I teach a packaging class as part of a college graphic design program and I've noticed my students' prototyping skills have been on the decline. This is possibly due to less practice in previous classes, which I have no control over.

I need to make them practice it and I don't think live demonstrations alone will be sufficient. So I've been wondering about specific exercises and I found this sheet online which offers a good start.

My cutting knife skills are decent, but oldschoolers who learned with rubylith definitely have the upper hand!

Were there cutting knife exercises back in the day (or now) that were commonly used and gave good results?

  • Just do it more, simple as that. The sheet is a nice start but nothing will beat simply practicing more. May 23, 2018 at 14:26
  • @Ovaryraptor That's a given. I'm looking for something that can guide practice and make it more effective than just generally doing it more. Most students don't just do something more often because the teacher says so and I can only dedicate so much class time to this.
    – curious
    May 23, 2018 at 14:29
  • Would like an explanation for the downvote, thanks!
    – curious
    May 23, 2018 at 14:36
  • 2
    @Ovaryraptor "Just do it more" doesn't really have that much bearing in improvement. You can do something 15 minutes a day and improve more than doing it for 2 hours if you use the right exercices. You may find Ericsson's research work on acquisition of expertise of interest. That said, I don't believe we have guidelines when it comes to asking questions regarding education so if you want me to provide more details on the purpose of my class, age level and more, you could simply ask.
    – curious
    May 23, 2018 at 15:12
  • 1
    I, personally, think the question is fine. Yes, it's a bit subjective. However, it goes to the "best practice" genre of questions and "answers from experience" aspects. Asking how professionals would educate others in their field is always going to be a bit subjective.
    – Scott
    May 23, 2018 at 15:16

6 Answers 6


Going to date myself here a bit.....

In college, we had to create mechanicals by hand... yeah... rubyliths/amberliths, press on type, overlays, etc. You are right that doing this went a long way to creating the "craftsman" type of skills with an X-acto.

I don't know how practical it is now days. If the students have the tools - rubber cement, knives, tweezers, spray on glue, layout bond, acetate, etc. Then perhaps merely doing a manual production board every now and then would help. It certainly assists a great deal in fostering the knowledge of how cameras see things and how production actually works.

You could set some restrictions, such as:

  • No computer use
  • Provide printouts of type for them to use. You set up a headline and a paragraph or two of type and just provide a plain white sheet with type on it that they must use and position on the mechanical.
  • Set a minimum color use - mechanical must show 3 color project (forces overlays and ruby/amberliths).

Again, no clue if all the tools necessary for this are even part of schools any more.

I like the idea of knife exercises, but I think in conjunction with proper cutting there needs to be a factor of cutting for purpose. Merely cutting a straight line is easy, or gets easy quickly.

I would perhaps entertain something along the lines of..

  • A printed sheet of jigsaw puzzle pieces in disarray. The student would need to cut the pieces out, then glue them together to form an image. The better the cuts, the better the image ends up being. Doesn't need to be a complex puzzle by any means, or have a whole lot of pieces. I'd strangle an instructor that gave me a 1000 piece jigsaw to cut out and then assemble :).

  • A printed sheet of newspaper want ads. Students need to cut the ads and form a 4 or 6 column page with a vertical rule between the columns (drawing rules is also directly related to cutting since it's kind of the same hand-eye skill set). Supply type in 2 or 3 different column widths of ads so they again, have to kind of piece together things.

  • 2
    +1 for the jigsaw idea, nice food for thought here. Agreed those skills are usually not as practical nowadays, except in packaging agencies in my experience. One time I had to cut a perfect circle of 2 feet diameter laminated on an art board. I literally went to the oldest designer I could find in the place and asked him to make the first cut for me... which he did in one fell swoop without seemingly giving this any second thought!
    – curious
    May 23, 2018 at 15:21
  • 2
    :) I often get sideways looks when I grab an x-acto to cut something "Don't you want scissors?" -- uhm.. no :) I actually stash x-actos and cutting mats around the office so I don't have to go looking for one.
    – Scott
    May 23, 2018 at 15:25

This is an interesting question for someone of hybrid origins such as myself - when I first studied art and graphic design, Xacto skills were definitely part of the expectation, and there were no explicit drills - simply an expectation of competence; and as a whole, that expectation was met.

Later, when I returned to Uni as a "re-entry" student, changing fields to architecture, Xacto, craftknife and utility knife skills were very much in the fore, in use not just for graphic design exercises but also model building - basswood, balsa wood, foam, foamcore, toothpicks, skewers, pressboard, cardboard, acrylic, lucite and illustration board all being commonly-used materials - with all the obvious expectations of craft, trueness of angles, clean, light-tight intersections and joints (learning to mitre on tiny corners) and there was a clear dichotomy beginning then between those with manual and digital skills, and those with only digital skills.

I returned to that environment some few years ago, and saw that at that time, the digital skills were excellent, but the manual skills far less common, and those who had them reached a lower standard, having had no-one else to compete with or catch up with.

I've been told that now, there's a sort of backlash - there's a new emphasis in architectural design on physical models, both 3D printed / rapid prototyped and traditionally handbuilt, with the result that the crop now in design classes should come out with stronger, more integrated skills.

Where I'm headed with this lengthy exposition is that for many students, the gee-whizz factor combined with the self-awareness of craft factor can be seriously jump started by designing a very basic but interesting building form at say 3/32"=1' scale, with a pitched roof with a clerestory for daylighting, lightshelves / solar control on the main glazed facade, deep overhangs on the pitched roof, and challenging the students to cut and build to a standard such that they can light the resulting model with a desk task light and judge the daylighting impact of the lightshelves, overhangs, clerestories, skylights etc.

You have them photograph the results and turn those images into a presentation board about the project.

This provides an inbuilt incentive for light-tight craftsmanship, it's fun, the resulting models are great bragging rights, and show them how they can assemble parts to end up with a wholly different contiguous item.


Papercraft of their choice from their favorite TV shows and games would really get people motivated.

You would then decide what the complexity should be and give them a sample image of what the minimum amount of complexity required should be.


Class, this is the minimum amount of complexity required or your project is rejected

enter image description here

Here's a few pretty good websites with enormous collections to get you started that I found from using google.

I'm happy to update my answer or accept any edits suggesting other websites.




Anything in the intermediate difficulty category should be okay for sure


Credit from comments:


  • 3
    Perhaps also Canon Papercraft
    – Welz
    May 24, 2018 at 16:55
  • @WELZ Thanks and thanks for getting that in a quote box. I tried but I couldn't for some reason. May 24, 2018 at 17:00

This is admittedly more a long comment than an answer.*

I am not going to deal with the exacto knife question as such. The university I work for actually has a CNC exacto knife for students that go all digital**. So when a student asks my guidance, then I would expect them to master either the old school method of using a knife or understand and master the technical aspect of using the cutter. Quite often they can not master either!

This is a general problem in later education. One can not really rely on previous classes to have dealt with skill X, and they either did not or did it too briefly. I have stumbled uppon hundreds if not thousands of such issues.

The basic cause is nearly always the same! Time; Students and teachers alike claim that they dont have time for X right now.

It is not really true that they dont have the time. They just try to delay doing something which seems to be new and thus bothersome. I am dealing with one of these, imposed on myself. Nobody is immune to this. You yourself also use this excuse. But for a teacher this is even more detrimental since by saying you dont have time to do this proper, you are in fact saying it is unimportant to you.

If you can in fact skip this stage then you don't really need it, its one of those nice to have thing then. Remember students have the exact same problem they too have a unlimited number of other things to do, things that are of higher societal priority than what you think. So if you can not arrange time neither can they.

Anyway the way you deal with this is simply by making it as easy to overcome the initial angst of getting started. Make sure that all the tables have big exercise material and tools ready. Make sure all things in the way of taking the tool for a first spin. Make sure cutting mats, knifes, rulers and templates are on the table before the session starts. Just spending 15 minutes on something helps students realize they need the skill.

* Students skills are not really in decline just the reality that they live in is diverging form yours. It is called getting Old.

** You would be surprised how many students choose the exacto knife after I bring the CNC option on the table. ;) They often realize at this point that their digital skills may not in fact be good enough.

  • 1
    Although I AM getting old, I was comparing the skills of my current students to those I had 4 years ago :-) In between, we changed the program around a bit and the way we do things so it's likely related. I think you are definitely right that both teacher and students are responsible for letting stuff like this slip (hence my question!). While we don't have a CNC cutter, I could also work on alternative skills of digital mocking up (which they're not great at either!) Food for thought, thank you!
    – curious
    May 24, 2018 at 13:11
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    @Emilie that sounds about right, in my experience there is a shift in students about every 3-5 years.
    – joojaa
    May 24, 2018 at 13:22

My art classes only covered mat cutting in detail. We were encouraged to use a straight edge and x-acto for the countless paper trimming and mounting, but there was no instruction. "Go to the cutting room where the tools are available. If you need help there are instructors around to show you how to do it."

Scissors and the guillotine paper trimmer were common fare.

I can think of some exercises which may inspire students to get excited about working with their hands:

For historic understanding they can practice actual copy pasting, doing layout with pasted titles, text blocks and graphics, using blades.

Magazine collage cut out with blades.

3D Package design planned and cut from paper. Show them how to do a square, a cylinder, then encourage new package shapes. The surface can have graphics laid in to look like a real shelf package when assembled.

The larger you go use thicker stock, cardboard, mat board, fomecore. These rigid media can be shaped and attached to the package for infinite designs.

Fomecore and other board stock can be cut through 1 side only and folded on the seam to make clean edged shapes.

Cutting out stencils for spray paint or silk screen can provide good cutting practice, especially curved, intricate designs with internal shapes that need to be trimmed out and can only be done with a pointy blade.

Forget the stencil, have them do some colored craft paper silhouette art. Tree sky lines and mountain horizons are easy to cut out and layer.

A good place to start might be cutting out letter forms, perhaps have them assemble some text art in illustrator, print and cut it out(This may teach about serifs and script fonts in a meaningful way - harder to cut out?).

There's a great movement of paper cut out art going on now, you might show them some stuff or get assignment ideas from it.

A good strategy to motivate me were the critiques, where you know your thing is going to be seen by the rest of the class and talked about. I'm sure you know. Also, any of these assignments which require a finished piece of art at the end may inspire pride and encourage them to take up the knife again.

I had to do a lot of cutting for a long time and I don't use x-acto, I use Olfa blades. They are just sharper and the only one that cuts fomecore cleanly while others tend to tear the core.


Answer #2

I noticed joojaa's answer and some comments. I've considered that if you don't have a CNC machine and you're mostly dealing with card stock paper for prototyping you could persuade someone to get your class a cheap $200 plotter like the silhouette cameo or comparable products.

Alot of businesses actually do use this for prototyping. There's a YouTube video somewhere showing a skateboard company and some other companies using it for 3D prototyping.

enter image description here

  • 1
    While that would be a practical answer to solve our issue, most projects we do are too big to be accomodated by this kind of device. We could hypothetically acquire a bigger CNC cutter but in my freelancing experience, packaging agencies don't always have such a deviceso the students would need to be able to fall back on existing manual skills to create prototypes for showcase.
    – curious
    May 24, 2018 at 17:04
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    @Emilie Thanks for the honesty :) I'll go ahead and leave it up incase it helps anyone else though. May 24, 2018 at 17:05
  • 2
    Maybe this is where i link to Humans need not apply
    – joojaa
    May 24, 2018 at 17:07
  • 1
    @joojaa Nice! Can Baxter answer all of my graphic design education related questions? ;D
    – curious
    May 24, 2018 at 17:21
  • 1
    @Emilie who exactly do you think I am?
    – joojaa
    May 24, 2018 at 17:23

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