Matching Your Product Design Requirements with the Ideal Industrial Design Company

How do you identify the ideal industrial design company as a partner for your next new product design? This decision could have a long-lasting significant impact on your company’s future sales and profits, placing you at the number one spot in your market or plummeting you into financial ruin. The answer to this question is not simple and requires you to consider several factors specific to your product development needs. A list of the top ten considerations is provided below:

Qualifications versus project requirements

Before you begin searching for an industrial design (ID) company you should have compiled and prioritized a list of critical requirements specific to your product. Depending upon the size of your company, the list should be shared amongst key project managers with various critical project responsibilities who might also be involved in the decision-making process. Although there are thousands of independent industrial design companies ranging from hundreds of one person studios to a few with hundreds of employees, the selection process can be overwhelming. Choosing an Industrial design company is based on recommendations made by individuals who’ve had firsthand experience with them designing similar products to your company’s. Although great recommendations provide an excellent basis for selecting a company, they will not provide you with a broad overview of viable candidates. Two other alternative means of searching for a firm include publications and the Internet. You may read an insightful article written by someone from an industrial design company and decide to contact them or an article could have profiled the firm. Internet searches based on specific key words or dedicated search websites also provide excellent means of identifying a range of industrial design companies which might be great candidates for your project. Reviewing a design firm’s website will provide you with a general impression of their design sensibilities, values and capabilities as they compare to your company’s requirements.

Compatibility & design methodology

After a short list of potentially viable industrial design companies has been created, informal telephone discussions with company principles or project managers should be completed by one or more select project managers. These unrehearsed interviews can be extremely revealing if the right questions are asked and the interviews are conducted critically. Questions should be structured to reveal the design firm’s methodology, major strengths and problem-solving techniques. In addition, the conversation should uncover corporate culture and personalities of key top-level designers who will be managing the project. It’s essential for all contributors involved in the project to share common values such as integrity, objectivity and optimism. If the design team is friendly and cooperative, information will be generously shared amongst all contributors ensuring an efficient pace of development.

Reputation – references

A great reputation is earned by providing excellent service and outstanding design solutions. A great reputation is acquired through hard work and placing quality design solutions at the top of an industrial design company’s list of priorities. Reputations can be supported and verified by several legacies, a few of which are listed below:

  • People– Individuals who have worked with the design company in question should be called and interviewed. This can be a very reliable resource.
  • Letters of recommendation – Although letters of recommendation are impressive, they should be considered more as an advertising tool versus a reliable endorsement.
  • Industry authority and recognition – Reputable design companies are often cited in publications with comments made by principles of that organization or articles written by a company representative. Expertise in specific areas is established by presentations and articles contributed by company officials.
  • Awards – Design awards are another excellent indication of an industrial design company’s credibility and recognition in the industry.

These are a few of the legacies directly attributable to a company’s reputation. The most reliable however is interviewing two to three people who have worked with the firm in question. Although this is the most time-consuming and difficult to schedule, it does provide a grassroots insight into the design firm.

Experience in your market

Experience is always a great asset for any job candidate. Experience can also be a double-edged sword since it might stymie innovation due to “past experience”. However, in most cases experience in a market with a product is usually extremely beneficial for many reasons. High levels of experience provide a solid foundation upon which a product can be designed. It minimizes the investment in discovery and helps the team avoid common pitfalls associated with a naive development team. Experienced managers and designers can focus their attention on subtler design considerations. Their familiarity with user needs, materials, manufacturing requirements and regulatory conformity improves their chances of delivering a viable design solution. No matter how much experience an industrial design company may claim, they should be challenged with intelligent poignant questions to verify their current staff can perform to your expectations.

Years in business/company history

Company history is another testament for a design company’s qualifications and viability as a potential design resource for your next product. A forty-year track record is much more impressive than a five-year track record. If an industrial design company has managed to successfully stay in business for forty years, it has proven to withstand the numerous economic cycles, business relationships and employee changes that occurred throughout that period. The credibility of an older long-established firm is higher than a younger firm, even if the younger firm has designed more products. This statement assumes that all the other qualifications are equal. Newer companies are still sifting through changing staffs, learning about business and building their design knowledge base. They are typically more volatile and less stable then older firms. Their experience and product design experience are obviously limited as a company simply because of limited history. These restrictions will ultimately affect program management and design methodology.

Cost and contract terms

Before any official business is conducted between a design firm and a client, both parties must agree on cost of services, the services provided and the terms of the agreement, otherwise referred to as a contract. Although costs for design services is typically not the number one deciding factor for selecting an industrial design company, it does remain an important consideration in the decision-making process. Costs for services should be evaluated based on the value of services provided by the design firm versus actual design cost or prestige of the firm. What does value mean?  Value is the cost associated with the quality of specific services provided. Although this is a difficult parameter to quantify, it can be easily quantified with a trial evaluation. After a contract or proposal is submitted by a potential design company, a modified agreement can be structured between both parties to limit the scope of work to a very specific set of tasks. This evaluation project should be planned by experienced program managers to verify the design firm’s ability to work as part of your company’s project team. The elapsed time should be limited to a week or one-month maximum and the budget should also be limited. This exercise will enable both parties to get acquainted and understand each other’s culture. Smaller projects may not warrant this level of time or investment and can be limited to one or two days of intensive interaction.

Clients should clearly understand the terms and conditions contained in a contract. Is the contract based on a fixed cost, estimated cost or time and materials? If the cost is fixed or estimated, what are the terms and conditions? Unscrupulous design firms will add surcharges for any minor deviation from the original contract driving up total costs to more than triple the original quote. Are there any performance guarantees, accountability or assurances that the deliverables will comply with specifications? What are the limitations of error and omissions? What are the policies for approving submitted work? These questions represent only a small fraction of the numerous considerations that must be accounted for when reviewing a contract.

In summary, reputable industrial design firms will be held accountable for their work. They will not submit endless invoices for every minor change in scope. Reputable industrial design firms will become an integral part of their client’s development team cooperatively functioning as major asset to the program. A standard policy for high-quality firms is maintaining excellent communication with their clients at every level of a project, including changes in scope and billing charges.

Communication and project management

Effective communication is essential for successfully managing and executing a product development program. Although this may be blatantly obvious, it is ironically poorly implemented in most product design programs, especially by outsourced industrial design companies. Reputable design firms diligently maintain comprehensive records and frequently update key people on the product development team with critical information. Effective project management requires all participants to understand the big picture and share a common vision of the proposed final design solution. This unified perspective is attained by communicating the project objectives and convincing the team that the requirements are essential for a successful product introduction. Typically, as designs progress new information, problems and opportunities present themselves, requiring the original specifications to be modified. These changes must often include many voices to objectively weigh trade-offs before critical modifications in product specifications are made. Great project management and communication require the design firm to assume a leadership role in identifying these crucial moments, then conveying the information to the client. It’s the responsibility of the industrial design company to verify their client is aware of critical design decisions and that they agree with the project direction. These decisions not only affect the final product but also the schedule and development budget.

Effective, well-documented communication provides the entire team with a historic legacy of the project. It minimizes confusion, misunderstanding, bad decisions and costly rework by clearly identifying facts to the right individuals. It’s therefore vital for you to verify how the design firm you are considering communicates with their clients throughout a project. How do they document changes in the scope of work, modifications to product specifications or approvals of concepts?

Expertise and capabilities

The fundamental value of any industrial design company is ultimately based on their expertise, capabilities and core competencies. Every design firm has a signature that is represented in its designs, type of service and overall design approach or methodology. Some design firms are well known for trendy designs and styling, others are more technically inclined, some excel in human factors and there are those who have strengths in marketing and branding. It’s important for you to connect with a design firm whose culture is compatible with your company’s and whose expertise is ideally suited to your project requirements. For example, selecting a trendy consumer-focused design firm to design a highly complex medical device is not a good idea. The design concepts may look very stylish, but the designs will suck. A design firm with a proven track record in human factors research and a highly experienced engineering team would be a much more appropriate fit. Some design firms include a large staff of engineers in various disciplines ranging from mechanical engineering to electrical and software development. Although one-stop shopping may be appealing, it may not be the best decision because the cost of retaining a staff of top-level engineers is very high, providing you with second- or third-rate engineers to design your product. It’s advisable to prioritize your project requirements, objectively assess your internal resources and contract with a design firm with exceptional expertise in those areas missing from your team.

Honesty & integrity

All industrial design companies have one thing in common, they all claim to be the best. Very few however discuss or promote their integrity and honesty. These two words represent the foundation of all business transactions but ironically are rarely broadcasted or promoted as important criteria for successful business partnerships. It’s difficult to assess the integrity of a design firm but since it’s not represented in websites, company portfolios or contracts. However, it can be evaluated by acute observation and asking carefully crafted questions. These two important qualities affect everything from the moment a contract is signed to the moment the last check is endorsed. A design firm conducting business with high morals and integrity will clearly define the tasks to be completed during each stage of design. They will accept responsibility for their work and provide assurances that the work will comply with your expectations. An honest industrial design company will not surprise their clients with unexpected surcharges or create endless excuses for project delays.  An honest firm will also create honest designs which express a product based on its use, the end-user and its function. Industrial design companies that maintain a high level of integrity also tend to also be more flexible in their workflow. They will free express opinions in the best interests of their client’s needs which may not necessarily coincide with upper management’s direction or political pressures within an organization. These openly transparent policies are directly derived from honest business practices. Another major benefit of these policies is a very high level of creativity and innovation. Neither of these attributes can be fully appreciated without uninhibited, fearless, fluid thinking.

Company size and staff

Finally, the last consideration is company size and staff. In short, bigger is NOT better! Bigger is simply bigger. Project managers and middle management within medium to large corporations tend to gravitate toward larger industrial design companies because they feel safer with a larger firm. The average person thinks a larger firm is more established, they have more resources, and they have more to lose if things go wrong. A matter of fact none of these misconceptions is true. A larger firm may or may not be as well established as a smaller firm with a much longer history. Although a larger firm will have a higher body count, it doesn’t necessarily mean the staff is highly skilled, competent or experienced. Higher overhead and operational expenses may decrease a design firms asset value. Larger design firms are easier to identify due to more aggressive marketing and sales campaigns which is one of the main reasons they identified as a candidate for a project. High quality, high performance, smaller boutique design firms are much more difficult to spot and are often overlooked. Ironically a smaller highly experienced design firm typically provides much more value than a much larger firm.

Smaller boutique design firms with two to five highly skilled designers and engineers work much more efficiently than their larger counterparts since they typically process multiple project disciplines concurrently. Their extensive experience, vast knowledge and flexibility to multitask across a broad range of design parameters provides them with an unparalleled ability to quickly solve complex problems without the need to attend countless meetings. Smaller specialized industrial design firms with the right staff can be compared to a special forces team in the military or a highly skilled family of master artists focused on delivering perfect design solutions within budget.

I hope this long but comprehensive article has provided you with  better insight and an improved level of awareness for selecting an industrial design firm for your next product design.