Article by Gordon Randall Perry

Working with a product designer: 3 steps to success

First: establish your parameters. After you’ve chosen a designer (see Choosing a Product Designer), consider the product you’re going to design, develop and engineer and ask yourself how will you (or your company) sell it and does it extend your brand or establish it. Extending a brand is fairly straightforward whereas if you create a new brand and correspondingly a new product that represents that brand it's more challenging because you're creating parameters for both. Fortunately, often enough a great new product will define the brand (though branding is not the subject of this article). Specify your product as best as you can because you should tell the designer about it in detail. Research the marketplace you will be in thoroughly or have that done for you by a research firm or the designer. When you have this information and you’ve established parameters, you and your designer can begin to talk about the product.

Second: talk design with your designer. This should be an open and frank discussion in which you share all your information about the product. Anything you say to the designer will be an asset to them. I've been told over and over by my clients that they didn't want to inhibit the creative process by telling me too much information. This is a mistake. Industrial designers thrive on information: about the target market, what's already out there, the parameters of your product and brand, what the design challenges are and how you plan to be successful with your product. We also want to know what existing products capture your imagination. The innovation we create can be centered on the form, function or structure of the product and what you're looking for will influence that focus. What helps me to design better is to understand what my client is looking for as well as what the market requires. Ask the designer for a proposal with milestones. When I design I like to offer potential design solutions that run from evolutionary to revolutionary in scope, in other words, give my client clear choices in the design steps I've laid out.

Third: have the designer design. The designer might take a few days or a few weeks to come back to you with their conceptual design approaches. We call this design ideation and it's based on what the client has told us and research. Each designer has their own approach, for example, I like to start with hand-drawn sketches, other designers might start with computer drawings or virtual solids. Sometimes foam models are the right place to start. If you're not used to looking at drawings of products it might be surprising to see your ideas expressed as two-dimensional images whether in the computer or on paper. You can touch foam models but they’re still abstract representations. Take your time, look at the designs carefully, in fact, I recommend considering them overnight and writing down your impressions and questions.

When you discuss the designs with your product designer don't hesitate to ask questions, ask for clarifications and input. This is particularly important as the next step in the evolution of the product after images is usually the creation of some sort of a three-dimensional mockup. And the kind of mockup depends on how well developed the product is, which brings us to engineering. Although product engineering starts at the beginning of the design process it is more fully realized and refined when the product becomes a three-dimensional reality. Unless you are an engineer yourself or part of an engineering staff, you need to rely on the product design firm to engineer your product. Along with the other aspects of design, engineering focuses on the critical elements of the product’s functionality and designing the product for manufacturing. The outcome of transforming an image into a three-dimensional product incorporating engineering might mean anything from producing a proof of concept mockup (does your concept work?), creating a moldable virtual solid using CAD of a kitchen appliance cover or creating a complete set of production-ready virtual solids for a new medical product (all of which might be modeled by a 3D printer).

Successful engineering is often difficult to assess which is why models (approximate simulations of the product) and prototypes (accurate working simulations of the product) are so important. Also, be prepared to have one or more iterations of the prototypes made as your design is tested and refined. Ask the designer to explain how the product will be produced and assembled. Speak to vendors. If you are looking for a complete set of production-ready electronic files for your product, be sure to specify that when first working with the designer. Even though I have separated design and engineering in this article for the sake of clarity, the reality is that both are highly integrated with each other. A good industrial designer will be thinking about how to manufacture the shape of a cover they are creating on paper or how to layout the correct ergonomics of the way the product will be held as they’re drawing it. Choose your product design firm or industrial design firm (they’re really the same thing) with care; work closely with them in the way that is outlined and trust that they will bring all of the disparate elements of the industrial design process together successfully. In conclusion, if you've made the decision to hire a designer it's productive to follow their guidance.