Do We Always Need to Ship?

17th June 2024
5 min read

Getting a product to market isn't everything, is it?

Photo by Héctor Martínez

A pretty common pitch from Industrial Designers seems to be that they design products that 'ship'.

Shipping products means products that end up on the market.

This has always stood out as an unusual claim to me. Isn't that the entire point of Industrial Design? To design stuff that can be produced and sold?

What else is there?

Maybe I'm too old school, or maybe I'm just in the wrong industry. 'Shipping' products seems like a very tech-centric, and especially software, term. In every industry I've been in, that's just what we do.

I suppose in an industry rife with vapourware, distinguishing yourself from the vapour could be important. The democratisation of design tools likely also has a part to play too. Even a highschool student with enough drive and determination can produce photo-realistic product renders believable enough to convince people not trained in the art. Distinguishing yourself from the render jockeys is likely also important.

One thing is undeniable; getting a product delivered to market is a tough slog. You can't do it by halves, and the credibility that comes along with having delivered something to market is as real as the product itself.


Chatting in the Design Theory Discord the other day, I was asking if anyone was interested in medical device design. From those outside of the field, the impression I got was that medical device design is a domain not for the faint of heart. Restrictive in design choice, and constraining in design method.

Reading between the lines, I could see the same "design products that ship" mindset. That to work on the design of a medical device is to sign up to designing a product that goes to market. And be expected to carry the burden that goes along with that.

Indeed, that mindset permeates even the most seasoned design consultancies that work in medical devices. Submit a proposal for the entire product development, right up to production, sometimes without even knowing what it is they're eventually going to build. Of course, there's a business angle for this too. Get the client on the hook for the whole project, and you're set for the lifetime of the project.


The longer I work exclusively in medical devices though, and especially with startups, the more I think that the mindset of developing a design that ships does a disservice to the companies trying to develop it.

There is indeed much more than just designing stuff that can be produced and sold.

Medical device design and development is a very long journey. What takes months to ship in any other industry, can be years to ship in medical devices.

Put simply, startups don't need to ship.

Ok, let me rewind a bit. Startups absolutely do need to ship, eventually. It's why we all do what we do; to build devices that improve the lives patients and caregivers. None of us can do that without shipping product. Yet, there's a great deal that needs to happen before then.

Startups need to build a proof of concept.

Startups need to raise capital.

Do formative studies.

Clinical trials.


The list goes on.

There are many "products" that need to be produced to serve the client for other purposes other than to fill market shelves. Rather than just designing products that ship, designers should be producing designs in chunks that meet the client's most immediate need at each stage of their journey.

Of course, the end goal of getting the device on the market cannot be ignored, but you have to eat the elephant one chunk at a time.

Design with Collaboration

Medical device design is, by its very nature, highly collaborative. Stakeholders across a wide variety of fields, both clinical and technical, are a necessary part of the process. Even a big one-stop-shop cannot develop a medical device entirely in isolation (red flag if they do).

Here's a truth: at the start of a project, nobody knows what they're doing.

That's why we do ideation, concept development, and so on. To explore and learn. To show what we've learnt to stakeholders with their own perspective and together make the solution a better one. By designing in chunks, we allow other collaborators to learn from our learnings, and we in turn can learn from them.

Designing in chunks allows the feedback loop to add value into the design process and the design adapt accordingly. If the design process is on rails, looking only to shipping, it is not well placed to pivot if needed.

Design with Purpose

When the development process is broken up into chunks, design can serve as a powerful tool when individual objectives are considered with purpose.

Design the concepts for pitching.

Design the block models for usability studies.

Design the prototypes for bench testing.

Optimise the design for the best outcomes of each stage, for each stage. This maximises the value gained from each of these chunks. The knowledge gained from an optimised design strategy can vastly outweigh the marginal increase in design time.

Caring only about shipping the final product may mean that when these specific activities pop up, the state of development is often unfit for that purpose.

A proof of concept doesn't make good pitch visuals.

Product visuals won't help you in a usability study.

Concept sketches don't prove a concept.

More Than Shipping

I'm a bit biased, but design can do so much more for people than just design something that can be produced and sold.

Even after a century of Industrial Design, the general population still has little idea what it is. It's time Industrial Design started doing less self-congratulating on the products they ship, and spent more time articulating all the other ways they can help address their client's more immediate needs in elegant and cost-effective ways.

Counterintuitively, much of these project chunks don't need extensive medical device design knowledge or experience. Many of the problems medtech startups face are the same ones all startups face. The same design methodology applies.

There's more than enough problems out there for designers to solve, but potential clients either don't know they have a problem, or don't know who can solve it.

Sounds like a design problem a designer could solve.

Tagged: business · consulting · design

ⓒ Lincoln Black 2024

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