How to Choose a Design Firm (and Not Regret it)
Choosing a development partner for a new product or service can be a daunting task. A simple internet search will turn up any number of local, national, or international development firms with a variety of experience. Should you choose a small team or a large team? Is it critical that the firm have a dedicated research department or a software team? Will the firm be able to take the product all the way to market or provide the critical piece of engineering required? Which firm will work best with your company culture? Does it matter if the design team is nearby? What size budget do the different firms require to be successful on the project? Feeling overwhelmed? No worries, let’s break it down:
Very few home buyers purchase the first house they visit and instead attend a plethora of open houses before making a decision. When searching for a design partner, don’t be afraid to shop around. Ask colleagues for recommendations if they have worked with external consulting teams. Do a search for local firms and give them a call or drop an email in their inbox. Reach out to the local IDSA (Industrial Design Society of America, www.idsa.org) chapter chair to ask about local firms. Widen your search if your local options don’t have the capacity or expertise to help. Ask lots of questions. Believe it or not, design firms want you to make inquiries. Informed clients are the best partners for a design team as they have learned what is critical to their project’s success and have developed realistic expectations through the course of researching firms.
When selecting a design firm it is important to consider their level of experience. Does the team have relevant experience for my project? Have they worked on similar products in the past? If not, has the team solved problems of equal complexity and do they have an understanding of your market space? Do they have experience dealing with intellectual property/patents? Are you looking for a team with decades of experience solving complex design challenges or are you looking for a team with fresh ideas that might inspire you?
While searching online, if you come across a firm whose product design you particularly like, give them a call and ask them about the project experience. How did they arrive at that solution? What did their team bring to the table that made this success possible? How would they approach your project?
Keep in mind that the design process and training allows designers to work across various industries so don’t necessarily rule out a firm that does not have a specific product in your category if their body of work demonstrates the skill set you are looking for.
While experience often illustrates capabilities, they are not the same. Ask what role the team played in a particular product design. Did they provide engineering support (electrical, software, mechanical) in addition to industrial design? Can they run simulations and analyses on part designs? Do they have the ability to create a functional prototype?
It is important to understand the capabilities of the firm beyond the design disciplines. Designers work best as part of a multidisciplinary team, so having others around that think differently can be a benefit to your project. This network does not necessarily have to be in house, but that can be a plus.
When speaking with a design firm consider if they will be a good fit for your company’s culture. Do they “get” you? Does your team seek close collaboration or prefer a handoff with limited interaction? Do you want a firm that rewards risk taking or one that prizes a safe solution? Don’t be afraid to ask about the team’s outside interests and passions. Finding a good cultural fit goes a long way towards a productive collaboration and relationship. After all, this is a team that you will be working closely with, and it’s best to work with a group that you want to pick up the phone (or zoom meeting)and talk to.
Don’t forget to ask about the firm’s project load and calendar. Will they be able to take on your project and meet the key project milestones and deliverable schedule? If not, it is important to decide if you are willing/able to wait until the firm can fit the project into their pipeline. Sometimes it’s worth the wait. Sometimes the calendar and customer orders demand another option. If the schedules don’t align but you really want to work with the selected firm, don’t be afraid to ask if they would prioritize your project at an increased rate.
All projects have budgetary constraints. Sharing your project’s budget up front helps prospective design firms create a project plan that meets your needs and allows you to determine if the firm’s budget requirements are aligned with yours. If you don’t know what an appropriate budget is for your project don’t be afraid to ask or to inquire about another project they have worked on as a cost reference.
Also, when thinking about budget, remember that there are additional costs to consider when planning a physical product launch such as additional engineering fees, software/app development, tooling costs, marketing/advertising, inventory purchasing, as well as sales. If the goal is to seek investment to cover the project cost, be upfront with the design firms so that they understand the risks and may be able to help put you in touch with resources to assist you in fundraising.
In Short (TLDR)
Do your homework and ask questions. Personality/culture matters. Assess your priorities and align budget expectations. Working with the right design team should be a fun and rewarding experience, choose wisely!