Article by Gordon Randall Perry
Choosing a product designer: 3 steps to success
First: research You should look around on the web and find product designers that you like and have the capabilities to meet your design needs. Your design needs ought to include design, engineering, documentation and prototype creation as well as branding; usually the firm’s capabilities are listed. You don’t need many design firms; look at a bunch but settle on a few. Getting many can be confusing to the point where it becomes difficult to make a decision. Even if you're working for a large corporation interviewing multiple industrial design firms can be counterproductive; this is advised only if you have sufficient time and budget. If you represent a smaller company or are an individual it's best to limit choices. The web these days has virtually all the choices you will need.
Take a look at the product designer’s portfolio; the portfolio is critical, it should have a number of products that you react positively to. Look for a variety of different kinds of products. The most important point is that you like the designs and that you can relate to the work. Ask yourself would you like the products in their portfolio to be in your home or workplace. If the answer is yes then I think you've got a winner to consider. I can’t stress this enough, you should like what you see. Don't expect that you're going to find everything that relates to what you're going to design but rather that you enjoy the designs you're looking at. Also, take a look at the product designer’s client list and see whether or not they have a broad base of experience. It's not critical that they do but often desirable because if they can do many things it's likely they can help you.
Second: interviews After you find a few product design firms that you like conduct brief telephone interviews and see how personable the designer is and whether you can speak to the principal. If you represent a large company and are looking for a large product design firm that can help your company speaking to a salesman of the design firm can be productive. However, having said that, speaking to the principal of the firm is usually the desirable way to go. Remember you're going to have a personal relationship with this person even for a brief period and you should be comfortable in that relationship. Designing and developing a new product is challenging and requires trial and error. It is possible you may go down some wrong alleys and have to regroup. That sometimes means that there will be frustration along the line and that's why it's so important to be comfortable with the person you're working with. When considering the size of the industrial design firm remember when working with a smaller design firm the advantage is you will always be talking to the people who do the design work.
Third: meet the principal The final step before making a decision is a meeting with a principal of the product design or industrial design firm (they’re really the same thing) if possible. A person to person meeting is best but teleconferences, especially with video, are also productive. When evaluating, in many ways this is like meeting someone at any function. Ask yourself the questions: are they easy to speak to, do they respond well to you, do they seem to know what they're doing. And if there is something that doesn't seem right ask about it and see if you can get a satisfactory answer.
In discussions with the designer ask about the methodology that they will work with. For example I like to start with a series of freehand drawings. Ask the designer to describe the process of design for you and what milestones will be set. Ask about their capabilities and experience as well as the fee and the timing. If they've signed an NDA discuss the project and get the designers input. It may be obvious to say don't expect to get design solutions at this stage but rather get a feel for the designers approach to the problem. In my experience too often I see a potential client so involved with their project that they don't pay too much attention to me, but that's exactly who they should be paying attention to at this point. It's usually advisable to speak to different designers before making a decision but sometimes that process can be curtailed if you really like a designer and their work. Now it's time to make a decision and get the project started. And finally, to jump ahead a bit, once you've made your decision to work with the designer stick with it, let the product designer design, react to you and the project so you can get the most from the process. (But that's the subject of another article: Working with a product designer).