MT Expert - Innovation: Working with product designers

4D Creations' Richard Habergham on how to get the best out of a specialist product designer.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Companies and individuals wishing to take their product to market will in many cases need to enlist the services of a product designer.

Often not enough time is spent developing the brief to its fullest capacity. There are two very different types of brief. A detailed brief should state your exact requirements, and will cover the entire design process, from product form and ergonomic usability, to functional constraints such as design for disassembly (these constraints are driven by any number of internal and external parameters, such as unit cost and target markets). A loose brief is a basic set of guidelines to help the design focus in on key target areas, while maintaining an innovative and fresh approach to the product. Whichever option you take, clarity and vision are the key requirements

The earlier the product designer can be part of the project the better, so don’t be afraid to ask the designer to work with you on the brief. Ideas generated when creating the brief can help focus your requirements and create a better understanding of the parameters involved, saving costs and resources. Changing the brief in the later stages of a project due to some misunderstanding is likely to be costly. Make sure every aspect is covered!

It is vital to trust your designer. Product designers bring far more to a product’s development than simple aesthetics and styling.  Designers look at a product from the inside out and from a variety of different angles and perspectives. For instance, the aesthetic evolution of a product can often be driven from an underlying functional principle such as anthropometrics (i.e. how we physically interact with the product).

Design and project management is essential to the profitability of outsourcing your design requirements, which makes it imperative to have a good point of contact. Many questions arise during the design and development stages, so the designer must be able to liaise with a key individual within your organisation to clear these up quickly, without adding extra time to the project. The relationship built up between designer and client must never be underestimated!

Once the brief and specifications have been created and issued, the product designer can begin the creative design process (normally consisting of sketch brainstorming and the development of a number of proposals). The designer should prepare a presentation of the concepts which best meet the requirements of your brief. Computer-generated visuals are usually the best form of communication, but you should push for the form of presentation that suits you best. You must ensure that most, if not all, of the requirements stipulated in the brief are met at this stage. Now is the time to suggest improvements to your chosen designs – before expensive commitments (such as in-tooling) are made.

If your product relies on more complicated mechanical principles to operate, the product designer may employ computational stress analysis to interrogate and predict the mechanical behaviour of the product under certain conditions. However, if you really want to prove the chosen design in a physical sense, a prototype should be produced. This is usually the most reliable method of gauging the future design direction and development, prior to production.

If a patent is required, it’s worth drafting a rigid non-disclosure agreement for your product designers to sign before applying for a patent. As you may require a further patent to cover any additions and Intellectual Property, legal fees can be very expensive. And remember that a patent covers novel functionality, while a design registration covers how the product looks.

As for payment, product designers are commonly paid a fee, or alternatively, a royalty on the number / value of the units sold. On occasion, a mixture of the two is agreed. If you take the ‘fee’ option, the designers will usually break this down into a series of stages with specifically defined deliverables. For example, design work may be broken down into ‘concept generation’, ‘visualisation’ and/ or ‘design development’, in case you want to use the product designer for selected stages of the process. This breakdown will normally be presented at the quotation stage.

Richard Habergham is Head of Design at 4D Creations, a specialist design agency. 4D Creations is part of retail services group TMC, which offers specialist product design services. For more information log on to or call 01422 231 500.

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