Paper Punk Teaches 3-D Thinking With Paper Building Blocks

New model kits designed by the cofounder of ReadyMade are part origami, part Lego, and 100% recyclable.

Grace Hawthorne presented what she thought was a simple 3-D exercise to her Creative Gym class, a grad-level creativity course she teaches at Stanford’s She showed front-view and side-view drawings of a 3-D object and asked her students to pick which of four 3-D objects the two views represented. “We had engineers, law students, MBAs, neurosurgeons, chemists, Knight journalism fellows,” she remembers. Most of them couldn’t get it right.


The kits encourage “open play,” allowing the maker to remix them.

The designer and cofounder of ReadyMade magazine (which shuttered last week) became fixated on inventing a toy or game which could encourage anyone — from kids to industrial designers — to think more spatially. “I strongly believe that as we increasingly rely on technological tools to discover, seek, and share information, there is also a growing disconnect with the tangible world,” she says. “Making has a magical, transformative power because you’re using your hands to think.” She began prototyping an exercise that could help people solve problems using dimensional thinking. The result is Paper Punk, a system of paper blocks and model kits that are part origami, part Lego, and 100% recyclable.

Scored shapes are punched out from a sheet of cardstock paper and folded according to directions to make the 3-D forms. The shapes are stuck to each other with glue dots and a sheet of stickers allows the maker to add eyes, accessories, and other features to the objects. Each kit comes in a folder with directions for making one of three objects — a dog, a robot, and a car — but Hawthorne says that the kits encourage “open play,” allowing the maker to remix the 16 geometric shapes in four sizes into any creation. “Many of cool looking or collectible toys on the market are pre-played,” she says. “Paper Punk allows the user to make something wholly unique by adorning their creation with provided stickers, selecting patterns on either side, coloring/drawing on the paper shapes, and building whatever they want.”

Even though the kits are paper — they can be disassembled, flattened, and tossed in the recycling bin — Hawthorne felt strongly about creating a sense of permanence with the creations to help teach kids (and adults) to prototype the best solution. “Paper Punk is similar to old-school airplane models because you cannot break apart your creation once the pieces are adhered to each other,” she says. “By committing to your creation, you’re removing the preciousness — not the pride — and facilitating a bias towards action. The thought is that you’ll finish one and make another.” She also thinks that making something out of paper that’s worth keeping around twists the conventional knowledge that all toys must be made out of plastic. “Paper Punk is just paper, but paper reimagined. An everyday material takes on new meaning and then creates new opportunities in viewing the world,” she says. “I harbor the secret hope that people will make Paper Punks to collect and display them like trophies!”

Hawthorne sees boundless opportunity for Paper Punk in education.

Hawthorne (who has a six-year-old) sees boundless opportunity for Paper Punk in education, where the kits can teach basic geometry as it relates to science and engineering, but also bridge the gap to underfunded art programs with a simple, affordable way to make large-scale, collaborative projects. She also eventually wants to launch an open-source library online where people can give “recipes” for how to build specific creations, and even download and print sheets of shapes themselves.

Paper Punk has a Kickstarter project that’s currently pre-selling the kits so Hawthorne can meet her minimum order with the manufacturer. For $20, you’ll get a robot kit and the satisfaction that you’re helping to nurture a new generation of designers.

About the author

Alissa is a design writer for publications like Fast Company, GOOD and Dwell who can most often be found in Los Angeles. She likes to walk, ride the bus, and eat gelato.