The Design Is Only The Beginning

26th February 2024
5 min read

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

There was a discussion on the Design Theory Discord server the other day tangentially about portfolios. The general premise being that including projects that have reached market in your portfolio has an impact orders of magnitude greater than any concept work you could conjure up.

That's because implementing a design is orders of magnitude more difficult than just creating a design.

Time, Resources, and Risk

Here's a little story for you:

If you don't already know; I'm an avid mountain biker. Spending more than a few hours on a mountain bike, you tend to begin identifying gaps in current product offerings. Gaps where there's room for simple but useful products.

One of these gaps is a simple tool for making quick adjustments while out on the trail. A multitool, but distilled to its simplest form. Whatever simple multitool you're picturing, you're still not thinking simple enough.

In my spare time I figured this was a product I could tackle. Get some made, sell a few. Mostly because I wanted one myself.

I spent a significant amount of time tweaking the design, getting it juuust right.

Well that was probably more than a year ago.

When you think the design is finished, that's really only the beginning.

In the year since, my little tool has been prototyped, redesigned, tested, and redesigned again. And then right when we (Brad Ruddiman of Prototek and I) were about to hit the go button on a pre-production batch, we hit the stops instead to explore alternative manufacturing processes to reduce production costs.

More than any other field of design, disciplines that turn design into physical products are the hardest. It requires the most amount of resources, takes the most amount of time, and carries the most amount of risk.

As the EE guys say; hardware is hard.

User Testing

I'm a huge advocate of prototyping early and often.

Prototyping means testing with real users in real situations to identify risks, allow you to mitigate them, and then verify their mitigation. Prototyping early means you can do it all cheaper.

3D printing has been a game changer when it comes to rapid design iterations with real-world testing. Yet 3D printing, at least in the desktop/prosumer range, has its limitations. While it's great for quick and early 'ball park' design iterations, once you're starting to get prototypes into users hands for high-value feedback, you need significantly more fidelity in your prototypes.

On another project I'm working on, testing parts printed in available SLA or FDM materials poses significant risks to testers. For that I had to opt for MJF-printed nylon 12 for the increase in toughness. To get those prototypes, the turn around time is at least two weeks and costs north of $100 for each iteration. Multiply that by seven iterations with design changes in between. Time blows out and costs stack up.

That's the just the tip of the iceberg.

Sometimes you quite literally need to tool up injection moulding tools to build devices for clinical trials before you have the kind of feedback you need to validate your design. And 99% of the time there will be changes to be made anyway. Changes that costs thousands and takes weeks to make.

All of this to make sure you get it right.

It's not possible to push out an update to fix a flaw in the mechanical design. The risks need to be mitigated before the product ships. Unless you want to (or have to) do a recall.

Design for Manufacture

Taking costs (and time) to another level is the cost of goods sold (COGS).

COGS is the cost of all the parts the end user picks up off the shelf and takes to the counter. Or gets delivered by the postie.

Part costs, material costs, component costs, assembly costs, packaging costs.

All these things add up to create your COGS.

Turning design into product is much easier when the cost of the parts doesn't matter. Yet virtually any product in a competitive market must be produced at a competitive price, so it can be sold at a competitive price, and there's profit left over to maintain a sustainable business.

Paring down manufacturing costs takes significant amounts of time. The design must be sufficiently advanced for manufacturing partners to review and assist in the design for optimal production. Then it needs to go back to the drawing board to incorporate those optimisations.

This is doubly difficult when trying to produce something locally. Everything costs more. I talked about this in part on my bit on manufacturing high quality goods locally. To reduce costs to suit local manufacture, you need to be designing for automation as well as local capability. This significantly adds to the number of iterations needed to review and refine the design with manufacturing partners, making sure every dollar has maximum value extracted.

In my own example at the top, we iterated dozens of times to ensure we could get the parts off the machine in the least number of setups. This meant tweaking the tiniest of details to ensure we could use the right tools in the right sequence to keep both the man-hours and the material to a minimum.


None of this even touches on the work to be done once the design is truly locked in.

Especially in medical devices where the rigor of documentation is significant.

A few weeks back I discussed the Industrial Design value stack. Where the value added to a project is roughly inversely proportionate to the effort required. And while that means the highest value work is at the beginning, it also means the most work is at the end.

It can be easy for designers to sit in their ivory tower, dust off their hands and say their work is done once to the data pack has been put together and sent to the client.

But the design is only the beginning.

ⓒ Lincoln Black 2024

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