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A guide to buying design

22 February 2010

An insight into working out how much you need, how much it will cost, and who to use.

Austen Miller, Senior Partner, 3form Design

I am aware that there are altruistic reasons for commissioning product design, but for most, the motivation is strictly business. Let’s be real, if life hadn’t wired us to value money then the downturn in the world economy would not be such big news. So let’s agree that it is a business need to realise an idea into a profitable product that has you reading this guide.

You are also likely to be of the mind that if your product is to be successful then it will need to be designed. But beyond this I stop pretending to be a mind reader for everyone seems to have a different understanding of how design can help them and how to integrate it into their business plan. This is not because everyone’s needs are different but because thoughts about design in business are not universally shared. I have a lot of opportunities in my work to see the different values that are put on product design and I have also seen which ones work best. I want to pass on my knowledge so that you too can enjoy the experience that leads to a new product.

What is product design?

I don’t have to be Derren Brown to realise that we all associate design with art. We can all equally see that art is a long way from the technological three dimensional goods that we crave to buy. Although it is the artistic attributes of a product that lures us all, it is the combination of art, science and technology that enables product designers to visualise, analyse and ultimately create their ideas.

My first advice is that  you should not be looking for an artist but a partner who has the ability to apply technical knowledge creatively. You need to find innovators who have business sense, and engineers with the fashionable awareness to do it with style.

How much do you need?

Please don’t read this as “how little can I get a way with”. If you do, I have to advise caution. Product design is a process. Every decision that is made along the way has an impact somewhere else. The choice of colour and type of plastic may get defined for two wholly different reasons; one because of aesthetic need, and the other due to strength of component issues. The final outcome some weeks later, a conformity failure on a baby product due to this particular colour pigment leaching from this particular base material. At every stage choices will make impacts on downstream events; there are risk assessments, there are conformity standards, and there are economic factors relating to the final build cost. If this sounds like a lot to undertake then maybe you need not be thinking in terms of buying a bit of design but buying a whole production team.

I have successful clients that do just that. They see more than ever that design is a process, and trust my team to take ownership of the design through manufacturing. Not even switching off the process once the product is being sold.

If you fancy yourself as bit of a DIY enthusiast or you are already supported in managing the process yourself then of course you need to be able to buy the skills as and when you need them. To do this effectively you need to be aware of the implications that any choices you make may have.  Clearly those teams with a broad understanding of the whole process will be best placed to give the soundest advice. From the beginning this advice should help you decide what pieces you need to buy and what you can try and do without.

But don’t be too rigid in your mindset; the product design process, by its nature, is vulnerable to change as soon as it begins. By this I mean that you may not know you need patent drawings when you started because the idea originally had no novelty. But once the designers got going on it they were offering stuff you never even thought of.  Or maybe, you may make the decision to reduce material cost by optimising some components. If this was not included in the original scope of work then be prepared to pay for the analysis in order to save money later on.

It is prudent to budget for paying more than the original scope of work due to design being a process and not a commodity.  However, no variation to the process should be without commercial benefit to the client.

How much will it cost?

I have already suggested that your motivation to start the process of design is money. The business justification can be as a simple as a calculating the number of units that could be sold less the cost of producing. The more that value is, the greater the urgency. After all, we know that the window of opportunity is closing as soon as the idea is conceived. Naturally this alludes to the first set of questions how quickly can I have a design and how much will it cost.

These two questions are inextricably linked by the axiom “time is money”.  Design, being largely time based, will always invite the question “what is the daily rate?” As an indicator more applicable to freelanced individuals, this is nothing more than a measure. Without the number of hours this value is limited in meaning. In a team, for instance, the hourly rate is a variable as different skill sets command different values. For this reason the fixed rate for an agreed deliverable is the only certain way of evaluating prices.

So what does it tell you when you get 3 quotes in? Do you go with cheapest?

The first problem is that although you think you have offered the same brief, the way that companies go about their work varies. The business models will be as different as their abilities. Design is not a commodity that is readily defined by a value. Individual interpretation is at play and in order for you to understand it you need to do more than look at the bottom line.

Only you know how much value there is in the business model. Only you know what value there is in getting the design you need. I often ask what the budget is only to be met with a look that seems to suggest that I am naïve asking about another player’s poker hand. The honest matter is that design needs to be tailored to suit the business needs.  If you are not going to divulge the development budget then you have to expect the designer to guess how valuable it is to you.  If the quote looks too heavy then they probably felt that to do the product proud they needed to do so much more than you were prepared to pay for.

If you are going to get it right, find someone you trust, who you can work with, and devise a program of work that balances the need with the budget.

How do you choose who to work with?

By now you should be thinking of product design in terms of a process. A process that is capable of evolving. If costs and timeframes are not to get completely out of hand you need to trust who you are going to work with.

Do not simply be wooed by pretty pictures and glossy portfolios. You are not looking for an artist. You need someone who has the strength of knowledge not to lead you into trouble. You need to know they have a portfolio of polished designs but you also need to understand and believe in the process, the plan. The plan should demonstrate their understanding of what you need and how to get there. The journey should have a route map made up of individual packages of work; each having a clear purpose, a deliverable, a fixed cost, and a delivery time. I always tell my team to think of it in terms of rock climbing. As you climb you put a safety stops into the wall. If you fall off the wall you never fall so far as to cause trauma.  Each of these safety stops is a convenient place to interact with the client to make sure that you are happy with the journey so far and be involved with the reasoning and direction for the next leg of the journey.

Team or talented individual?

For the individual working from a site with limited overheads there is no reason for him not to be charging less. This you might think is a very attractive solution and be wondering why is there any business case for product design companies with larger overheads? The benefits in paying for design teams are very straight forward. Creativity is healthiest when ideas are debated and alternative knowledge is shared. The individual working on their own is unwittingly starved of the variety that feeds the creative mind with new thought

Teams not only offer a greater diversity of knowledge and opinion but they also offer you the security of numbers to keep a project going when an individual may be having an off day.

If you value the team approach you need to be sure that the use of the word team is not a euphemism for “bums on seats”; lots of designers individually pumping out projects as multiples of an hourly rate. Teams tend to have structure, the project being overseen by a senior more experienced figure with individual designers of mixed skill sets working through the ideas. For teams that recognise their own failings as creatives to be administrators, they have account managers who champion the client and make sure the project is efficient.

If your only point of contact is the designer that is working on your project then maybe your not getting the team involvement you thought you were getting from going to a firm.

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