows or shuts off the car when it detects anger (!!!). Because, yes, when a driving situation gets bad, the solution is obviously for the car to shut down. There was no discussion of how this solution was devised, or if there was any alternatives.

Nor really was there any discussion throughout of why any decisions were being made, just the challenges resulting from them. This might make better TV (although giving the team a judge/nemesis/sounding board/critic in the form of a client would certainly increase drama and up the stakes) because it is more visual, but if the goal (it is the Discovery Channel after all) is to show how prototyping is done, then it is leaving out a crucial step: that of iterating and making multiple prototypes to see what solution works best. Seeing how decisions are made–with all the tension and drama inherent in working on a creative team–would make this a stronger show. As it is now, it’s just engineers racing towards a technically cool solution, some of which will be, if this first show is any example, very cool. But it seems a bit like a wasted opportunity. Some designers on there with the engineers would give the show some balance and show how prototyping can be more than just the first solution someone comes up with.

Discovery Channel: call us.