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.

Vagabond Kayaks

My blog became quiet over a year ago… It is not that I had nothing to write about. I was just completely absorbed in a mission to launch a new kayak company, and once the company was launched, it was a roller-coaster ride to put all the little things in place to turn the startup enterprise into a sustainable company. The mission is not over yet and there is much work to do still, but I figured it is time to take a break and at least update my blog.

The goal was set high: I wanted to launch the new kayak brand with 11 unique kayak models plus 4 more Angler versions of some models, giving us a total of 15 models at launch. With “us” I mean myself, Lisa and 3 other partners who are long-time paddling friends of mine. To top off the ambition goal, I wanted to develop a complete new range of fittings for the kayaks, mostly because I haven’t found off-the-shelf fittings that I really like, but also because I wanted to give Vagabond’s kayaks a unique look.

It was not easy to decide which specific 11 kayak models to start with. I have so many ideas for different types of kayaks, to narrow it down to just 11 seemed an impossible task. In the end, I think we ended up with a well-balanced selection of craft that will satisfy many recreational paddlers, anglers and naturally whitewater kayakers too.

My goal with Vagabond from the start was to bring real innovation to the market. In the recreational market, there has not been real innovation to speak of for many years. Every year I look with interest at the new rec kayaks being launched at the main trade shows, and every year I am disappointed. The focus seems to be on an ever-increasing number of fittings added to the rec boats, often without any defined purpose. Rec boats in general are not fun to paddle at all. They tend to be sluggish and unwieldy. Rec boats have become progressively wider over the years, with the main focus on stability at the expense of speed. I will not deny it, I was caught up in the same vibe when I designed rec boats in the past.

The break from the paddling industry in general and from designing kayaks in particular has allowed me to look at kayak design with fresh eyes again. It was a bit frustrating sometimes to not be able to share the cool stuff I was working on, but at the same time, it also freed me up to focus on what I was doing without outside interference.

I’m extremely proud and satisfied with what I created with my team. Head over to to see the range of kayaks, and if you like what you see, go like our facebook page too.

Paddling my new favourite kayak on the Orange River - my orange Marimba
Paddling my new favourite kayak on the Orange River – my orange Marimba

Showing off the Kasai, the first Vagabond kayak I designed.
Showing off the Kasai, the first Vagabond kayak I designed.


Moo Igloo design

The latest product that I designed for YOLO Colours just went in production. It is a calf hutch, or as YOLO calls it, a Moo Igloo.

The project was done in cooperation with the Wynn-with Dairy Farm, who approached me a few months ago and asked if I can design and manufacture a calf hutch. They needed it for their own calves, and it turned out that there is nothing like it available on the South African dairy farm market, although it is quite common in North America and Europe.

I knew right away that it is a product that will fit perfectly in the expanding YOLO range. Lisa agreed, and a few months later YOLO made its first delivery of Moo Igloos to the Wynn-with farm.

Yolo calf hutch 1

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Compost Tumbler design

I’ve been working on a number of new products for YOLO Colours over the past few months. By “working” I mean designing the products, making prototypes for testing, getting tooling made (some in-house, some outsourced), sourcing suppliers for various components, and eventually manufacturing and assembling the products for YOLO.

YOLO Colours is Lisa‘s new company. Most of YOLO’s products will be rotomoulded or have a rotomoulded part as a main component.

The first of the new YOLO products to go into production is this Compost Tumbler. The model pictured here is the smallest size (45 litres), which is available as a single or double unit. It is now in full production, and it is the first of three sizes. The medium size (about 100 litres) will be launched in the next two or three weeks, with the large size (200 litres) following a bit later.

tumbler renderings

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A rock & roll machine

Rotomoulding machines come in two basic configurations: biaxial and rock & roll. Each configuration has its own benefits and draw-backs. I have designed and built both types in the past, so now that I need a new machine for my company, I had to think carefully which type of machine I want to build this time.

For most rotomoulding companies, quick moulding cycles and fast turnaround time between cycles is of the highest priority, making biaxial machines the first choice for the vast majority of applications. To be frank, for most rotomoulded products that approach works perfectly fine. On the contrary, I specialise in the rotomoulding of complex products that routinely require multi-segment moulds, a variety of moulded inserts, moulded-in graphics and also negative draft angles, while at the same time having critical specs regarding wall thicknesses that may vary between different parts of the product.

Having substantial experience with both types of machines, I feel that I can control the process better with a rock & roll machine. I’m happy to compromise on the speed of the moulding cycles if I can get a better quality product, consistently. I am not interested in making products that become consumables. I prefer to make products that last.

Below are screenshots of the CAD design for my new machine. The completed machine will naturally have more things added than what the CAD design shows, such as the cladding and insulation on the oven shell, the rotating components, electrical wiring, gas and pneumatic pipes, control panel, etc. But when I design a machine that I build for in-house use, I rarely add these final details in the CAD phase. I’m pretty hands-on with the building of my machines, so those details are perfectly stored in my head until my crew gets to that point in the building process.

I’ll post some pics of the completed machine in a few weeks’ time.

Rock & roll 2

Rock & roll 1


The process of design

Few things in life are as satisfying as the process of R&D, short for Research and Development. Not every project goes through exactly the same phases, but in general the process goes like this:

  • Identify an existing opportunity in a market, or identify a need that can be created, or get forced to create a solution for a pressing problem, or get talked into a project by a friend, or get a design brief from a client.

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