The Industrial Designer’s Role in Developing New Products

Published on by John Teel

This is a guest post by industrial designer Christian Theill.

The design of electronic devices almost always requires a multitude of professional skills: electronics, mechanics, production techniques, aesthetics, ergonomics, finance, commerce, communication, marketing and others. The conscious coordination of these disciplines is vital for the success of your project.

Large companies hire specialists from each these fields. But in the case of small businesses, bootstrapped start-ups and private individuals, the situation is very different: generally you alone have only a few of these skills.

NOTE: This is a long, very detailed article so here's a free PDF version of it for easy reading and future reference.

Do you recognize yourself in one of the following scenarios?

  • Your company has a solid commercial position in a specific product sector but you don’t have the technical structure to fully design a new product.
  • You are an electronic designer but you don’t have the commercial experience to package an entire product.
  • You are a private person with a good product idea. You have the economic resources to make things happen but you lack all of the necessary skills to create the product.

In all these cases you will have to integrate your resources using the services of professionals.

What is Industrial Design?

Industrial Design (also called Product Design) is one of the services you will need, and is indispensable when creating a product on an industrial scale.

Industrial Design deals with the aesthetic, ergonomic, constructive and economic definition of the product.

If your product is an electronic device, it is not a matter of “dressing” an already existing mechanism that works on its own with a “box”, as was the case with the radios of the 1950s.

Today, Industrial Design means the integration of all the components into a functional object that is aesthetically pleasing, constructively reasonable, economically advantageous and easy to use.

A well designed plastic shell has the important function of containing the electronic and mechanical components.

On the outside, the same shell interacts with the user, who draws tactile sensations and visual emotions and appreciates the ease and pleasantness of use.

This indicates that Industrial Design has been seriously involved in the planning process of the whole appliance.

Some designers have completely disrupted the schemes, habits and expectations of the market, revolutionizing the interpretation of an object. The ultimate example of this is Steve Jobs who completely re-designed how we listen to music with the iPod.

With a good design you want to consider both the practical and aesthetic aspects of your enclosure.

How to Select Your Designer

Anyone can call themselves a “Designer”, so it’s important for you to have a clear idea of the type of service you need. This way you can find the professional best suited to your needs.

The aesthetic evaluation of a product is subjective. A good designer has their own recognizable aesthetic fingerprint, so examine their previous work. If they seem consistent, meet your personal taste, and are in line with your commercial targets, than move forward with hiring them.

Stylists

Some designers deal mainly with “style”, or the aesthetic, emotional, artistic definition of the object. But if they don’t also take care of the technical, constructive and productive aspects of your product, you will have a problem.

In addition to the designer, you will also need to hire an engineering company. Being conceived without technical/productive knowledge, the engineered product can deviate a lot from the original design, or it can be produced only with significant additional costs.

Industrial Designers

Good Industrial Designers take care of both the aesthetic definition and the engineering of the product. The great advantage is that the aesthetic and technical aspects are linked together throughout the entire design process.

Before choosing a designer, investigate these points:

Does the aesthetic language of the designer attract you, does it meet your taste and does it correspond to the commercial target of your product?

Is the designer able to chose the most suitable technologies for your type of product and at your expected production volume? Do they have experience with this and can they manage costs?

Is the designer able to manage the prototyping and can they indicate reliable suppliers for the realization of the molds?

Ask the designer for concrete costs of molds and incidental expenses in previous projects. The economic management of a project is as important as the aesthetic and technical factors.

Young designers

Many designers are still young beginners, but with incredible willpower. Listen to them carefully! If you discover in a young designer some of the skills described above, consider investing in them.

Of course, inexperienced designers cost less, but you may have to spend a little more to supplement their poor experience, or correct mistakes. But their unique vision may be your very best investment. Be open minded and vigilant.

Design firms

Design firms typically bring together, under one roof, all the necessary skills for developing a product. This includes styling, engineering, marketing and other areas.

You can assume that the various departments of the design firm will work together to deliver a ‘turn-key’, or finished, product.

Hiring a firm is generally the most expensive route to go. On the other hand, they may have certifications and references that are far superior to others.

Keep in mind that it may be more difficult to establish a direct and personal relationship with the designer/s responsible for your project. They can also be replaced before your product is completed. Here, you have a relationship with the company, and not with the individuals doing the design work.

“Star Designers”

In some sectors of the market the “signature” of a well-known designer has great commercial potential. Undoubtedly this can be a great marketing aid for your new product. It is up to you to evaluate costs, quality of service and marketing advantages.

Technicians and engineers

Many technicians or engineers specialized in the field of plastic molding are able to design an enclosure for your product.

The result will be technically functional, but it is unlikely that they will give the product that personality, expression and style that is typical for the designer’s approach to the project. They have different professional training.

But as some designers are also very competent in engineering, so there are engineers who are also excellent designers. To assess their skills, simply apply what has already been said for Industrial Designers.

Working with an Industrial Designer

Trust

Your relationship with the designer is essentially a relationship of trust, just like the one with your doctor, lawyer, accountant or architect.

To get the best performance out of a designer you have to give them all the feedback that you have. They must be aware of all the technical, functional and regulatory characteristics that your product must have.

It is not unusual to have them sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement). You never want to hide parts of your project from the designer.

Personal relationship

Mutual sympathy is not essential but it helps a lot. Mutual esteem and respect are indispensable.

Your designer must know you well or at least represent your tastes and intentions.

Design is only partly a technical discipline, sensitivity and, of course, trust counts a lot. Tell the designer what you want to achieve and what emotional elements you expect. If the designer is nearby, meet in person.

But don’t forget that the idea, the initiative and the money you are going to spend, are yours alone.

Professional relationship

Request a detailed quote, but also be aware that new elements can emerge during the design process. Staying in continuous contact with the designer will always determine the serenity and efficiency of the consultancy.

Try to create and foster dialogue and exchange between the various specialists involved in the project. Always keep in mind that none of the disciplines involved in your project can bring the product to completion alone.

If, for example, you have developed an electronic circuit, involve your designer before a final circuit burn. Very often the position you have provided for a display or a switch can be improved in a global view of the user/device approach (“UI” User Interface Design).

In this first phase the shape of the PCB can easily be modified or reduced if the designer indicates good functional, ergonomic or aesthetic reasons.

The same applies to the choice of components that are in direct contact with the user of the device: for example, there are many types of graphic displays, touchscreens, connectors or keyboards that integrate completely differently into the outer shell.

Communicate continuously with your designer by giving them feedback and challenging them. Answer sincerely any objections. Make sure your designer adheres to any agreements, related services and timing.

But also accept that any modifications or changes on your part will entail higher costs. Also, clarify with your designer any regulatory, safety and weather resistance issues, before they make the first sketch, since the design approach could change radically.

What to Expect from Your Designer

Professionalism

If you pay a designer a suitable fee you can expect compliance with the agreed upon times, availability of discussion, close collaboration with the other specialists involved in the project and proactive attitude.

Furthermore you must expect presentations which are intelligible to you and, of course, all the 3D models and drawings necessary for prototyping, production, technical documentation, patents etc.

Ability to express and communicate

Initially the designer will propose a “concept”, that is one or more solutions in the form of sketches, drawings or 3D models. The more precise the inputs you gave them, the more these first sketches will approach your expectations and the final product.

From these first proposals you will be able to understand if the designer is able to give a recognizable, pleasant and positive identity to your product and if that product could be a valid vehicle to promote the image of your company.

The presentation of the first sketches is the best time to discuss formal, functional and constructive aspects.

It is important to “freeze” some dimensional and constructive aspects in this phase because they determine not only the subsequent executive work of the designer but also the layout of the PCB and any other product components. Any future change of mind will be time consuming and expensive.

Knowledge of the market and related regulations and techniques

Many designers have experience exclusively in one or a few product sectors. If you find one who has already worked in your sector you are lucky. You will easily see how they understood and integrated into their projects the particular difficulties, regulations and market expectations in that sector.

But if the designer comes from experiences in other sectors, don’t discard them. Of course, if one is an expert on sofas and armchairs, and your project is a medical device (or vice versa), be skeptical.

But if your project involves medical equipment, and the designer comes from the design of electric home appliances (or vice versa), then definitely still consider them.

They will be used to working with a multitude of regulations, restrictions, production and market conditions which are similar to the ones of your sector. Technically the two fields are similar.

Technical competence and experience

Depending on the planned production volume, the applied technology and materials will be fundamentally different. Some projects involve the production of a few dozen specimens, others hundreds and others again can reach thousands or even millions of pieces.

Knowing your market estimate is essential for the designer because, how the product will be constructed depends on how it is manufactured. If the designer knows your sales expectations, they will advise you on the best way to go.

If your product is designed for mass production and you only sell a few hundred pieces, you will have to spread the investment of expensive molds over those few units.

If you are not sure of your future market, you can start with a few hundred pieces investing in less expensive molds. If the market demand proves to be much higher, you will have lost nothing.

Payment Methods

The compensation that the professional will ask you can be articulated in various ways. Whatever the form you choose, it is always a good rule to set the agreements in writing in a letter of assignment.

Flat fee

Normally the designer will ask you for a flat fee, estimating his/her time commitment for their services. They may partly be considering the commercial prestige of your future product, and the prestige of your brand.

His/her hourly fee at the base of this calculation will probably be proportional to their experience. But if you are a start-up or a small company, the quote will surely be different from the one reserved for multinational companies.

At the time of the assignment you will have to pay a down payment of at least 20% – 30% of the total cost, and subsequent payments must be established based on the progress of the project. The final balance has to be paid at the conclusion and approval of the project.

To avoid disputes it is good practice to agree on exact times and to divide the project into various stages (draft, prototyping, executive for production etc.) and related payment tranches.

Keep in mind, however, that modifications and changes in the course of the work may lead to changes in the agreed remuneration.

This is the most widespread and particularly suitable method when you do not intend to share product revenues with the designer.

Royalties

Another form of compensation is royalties. If the designer is convinced of your ability to bring your product to market, they can offer you this option. You pay them a down payment (expense reimbursement) to get established, and they will have a percentage calculated on the net sales turnover of the product.

This percentage generally varies between 3% and 10% according to the contribution of the Industrial Design to the global planning. The designer can ask for a guaranteed minimum annual for the first years of production to ensure their costs are fully covered.

This formula has the great advantage that you have to invest a relatively modest sum before actually selling your product. If the product sells well (also thanks to its good design) the advantage will be both yours and the designer’s.

They will therefore endeavor to provide you with the best service. But what if other aspects of your product that do not fall within the designer’s competence are not up to the mark (e.g. electronics, marketing etc.) and you do not reach sales forecasts?

In that case the designer loses out. They must therefore have valid reasons to trust your business will succeed.

Flat fee + Royalties

This is a combined form of the previous two and is particularly suitable for start-ups with little liquidity.

Only one third of the budgeted fee is paid to the designer during the design process (to be divided into stages and related payment deadlines).

The remaining two thirds are paid, from the start of production onwards, in the form of royalties and in any case within two or three years from the conclusion of the project (to be agreed).

If at the end of this deadline the royalties have not reached the agreed upon fee you will have to pay the difference. If the product sells well you are both happy.

Compared to the flat fee, the advantage to this type of arrangement is that you will not have to pay off a large part of the compensation before you have profits, but you will have to pay royalties as long as the product remains on the market.

Compared to the pure payment of royalties, with this form it will be easier for a designer to accept the risky commitment of a start-up. A designer will receive their compensation, although very diluted over time, and in return they participate in a possible product success.

Designer – Partner

Another option is to involve the designer as a partner in your business and to evaluate his performance as a company share. This means that an agreed share of your business is formally assigned to the designer, and therefore also part of the revenues.

This may be convenient for you both, but the designer anticipates his/her entire work without revenue until the product generates profits.

Fixed and continuous consulting

If your company needs continuous and reoccurring Industrial Design interventions a very practical and lean formula is a continuous consulting contract. The designer is at your disposal for a set number of hours and is paid with a fixed monthly fee.

In this case you must have full confidence in your designer’s abilities. The advantages are that you avoid the loss of time of recurring quotes and you have the attention of your designer for any urgent needs.

Potential Issues

It may happen that the project seems perfect but the finished product disappoints you. The reason can be both lack of experience or real mistakes of the designer, as well as poor execution of the tools.

Planning errors

Even the best designers can make mistakes that involve unforeseen costs (e.g. interference between two components, inaccessibility of fixing components, wrong draft angles, difficulty of assembling etc.). Normally, whoever has technically designed the product is also responsible for damages and additional costs. A project review by another professional can help reduce risks.

Bad execution

A poor quality of the printed pieces is often due to a superficial choice of suppliers or excessive parsimony. The cheapest molds often do not reach an acceptable quality level. Evaluate with the designer the quality/price ratio of each supplier.

Unsuitable designer

If during an early phase of the project you have the feeling that the designer’s proposals do not match your expectations you still have time to avoid further damage and look for another designer. At a later stage of the project this will become more expensive.

Conclusion

The Industrial Designer is an indispensable consultant in the design process of your new project. In the ideal case they not only have artistic skills but are able to combine all the aesthetic, functional, ergonomic, constructive, industrial and economic aspects of your project.

Involving a good Industrial Designer in your team greatly benefits the quality and cost-effectiveness of your product and the image of your company.

Don’t forget to reserve an “Industrial Design” item in your project budget. It will cost less in the long wrong compared to the economic damages that you will encounter if you try to do without it.

And remember that it is essential to involve your industrial designer from the beginning of the design process. Design is not an accessory discipline to beautify your product, but rather integrates all the functional, constructive and aesthetic aspects.

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Read more member comments about the Hardware Academy.

If you really want to take your learning to the next level with engineering support, private consulting, in-depth training courses, and a thriving community of entrepreneurs and experts to help you bring your product to market then check out the Hardware Academy.

Here's what one member has to say: "​The Hardware Academy is where you want to be when you want get serious about bringing a product to market. A community where invested engineers, entrepreneurs, and others can exchange information and get feedback is immensely valuable. Backing that up with trusted referrals, courses, and best-practices is exactly what someone looking to develop a hardware product needs." - Mike Morena

Read more member comments about the Hardware Academy.

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Christian TheillJohn TeelPaul WellsDave Millman Recent comment authors
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Paul Wells
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Paul Wells

Thanks once again John for another great article. I spent most of 2019 progressing my product with the help of a design company of the type you have described and if you’ll allow me I’ll throw in a few comments of my own.

It took three attempts to find a design company who would even take on my idea. In each case I had to spend a day visiting their offices demonstrating and discussing the idea in person. Only the third company even gave me a response.

Aside from the industrial design, the design company had contact with a patent lawyer who proved to be valuable in establishing freedom to operate. The design company also handled design registration for a reasonable cost.

I would conclude that the design company were a catalyst for getting my project started, particularly in my case of having no experience whatsoever in the design of a physical product. They taught me a lot about materials, manufacturing methods, assembly and managing production costs.

However, the final spend on the design company was about three times the initial quote due to multiple reworks. It is not surprising if you think about it – it is not in the design company’s interest to see the project come to a timely conclusion. So about three months ago I dropped renewing contracts with the design company and hired separate hardware/firmware, enclosure and packaging designers directly to finish the design.

Given another run at 2019, I’d engage a design company to get the project off the ground quickly, but switch over to hiring specialists directly once all the big design problems have been cracked.

John Teel
Admin

Thanks Paul! This is fantastic feedback, thank you for sharing! The final cost being 3x the initial quote is very typical, and is the risk with paying hourly. Everything is always harder, and takes longer than anyone thinks, even experienced engineers!

Christian Theill
Guest

Thank you Paul, interesting feedback.

As you describe your experience with a design firm and the difficulty to find even one who would work on your idea, it is likely that the initial idea was good but quite vague, and only a gradual approach could lead to a real product idea. So it is normal and correct that with every step of maturation of the project also the esteem of the designing cost has grown. You can’t expect a precise quote for a vague idea.
I don’t think design firms stretch times having “no interest to see the project come to a timely conclusion”, for my experience only lawyers do that 🙂
But you confirm the advice in my article that the relationship with a design firm is much less personal and empathetic than the one with a professionist. I as a professionist prefer to conlude my job in a precisely scheduled timeline, avoid surprises to my clients and see them satisfied. Because my greatest satisfaction is when they call me for the second project…

This year I had three requests from start-ups:

One from the US, precise inputs, precise quote, good mutual feeling, but in the end they prefer a local designer. So it goes…(Vonnegut)

The second one here in Italy: two electronic engineers working for a company which used to be my client years ago, decide to put into production their idea. They know everything about production, technologies and have even good commercial connections. They are aware of their lack of product design and have little money. I propose them the formula “flat fee + royalties”. Next month the first (and probably last) prototype will be ready and during 2020 their first medical device will be sold.

The third one is a private man with a nice idea, ignoring anything about design, manufacturing, commerce. In July I quote him a first step to make his vague idea into a first prototype. He agrees, and a few weeks later we have a tangible prototype but not yet a possible product. Step by step, in the following months the project matures, at November the fourth prototype is perfect, the supplier’s quotes conferm the cost expectations. My cost, compared to the first quote is 1/10 (!). No problem, the process was transparent, the payment formula is “flat fee + royalties” and now the main effort will be the commercialisation.

In all these cases transparency, confidence and professional honesty were the main elements to promise success.

Dave Millman
Guest

The last startup case study (the private man) highlights how little some of understand the role of industrial design. Can you tell us what were the biggest changes that you made from the first prototype to the fourth?

Dave Millman
Guest

Great article about the “missing link” between electronic design and manufacturing!

Christian Theill
Guest

Thanks Dave, the “missing link” has been understood many years ago by the “bigs”. We “smalls” have to understand it better, all of us, concerting our individual resources…