How to Choose the Best Product Design Firm for You
Your Design Partner
You’ve had a groundbreaking idea that will change everything – you just need the right design partner to help you execute on the vision. You’ve done some Googling and… now you’re in analysis paralysis mode.
And you’re here for a silver bullet – well guess what, there is no silver bullet. But don’t lose hope, there’s something better.
Your very own, personalized silver bullet
The answer, like it is in so many scenarios is, it depends. It all depends on what you are looking to do, what your product entails, and what do you as a client prioritize? First and foremost, we need to understand what the companies you are looking at do – comparing apples to apples. And after that, we can look at what a company prioritizes internally. Then, we will look at how this relates to our priorities.
Consideration 1: The Services Provided
There are a lot of product design firms out there and they all specialize in different things, in fact, it is overwhelming these days with having access to all of them online. Now that every meeting is done remotely, the standards of remote communication have increased drastically. With online work being normalized, there is now very little difference between working with someone in the same city or someone that is across the country (time zone aside). So before we begin evaluating each company, we need to understand what they do.
The challenge here is that “product design” is an extremely generic term. It can mean the design of a piece of software, or it can refer to the industrial design of a piece of furniture. In turn, there are a plethora of companies that provide services in this very broad field. As such, we will be a little more precise with our verbiage here – although many of the methods we will discuss here today are very versatile, we will be specifically discussing physical product design (rather than software products).
However, this is still an extremely broad category. Well what this means is, product design is a long process with a lot of steps. The expertise you need for 1 type of project is not needed at all on a different type of project within that same step – think prototyping a piece of furniture vs prototyping a piece of electronic hardware. Same step in the design process, completely different expertise.
However, the first (and often biggest) point to distinguish companies form one another is scope of services. The scope of services in the design process, that a company is focused around.
There are many steps in the process – many products go from ideation, to research, to industrial design, to prototyping, to engineering analysis, to testing, certification, manufacturing, QA/QC (quality assurance/quality control), logistics, warehousing & fulfillment. Where do you draw the line?
This may be considered a discussion around language, but many companies will use the terminology loosely. That doesn’t matter – what matters is what you want to do. Do you want to do most of the work? Maybe you’re a bootstrapped startup that’s willing to learn and make mistakes.
Are you an industrial design genius and want to do manage that piece yourself or is the most important part of your product the electronic functionality that you know nothing about? You need to narrow down the firms you look at to cater specifically to the parts of the design process that you need.
Most product design firms are differentiated by the services that they offer. If you are new to the industry, it is often difficult to understand as there are so many different fields along the way. Let’s go through a few main groupings that you will see time and time again.
Industrial Design Firms – are firms that will help you refine your idea through research and market analysis, do the conceptual design that focuses on the look, feel and human interaction of a product (as well as associated documentation, and drawings included with each step).
Design & Prototype Firms – These are firms that will do everything an Industrial Design Firm will do but also include the prototyping step. Whether it is done in-house or sub contracted, prototyping is often an integrated part of design as it helps the designers interact and understand the problem and the potential solution, allowing them to take an iterative fail fast approach.
Design & Engineering Firms – On top of everything included in the first two, engineering looks into the technical aspects of a product. Not every product will have technical requirements, but many will. Engineering is often needed if there is a safety component (ex/ safey harness for fall arrest system), or a part of the product is regulated (ex/ batteries, plastics, etc.). Many products are regulated in one way or another, this doesn’t always mean you need an engineering firm, but they often come hand in hand with complexity (more complex often means technical engineering which often means it is regulated). Look out for a future blog post on product certifications and regulations.
Many (not all) Design and Engineering firms will include a handover step. This handover step is a facilitated handover to a manufacturing partner. Most firms to do not do in-house manufacture because of expertise and cost (this is a topic for another day). However, they will find a manufacturing partner that is suited to your needs. This is done differently by every firm and can get tricky with expectations around how long a firm is expected to stay and help. Once the firm hands the project over to the manufacturing firm, they will step back, having completed their obligations.
Design & Manufacture Firms – These firms will take on yet more of the scope – rather than passing the client off, they will subcontract the manufacturing. This is a big step as this means the firm is responsible for the whole manufacturing process – the setup (design for manufacture and assembly, molding and samples), quality assurance/quality control, packaging, and so on. Firms that do this will often include the logistics – which refers to shipping the product to the destination warehouse. These firms have the benefits of developing relationships with factories and using trusted partners time and time again.
Design, Manufacture and Service – These firms will oversee the everything including the warehousing & fulfillment aspect of a product. After that, they will manage end user service calls as well as returns and repairs. These firms are often focused on B2B (business to busines) products and hold a narrow field of expertise as it is expensive to shift their whole vertically integrated product development line with you.
Summary of Services
There are many firms that are dedicated to each individual step of this process rather than all-inclusive firms – and it comes back to what services you are looking and how involved you want to be in managing each of these steps. When comparing firms, you must understand what it is they do as this will influence how you evaluate them.
Consideration 2: Company Priorities
Now that you are comparing apples to apples, it’s time to look into each company. Companies are built around frameworks that work for them and show through in how they do what they do.
Companies will choose one value that they hold above all else, but will balance them all – Operational Excellence, Performance Superiority, and Customer Intimacy. The type of company you find may naturally lend itself to you, or it may be harder to understand.
Operational excellence describes companies that are very efficient in what they do. These companies will give you the best total cost.
Customer Intimacy prioritizes the client by understanding their needs and the needs of the market through extensive research. These companies have the best customer service.
Performance superiority is achieved through a heavy emphasis on research and development. These companies are known for having the best products.
Every company will strive to be “good enough” in two of these three categories, but “the best” in one of them. It is you who decides what is most attractive.
Consideration 3: The Project Management Triangle
These are also three classic constraints in managing projects which will help you narrow down the choices. The 3 sides of the project management triangle are Cost, Quality, and Timeliness – the principle says, you get to pick 2. Which do you choose? It’ll depend on your scenario and your project priorities.
Cost & Timeliness
If you’re as startup, you often sacrifice quality to get your project moving fast and cheap. However, with each of these sections, there are many levels. If you are working with the biggest firms in the world, sacrificing quality will not be the same as sacrificing quality if you were working with a local freelancer.
Quality and Cost
If you’re an established firm that is rolling out its next product, you may sacrifice timeliness because you want to work out the kinks. If you are product focused, you may be especially susceptible to this because there is always room for improvement.
Timeliness and Quality
Maybe you’re a firm fighting for market share in a new or quickly expanding market, then time to market trumps everything.
Every situation is different and most companies will be able to accommodate you with your priorities within their comfort zone. But this is limited to the bounds of a companies norms – “expensive” “fast” and “cheap” are all subjective terms.
Overview and Opinion
At every step of the way, you have to know what you’re getting. The value of having a professional firm take responsibility for more of the scope of work is that you know it will be done well. You know that they have done it before and you can set a contract in place specifies contingency measures. Doing it yourself will always be cheaper, but will often take more time (mistakes and learnings), sometimes more money (mistakes and lack of industry contacts). Thus, it is important to consider what it is that you find value in.
Both the contracting firm’s priorities and your project priorities will play an influencing factor in the final decision. Ultimately, these play into a decision that must be made by each client based on what they prioritize, and hopefully this article can lend some insight into methods of evaluating different firms.
Revisiting the original question – which is the best? Well “best” is subjective. You need to know where you stand. You need to know what you need (which is hard – often times, you don’t know what you don’t know). You need to know how a firm stacks up to the other firms and the best firm is the one that best fits your needs.
About the Author
Ventrify is a product design and manufacture firm that helps entrepreneurs bring product ideas from concept to market. We take in fledgling ideas and bring them through our iterative design process to create products our clients can be proud of. Then, we work with manufacturing facilities across the world to bring our clients the highest quality products at competitive prices.
If you are unsure of your project needs, feel free to reach out to the Ventrify team through Facebook, LinkedIn, or our Website. We will be happy to help you understand some of the challenges of your project and give our 2 cents on your best course of action.