Does your design add value?

I was asked recently to quote on a design project. I quoted around R5,000 for the CAD design, which was a very reasonable amount considering the complexity of the job (quite complex but not a big job), the hours I would spend doing it, and the substantial base knowledge I have of the specific type of product. The tooling for the product would cost the potential customer about R120,000 to get made. Imagine my surprise when the customer let me know that they had decided that my quote was a bit much for them, so they would do the design in-house.

Now, I know with certainty that no-one at this particular company has any reasonable knowledge of the specific type of product. They also know my skill set, and acknowledge that my design will be better than their own. Nonetheless, they would rather save a little money upfront and then go ahead to spend a chunk of money on a tool in order to manufacture a product for the next few years that will not be nearly as good as it could and should have been.

This specific quote is not a big deal in the bigger scheme of things, but it typified one of my biggest pet hates in this world, both as a designer and as a businessman.

My reasoning is simple: to make a tool for a product costs what it costs, regardless of whether it is a good design or a bad design. To manufacture the actual product costs what it costs, regardless of whether it is a good design or a bad design. Yes, there could be cost differences as a result of using more expensive vs cheap material, and yes, sometime a really good design may require a more complex manufacturing process. But, for the vast majority of products on the market, the manufacturing cost is what it is, no matter how good or bad the initial design.

So, why on earth would anyone spend the money on expensive tooling to make a product to sell, if the design does not aim to be the best it can be? Some products are designed to fail to make them consumables, and this is another pet hate of mine. But, many products that were clearly not intended to be consumables tend to fail miserably after minimal use, or are simply not as practical or as user friendly as they could have been with very minor design changes – without costing a cent more to manufacture.

Every designer knows that no design is ever perfect. It can always be better. In the development of any new product, the line has to be drawn at some point where development (and the associated costs) needs to stop and the product must be put into production to start earning money. This point could be determined by a physical deadline like a trade show or a seasonal market that is about to kick in, or it may be determined by the budget (often both seem to converge at the same point!). But, every designer worth his salt will aim to reach that line with the design at 80% or 90% of what can be achieved with current knowledge and limitations.

My regular frustrations with so many products that we often use tells me that a large number of designers settle at 20% or 30%. Is this because they simply cannot do better? Is it because they do not care? Is it because their employers/clients do not care? Is there just not enough time to do things properly? What I know with certainty is that for the vast majority of products on the market, the cost of design (literally, the cost of paying a designer), is a fraction of the total costs involved in the lifespan of each product.

As I said to a friend of mine today, when we discussed this matter, there is a big difference between drawing something and designing something. Many products are just drawn, with little deep thought and little real understanding of the product. Good design costs more, but it will make the capital investment so much more worthwhile, and will actually give joy to the users of the product instead of frustration.

I often think of a speech that a lecturer in my final year at varsity gave to us, just before our final exams. Yes, that was 23 years ago, but I still remember it because it resonated with me. The main premise of his message was that it is our duty as engineers to add value. That’s quite a powerful message, and in my mind it sets the criteria for evaluating our own work. If more designers, manufacturers and brands would take this to heart, then we may see a more even spread of good, usable, durable products out there instead of pockets of brilliance and a sea of garbage.