Engineering idea generation is a critical part of new product development and physical models are one tool used in this phase of design. Unfortunately, few guidelines about the effective use of physical models to support idea generation exist. The advantages and disadvantages of physical models need to be clarified so that engineers know when and where to implement them effectively. Previous literature indicates there is potential for design fixation on physical prototypes. This limits the solutions considered. In contrast, other recommendations encourage the extensive use of physical models and the psychological literature indicates that physical representations have the potential to lead to more feasible design by supporting designers’ mental models of physical phenomena. This study evaluates these questions with a between-subjects experiment with four conditions, sketching only, building, building & testing, and constrained sketching. No evidence for design fixation is observed. The results show that physical models supplement designers’ mental models, thereby leading to higher quality ideas (fraction of functional ideas). This result shows a potential way of improving designer’s innovation by strategically implementing fast and cheap prototyping methods.

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