Designing Origami Models

I am often asked how I come up with designs for my models. Some of them are quite complicated and it may not seem obvious how I can devise such folds. Over the years, I have come up with a few recommendations for people and I will try to present these in a series of essays. To begin with, I will present ten ‘easy’ steps that I have used and may prove useful for the experienced folded to create his or her own design.

1) Fold everything you can find diagrams for.

Most readers of this website will have several origami books (and some may have hundreds). The first bit of advice is to fold everything you can, even the apparently simple models. Then fold them again. The more you fold paper, at all levels of complexity, the more you will understand how various stages flow together. So will soon reach a point where you find yourself folding a little ahead of the instructions, or thinking to yourself ‘I know what happens next’. This will mean you are beginning to understand folding sequences, rather than just following them.

2) Look for similarities in models. Use them yourself.

Several complex models share similar bases and steps. For example, Marc Kirschenbaum’s spider crab has a very similar structure to Robert Lang’s Murex (Origami sea life). Both use the bird base to start, and the folding method used to create the legs on the crab is similar to that used to create the spines on the murex. I have used very similar methods to create a variety of beetles (albeit not as successfully as the previous two models). Likewise, Robert Lang and Fumiaki Kawahata use a variety of similar techniques to create thin-legged creatures in their respective insect origami books. If you can find a technique for various stages in a model, then use it! To quote Lang (and ultimately Picasso) ‘Good artists borrow; great ones steal’.

3) All models have a beginning, a middle and an end.

An origami tyrannosaur or biplane are complex models with many stages. These models can be broken down into three main stages:
  • A base
  • Utilising the points and flaps of the base
  • Adding final touches
The three stages are not always designed in that order! I will expand on this a little more.

4) The beginning of model design is to create a base.

The definition of a ‘base’ is not absolute. I do not necessarily mean a bird base or a fish base. My definition of a base is to fold the paper into a series of points and flaps that can later be turned into the various parts of the model. These bases may have several different uses. For example, I use a very similar base for one of my Tyrannosaur designs, one of my Triceratops designs and my crow design. Designing a base is perhaps the most important step in creating origami models, and I will write further essays on this.

5) The main part of model design is to turn a series of points and flaps into the basic shape of the model

Always practice on scraps of paper. Think how you can turn a simple point into a bird’s head, or a three-toed foot, or into a realistic hand. The foot design of one of my dinosaurs was developed by accident when playing with an empty sachet of sugar in a restaurant! Always analyse this ‘origami doodles’ and think to yourself ‘how can I incorporate this into a model’. I have a large box full of such doodles. Some of these models may look odd, but have been the basis for much more successful designs.

6) Final touches are the least complicated bit to design but are the most noticeable

The final touches can make or break a demonstration model. In my scheme of things, these will include getting the model to look ‘3-D’, shaping eyes, legs, horns and getting the posture of the model correct. This may sound straightforward, but it takes a lot of practice to get right, on even the most simple models.

7) Start simple

You may be able to fold Robert Lang’s Cicada in under 10 minutes. It will not mean that your first design should be a winged insect. Rather, you should start off by studying the simple designs of folders such as Yoshizawa and Kasahara, and try to create models of a similar kind. Try to think to yourself for each model ‘why is this creation successful’ and think about how it can be improved.

8) Diagramming consolidates thoughts

There are many ways to diagram origami models. I use a simple pen and paper. Some people use graphics packages. The act of diagramming makes you think about your models. It can refine a ‘half-baked crumple-fold’ into a constructive series of sinks and un-sinks. It will also improve your communication skills. When you have produced diagrams, share them. You can post them to societies, such as the British Origami Society, you can give them out at classes or meeting, or you can post them on the web. My website started out as six of my early sketches (rabbit, Yoda, hyena, badger and I can’t remember the other two) on a simple geocities free site. The constructive criticism of these models allowed me to improve the diagrams and expand my range of models.

9) Challenge yourself and respond to the challenges of others

Many of my designs have been responses to challenges. The rhino design on this site was in a direct response to a plea on the origami mailing list and was designed during my first month as a doctor! The panda design was also a response to a challenge, as was designed, diagrammed and posted inside of twenty-four hours! I continually try to create challenges for myself, and continually improve my designs my quest for most ‘closed-back’ 3-D models has lead to much better Tyrannosaur and Styracosaur designs, and I am continually attempting new dinosaur designs.

10) If at first you don’t succeed...

Although I have designed many models, I am still in awe of many other designers. There are many things that I cannot yet fold but will one day design one. For example, I have yet to design a winged stag beetle that looks at all realistic, and I still don’t like any of my deer or elk designs. But that does not mean that I have never tried. Each of my efforts continually improves and I will one day complete all of these. But there will be many earlier drafts of each one. Many of the dinosaur designs on this site took five or more draft models to get them right; the triceratops took twenty. So the last tip of these ten is to try and try again.