Creating unique & successful laser-cut designs

Some lessons from looking at Students' Digital Creations.
Thoughts from Dan Emery - originally posted to the Ponoko Blog.


This year I was asked to redesign and teach a course at Victoria University of Wellington's School of Design. The course was called Digital Creation and introduced first year students to computers and digital technologies. The aim was to teach them how to design for these tools to get the most expressive objects.

I'd like to show you a few of these projects and consider the principles behind them that could help inspire and refine your own exciting ideas.

One of the projects challenged the students to interpret a digital form into real life by creating it on a laser cutter. The challenge was to create an expression of their form from 2D profiles. They had 2 weeks to learn the new software, interpret their form, create prototypes, and prepare laser cutting files. They had 2mm acrylic and 1mm card as their materials.

Some of the key principles that were evident in the top projects:

Layers and repetition - When using a laser cutter to cut 2D profiles from sheet material, the easiest and most obvious way to create form is with layers. This repetition creates a rhythm that can look great. Small iterative changes between the profiles looks the best, creating a smooth transition from one to the next. A simple shift in the axis of the profiles can also add interest to the design.


Clockwise from top left: Rhygan Hart, Emma Ng, Tim Sherry, Richard Clarkson

Details and connections - Some of my favorite projects detailed the connections in a beautiful way, really expressing the connection. The challenge, how can these elements add to the object?

The students were not allowed to use glue to join their pieces, and that, combined with not being able to test the laser kerf on the materials, meant they needed to think outside the box in how the pieces were joined. This meant the introduction of non-laser cut elements such as metal rods and string to tie all the profiles together. Another interesting theme was using thread or wire wrapped around profiles to express the illusion of form.


Clockwise from top left: Emily Mabin, Tim Clark, Shiping Chen, Frano Bazalo

Create many prototypes - the students were required to make at least one prototype of their design out of paper or card. These prototypes were simple and quick to make. Print out some profiles on a printer, cut them out with a knife and assemble. The students who did make multiple prototypes stood out above the rest as having well resolved designs.

The transition from virtual to physical is something that is hard to just imagine and often unexpected qualities are discovered when you have a physical object to hold. Making prototypes is the best way to test the theories about connections, form and details that are rattling around in your head. Seeing is believing.


Top: Hadley Boks-Wison Bottom: Haley Shaw

The thing that inspired me most about these projects was the level of complexity and refinement they had achieved in a small amount of time, with little prior experience using the software.

Whatever your timeframe or familiarity with the design program you use, the principles evident in these pieces can no doubt help you too in creating expressive and exciting objects with Ponoko.

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