How should you choose a product design agency?
This article may cause debate, so (in the interest of full and frank disclosure) I should start by telling you that I run my own product design agency with offices in the UK and China. So, why am I writing an article about how you should choose an agency? “To get more work for yourself”, some might think. Well, I cannot deny that we are always interested in doing exciting new work, but the real reason I am writing this is, genuinely, more altruistic: inventors and entrepreneurs need to know how to choose strong design agencies that will work effectively with them to ensure that the quality of products being produced stays high.
In recent years, we have seen a huge surge in inventors and start-up businesses who have used the services of a design agency, and yet have not been able to take their idea any further than a pretty drawing. When clients approach us, having become disenchanted with other agencies, we often have to start again from scratch to turn their idea into a product that will delight, sell, and make business.
Times have changed. Old-timers like myself used to have only a small handful of colleges to choose from to study product design. People didn’t understand the concept: design agencies were few and far between, and so we could all choose to work with clients big and small. We collaborated with clients who understood product design and needed external services, and we stayed with them on the journey as products made their way into consumers’ hands.
Now we have Dragons’ Den, Kickstarter and Crowd Cube, and it is easier than it has ever been for anyone to turn an idle idea into a reality. The problem is that having the idea is the easy bit. Moulding that idea into a technically feasible and commercially viable product is actually very difficult. So, in this crowdfunding age, we are seeing designs from some agencies which are either technically not feasible, or commercially not viable - or at worst, both. Some of these agencies say they cannot even prototype what they have designed. How can that be possible?
Courses such as “What Next for Your Invention?”, which I am invited to run by the British Library, can be invaluable in explaining how to take a product to market. But knowing the best route to market isn’t synonymous with knowing who best to work with to get you there. So, how should you choose a reliable product design agency?
1. Look at the agency’s case studies.
Make sure they have a track record in taking a product to market. Not just drawing it, but living with their product and standing by their clients as it rolls off the production line. If you see a lot of computer drawings but no final products and no client testimonials, beware.
Project- TEG camping stove. Client Spencer Turner: attended British Library Workshop. Image of first working prototype. Currently in production. Coming to market Q2 2016.
2. You do not have to limit yourself to a category, but it can help.
If it is relevant, think about the demands of your category. Baby products, for example, obviously require more testing and certification than an ordinary household product. We see ideas which we know, with one glance, would fail a test house review.
3. Ask the agency about their knowledge of route to market in your particular sector.
Take toys, for instance. We have designed and invented toys for 15 years, and we know that if a toy needs to sell mass market for £10 then we cannot design something that is going to cost more than, at the most, £2 to make.
4. Do their case studies really explore different concept executions?
Or are you simply looking at different styling of the same concept? If you are going to invest in taking a concept to market, you need to make sure you are backing the right one. If not explored fully at the outset, you open the door for a competitor.
Project: Colandish. Client: Housewares Germany: Bang Creations Internal project, manufactured by bang Creations and sold through to distribution. Winner of German Design Award. In Market September 2015.
5. Have the design agency walked the manufacturing lines?
This is one of the most important points: if you can’t make it, you can’t sell it. Theory is great, but does your design partner have experience of several different production methods? Do they understand materials, and work with people who make things? They need to understand how to manufacture for the market, not just prototypes.
6. How big is their network?
Only the best can really employ great talent in every department. A great design agency might have a top mechanical engineer sitting next to an electronics expert, for example. Many agencies will have built up a strong network of talent that they can lean on to help on projects. It’s a bit like employing an architect to design your house: they will manage the build, but will still bring in plumbers and surveyors and so on. You should expect the same of your product design partner - they need to bring in the best people for your project as it progresses to market.
Client Culina Designs: Project Sealabag: in market September 2015.
7. Last but not least: do you think it will be fun working with your designer?
Product development is very tough to get right, and you have to invest heavily prior to getting a return. The exciting part of development sees new opportunities arise, but problems have to be overcome daily. Ideally, you need to approach the process positively, and feel confident that your development partner will be there for you and always come to you with solutions.
When looking for a design agency to collaborate with you on your idea, keep the above points in mind. Beginning with sub-standard design will only be a waste of your time and money: don’t be afraid to be clear about what you want.
By Stefan Knox, founding director of Bang Creations