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1 Digital design and fabrication workshop

Daniel K. Schneider, TECFA, Faculty of psychology and educational sciences, University of Geneva
Workshop notes
EARLI Special interest Group “Text and Graphics Comprehension”
Geneva, July, 2016

2 Abstract, program and objectives

Physical visualizations (or physicalizations) can promote cognition through a variety of mechanisms, notably easier perception, hands-on manipulation and enhanced interaction with other participants. We can distinguish several types of physical visualizations, according to three dimensions: active/passive, kit/whole, digitally enhanced/non digital. In this workshop we will focus on two kinds of visualizations, non-digital construction kits and whole visualizations.

(1) Construction kits allow creating and manipulating visualizations from building blocks. In education, construction kits, also known as expressive media or manipulatives, allow interactive exploration of designs, concepts and roles. Physical visualizations can for example represent tabular quantitative data or more qualitative data like the state of a project or a system. Construction kits to create such visualization include a set of tokens that can be assembled into something with a new functionality (i.e. visualizations in our case) according to predefined rules. (2) Whole visualizations are created digitally and then rendered entirely by a 3D printer or other fabrication device. Typically, these 3D visualizations are represent quantitative data, e.g. comparative time series, maps or functions with 3 variables.

In this workshop we will:

  • present the concepts of construction kit and physical visualization,
  • discuss a few examples that are either teacher or learner-centric,
  • introduce some technical principles of digital design and fabrication,
  • discuss practical requirements for teachers and/or students to learn and use digital design and fabrication technology,
  • engage participants in some prototyping activity
  • have some brainstorming about the "comprehension of physicalizations" made with 3D printers


  • Reflect on the future of physicalizations in education & research (taking into account affordances of new and cheap technology)

3 PART I: Introduction to Construction kits, physical visualization, digital design and fabrication

3.1 What are construction kits ?

A construction kit is a set of elements that can be assembled / combined into something that has new functionality, e.g. models of objects, ideas, or settings for role play.

Construction kits: roots and properties

Some construction kits are tools for data visualization, others include at least some data visualization.

3.2 What are physical visualizations ?

Properties of a physical visualization kit (Huron 2014)

  • A set of basic units or tokens, which can be mapped to data,
  • A token grammar, which declares how the attributes of the tokens can signify data,
  • An environment in which the tokens can be placed,
  • An assembly model, which describes the constraints and freedom with which the tokens can be assembled.

Examples from maintained by Aviz team, INRIA and friends.

Examples from thingiverse (3D printable objects repository maintained by a 3D printer vendor)

2011+: Teachers and learners can print/adapt/create visualizations and visualization kits in a cheap and fairly easy way.

3.3 Digital design and fabrication in education

There exist several use cases for construction kits and visualizations:

  • Visualizations or kits as didactic tools (mainly demonstration of principles)
  • Construction kits for exploring and learning
  • Kits to keep track of projects states and achievements (management)
  • Kits as medium for design teaching
  • Building visualizations and creating kits to stimulate in-depth reflection about a subject
  • ....

Places for digital design and fabrication

So far, most of the making is done outside of formal learning settings (The UK may be the exception):

  • Fablabs (are on a mission, rules and minimal set of tools are required)
  • Makerspaces (other places for making, various sizes)
  • FacLabs (small, university Fablabs)
  • Hackerspace (bottom-up organized makerspaces)
  • Public Labs (do-it your self science with a political orientation)
See also: Tour de Fablab

3.4 Introduction to 3D printing

3D printing workflow

  1. Grab, scan, adapt or create a 3D model
  2. Translate to a simple mesh model (STL format), e.g. using the open source Meshlab software
  3. Repair and adapt the model, e.g. the popular Netfabb Studio software
  4. Translate to machine code with a Slicing tool, e.g. Slic3R or Cura
  5. Send to 3D printer

Steps 3-6 are often done with a single software, e.g. the open source Repetierhost program


  • Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF): Heated, extruded Filament is deposited layer by layer. Cost: 300 - 5000 Euros. Cheap material
  • Syringue-based systems (as above, for printing epoxy composites, pain, food, bio-components, etc.). Cost: Addon-to a filament printer or several K.
  • Solification of liquid (Stereolithography, SLA). Cost: 1000 - 50K
  • Binding of granular materials (e.g. selective laser sintering, SLS). Cost: 10 - 500K

Alternatives to 3D printing: laser cutting and milling

Online drawing tools:

Many tools for the desktop and mobile devices

Specialized tools for creating visualizations (not yet available):

4 PART II: Hands on

4.1 Sample visualizations

Shown in the workshop:

4.2 HANDS ON: prototyping


  • Imaging a construction kit or an other method to visualize data. Try to find something that visualizes states or achievement of activities
  • Discuss your idea with your neighbors
  • Create a prototype (at least for an element)

For prototyping, we suggest five options:

In the tradition

  • Take a sheet of paper and draw

Parameterization of necklace beads

  • Transfer to an education or research subject, i.e. imagine a necklace whose beads encode some "advancement" or achievement information.
  • Play with Running activity visualization beads
    • Click on customize (green button)
    • Select on Customizer (Red app)

Lego sculptures

Draw from scratch using an online tool or your cell phone

5 Resources

5.1 3D printing

Below is a selection of tools. Search or this wiki for more.

Online modeling tools

Modeling Tools

Slicing and controlling software

  • Repetierhost, a popular program to control 3D printers, also includes an interface to run slicers.


5.2 Computerized embroidery

5.3 Design and fabrication in schools

5.4 EduTechWiki


D&T in education


3D printing



6 Bibliography

Construction kits


  • Huron, Samuel; Yvonne Jansen, Sheelagh Carpendale (2014) Constructing Visual Representations: Investigating the Use of Tangible Tokens. IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, 2014, Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics, 20 (12), pp.1. DOI: 10.1109/TVCG.2014.2346292,
  • Stusak, S., Tabard, A., Sauka, F., Khot, R. A., & Butz, A. (2014). Activity sculptures: Exploring the impact of physical visualizations on running activity. IEEE transactions on visualization and computer graphics, 20(12), 2201-2210.
  • Stusak,S; A Tabard, A Butz (2013). Can physical visualizations support analytical tasks, Posters of IEEE InfoVis, 2013,
  • Amar, R., Eagan, J., & Stasko, J. (2005, October). Low-level components of analytic activity in information visualization. In IEEE Symposium on Information Visualization, 2005. INFOVIS 2005. (pp. 111-117). IEEE.
  • Saiganesh Swaminathan, Conglei Shi, Yvonne Jansen, Pierre Dragicevic, Lora Oehlberg, Jean-Daniel Fekete. Supporting the Design and Fabrication of Physical Visualizations. Proceedings of the 2014 Annual Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2014), Apr 2014, Toronto, ON, Canada. pp.3845--3854

See also the bibliographies in