This article is a transcription of the premiere episode of IDology - the industrial design podcast by Mindsailors. You can watch the entire episode on YouTube or listen to the audio version on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts.

In the premiere episode our company’s COO, Voytek Holysz, sat down with the co-founder of industrial design company Mindsailors and senior designer himself, Rafal Pilat, to talk about how you can get the best designs from an industrial design company like Mindsailors themselves. They talked about how to prepare a good brief document for an industrial design company, what mind traps to avoid when planning new product development and how to approach communicating what you know and don’t know to your industrial design company partner.

Voytek Holysz: Okay, Rafal, let's talk about briefing an industrial design studio. So, from the perspective of a client who comes to a company like ours, they have an idea for a product.

Rafal Pilat: Yes.

VH: Maybe it's just a spark of an idea, or maybe it's just something assembled from cardboard or whatever.

RP: Yes. 

VH: They need to somehow explain to the designers and the engineers what they want to achieve, how it's supposed to work, and how much it's supposed to cost at the end. How should they prepare to start a conversation with a design studio?

RP: So first of all, don't get too stressed when you don't have any idea how to prepare a product brief or a project brief. It happens often that we need to ask a lot of questions, even to experienced companies who describe a new product, before we get the whole vision of the product, what it actually is and what has to be done. This is part of our mission to get this information from our clients. Don't get stressed about it.

VH: That's a good start.

RP: Yes, that's a good start. But obviously, it's nice to receive an inquiry from a client who prepares a very thorough written brief, which leaves no question. There is no room for imagination or for any doubt and we can basically take this brief and transfer it into project specifications.

VH: Is that even possible?

RP: I think it happened maybe once or twice.

VH: Seriously? Wow. So, no development, no research, just…

RP: Yes, a very detailed and brief with a thorough description of every functionality, et cetera. So...

VH: Okay, so that's like a black swan. It rarely happens.

RP: It rarely happens. But there are definitely a few points that should be taken into account when you develop this product brief and we can discuss and go over those points. I think it will simply give people a better idea of what to include in this product brief and what is actually not that critical for us when working on this.

VH: Sure. Is there a, like, something in chronological order? What should I consider first when taking a piece of paper and composing my product's brief?

RP: Yeah, Let's just start with the very basic things: introduce yourself and tell us about yourself because it gives us a very good background on your expertise, on product development.

Don't assume that we know every company in the world. Just tell us about yourself. Tell us about the general idea of the product. Tell us about the strategy, whether this is something that is part of a larger lineup of products or whether this is a single product. So give us some background information if you have any and share your vision. 

Share your vision, because this also sets up our minds in a specific direction. We know that this, for instance, is a critical product in your strategic company's development, and it's nice for us to know this. And also give us some information about your technical capabilities, about the people who will work on this project.

And this also helps us to visualize the state of the company and the people that we are going to be working with. So let's start simply with …

VH: Introduction? 

RP: information. Yes.

VH: Yeah, So it's like introducing the company, their vision, a very general bird's-eye view aspect.

RP: That's right. And of course, the product description is critical information here as well. So we want to know your product in as much detail as possible. So one of the points, a critical point in every brief, should be focusing on the product description and trying to be as thorough as possible.

A good practice is to imagine that you're describing the product to someone who has never seen anything like this before. And try to get into the shoes of that person and try to imagine …

VH: Their questions? What would their questions be?

RP: Their questions, and whether you are phrasing or describing the product or the functionality in a way that is sufficient for that person to understand, what is he actually thinking about this product and what it's going to look like and what it's going to do. Another thing that it's worth including in the description is whether this is going to be a product for mass production, for a short series run, or a single product, for instance. A one-time prototype or anything like that. This also gives us a certain focus on specific technologies that might be used for manufacturing such a product.

If it's going to be mass produced, then we can assume that certain tooling might be necessary for this project. And if it's something that is, I dunno, only planned for a short run series, a few pieces or tens of pieces, then we will simply ignore all the technologies that are dedicated to mass production and focus only on something that is more affordable for that kind of project.

VH: Yeah, and probably it would be best to describe the volume of the production not in terms that might be interpreted differently, whether it's mass production or serial production or whatever. Just say how many pieces you want to do in the first year, or the second year, et cetera. And that would probably be best for us to know in order to choose the right technology.

RP: That's right. This is a very valid point.

VH: I'm thinking since it's a brief for a new product, then I know what it's supposed to be, more or less basically. But still, at this very early stage, I'm sure I don't have most of the answers that you might expect me to have. So what do I do when I don't have the answers?

RP: Of course, saying “I don't know the answer” to a question that we might ask is not a reason to cancel the project or to hold it up. This is something that we can clarify for certain projects. Often clients who come to us don't know certain information at that point of the project because either it is not yet planned ahead, for instance what is the actual production volume? It happens sometimes. “Okay, it might be 500 pieces, it might be 5,000 pieces. At this point, we don't know.” - this information is fine with us as well. And certain projects require further research because if a critical functionality is vague or not clear whether it's going to be critical or not. This is something that we should work on. Maybe we can also help by trying to work on the brief, trying to do a research phase or organizing workshops with our clients to give them a broader perspective to do some deeper research on technologies for instance or materials. And this is something that can be worked out. Simply don't worry about saying "I don't know”. 

VH: Sure. My vision is one thing, but obviously, I assume in most cases, if not all, when someone comes to you and says they want to develop a new product, it's not for them personally, it's for someone else to use...

RP: Yes. 

VH: ...in some sort of scenario. Does your work also include researching the target group in any way? Or should I have all the data about how something might be used, if it exists on the market, et cetera? Is that on my side?

RP: I assume that almost every product is dedicated to a certain group, a target group of people who are either going to use the product or sometimes the target group might be the people who make the call on purchasing a specific type of product. So think about who your target group is for this product and let us know. Because it's also a valid point to think about a person who is going to make the decision of purchasing the product or using the product. And this is also something which I want to underline that describing only the functionality might not be enough. Also describe the usage scenarios for those for your product. Give us the standard usage scenario. Provide us with an edge case for your product.

Also remember to play devil's advocate with your own ideas. Maybe it's not necessary to address each and every need of each and every target group when designing your product? It may generate additional unnecessary costs. Just to, I dunno, try to be top notch in terms of functionality for, I dunno, one out of a hundred people who are going to use this product? So we can discuss this, we can work out the functionality, and on our end, we'll also see dangers or maybe red flags, which we see along the way which may generate additional costs or may cause delays in the timeframe needed to develop a specific functionality, for instance.

Always think about the usage scenarios and try to think about the critical functionality and the optional functionality.

VH: Okay, to recap from where we started. We talked about just telling us about yourself, your company, and your brand. So who are we working with? What are your goals? Or what's the product's goal? Then try to describe the product in as much detail as you can at this stage without going into so much detail that the concept will begin to be like a chimera of everything. Just focus on things, then tell us what you don't know or what you need to find out in order for the product to be successful. And of course, I guess that tells us what the general scope of our work would be. Should we?

RP: Yes. 

VH: ...are we the research and development team? Do you want us to take the development all the way to finding a vendor and overseeing production? We need to know what to plan for.

RP: That's right. And even if you want to develop a new product, you might not just need our assistance at a specific stage or in a specific part of the project. And this is also critical information in terms of even pricing the whole process, because we need to know whether we are going to be needed just for, I dunno, the conceptual design or for developing the actual electronics hardware as well, because this might also be required.

And basically, we need to know at what stages of the projects we will have to participate in. That's the key here. So yes, the scope of work.

VH: Yes. When describing the scope of work or any of the other things we talked about, I assume that me being a novice product developer, for example developing a product for the first time, probably my brief will be as detailed as possible but still pretty vague in comparison to a company that already has tens of products in their lineup, right?

RP: So yeah, definitely. Even just by reading a product brief, we get to know our clients and based on analyzing the brief without even talking to the client, we can assume that they have certain experience in new product development or manufacturing.

Don't be afraid to share this information. If you plan your project ahead, and even if you plan for further stages, just let us know e.g. if you plan to manufacture this internally, or if you are already a part of the team that is responsible for the hardware engineering or for mechanical design, just let us know.

This will also give us a good idea of what our scope of work will be and what our work will simply look like. So don't be afraid to share this with us.

VH: Yeah, sure.

RP: I think one thing that we missed, and I wanted to mention this, is the aesthetic factor. People come and they describe the project, but they also come with certain ideas in their heads on what they want this specific product to look like.

And it's not always easy for someone to describe, or they might just give you a very general description. “Oh, I want this to be pretty. Make it pretty.”

VH: Modern.

RP: Yeah, “Make it modern”. And this is a very vague description, and it's very subjective because, you know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And this is also the case. Your expectations might be different than our idea of this product. So you expect something that would be minimalistic, and we deliver something quite the opposite based on the same vague description.

And that's why we also try to ask our clients to prepare a moodboard which would indicate positive and negative examples of the aesthetics that they have in mind.

VH: Okay, So it's not just what I'm aiming for but also what I really don't like.

RP: Yes. So that's also valid information for us. For instance, I dunno, you don't like Apple products.

VH: Okay, yeah, very common.

RP: You simply think that they are too common and simply don't want such an aesthetic in your product.

Indicate this to us. We always, during the Q&A session with our clients, go over the inspiration, the moodboard, and discuss specific pictures or examples. We try to interview our clients about what they actually don't like in this particular case.

VH: Yeah.

RP: Whether this is a shape or whether this is, I dunno, the styling or the colors. So it's valid information for us and it also gives us a good idea of what the client might look for. And yeah, We don't like guessing when designing; we try to deliver something that is focused in a specific direction.

VH: What about budgeting? Budgeting is always a problem in every custom service company, especially ones with a creative aspect. A problem, as in, difficult to anticipate in some way. So here, let's say I am going to introduce a new product to the market, but it's my first time, and you probably want to know my budget. I actually have no idea what sort of budget I should expect for this. I don't know what stage or what level of development the product is at. How should a company with little to no experience in developing new products approach budgeting?

RP: So I think that this is a good idea indeed, focusing on your actual needs for manufacturing this product. So whether you are planning to develop something for a mass market or whether this is just going to be a trial run for, I don't know, gathering some feedback from the market before executing a product which is redesigned or a next version iteration of your first product,

Think about it in terms of what the actual needs are for you as a client and what your strategy is for that product. And this will also help us to give you even a rough estimation on the costs related to developing products for a mass market versus going to a smaller, let's say, just a handful of pieces. 

This is something that can help and definitely point us in the right direction, and I think that it's always good to be transparent with a budget if you have any specified at all. Because, for instance, I imagine a situation when a client with little experience in terms of calculating the cost of a product might assume that, I dunno, a product will cost a hundred dollars, and it turns out that they only want to spend $5 for the housing of this item or this pro product.

And at that point, we might say, okay, but this is a very limited amount of money for us because we can only work on something very simple. And your brief specifies that you want to develop the next iPhone.

This is where we will either declare that this is unrealistic or consider transferring some funds or increasing the budget for the housing. Because this will give us more options, more material options, more finishing options even. And in some cases, we will even be able to think about including more parts, more functional parts. 

I understand that a budget at that point might be wishful thinking or based on just an estimation, a rough estimation. Share this information with us still. Try to be transparent so that we also know what your expectations are. Whether we should aim at a product which would be heavily optimized in terms of manufacturing costs or whether this is going to be a high-end product in terms of quality and materials used for that. This helps a lot in getting the best designs out of an industrial design company.

VH: In this context, I think a good example is when someone approaches you and says that they want a part of their product to be something like this, that they see basically everywhere available for a low price. And they expect that if they can buy it for such a price, then they can surely produce it for an even lower price. But they're not considering that, for example, this very simple object costs $5 everywhere....

RP: Yes. 

VH: …but when they are manufacturing their product, for example, in 50,000 pieces or 5,000 pieces, they won't be able to match that price because they see it everywhere at a low price because it's produced in millions of pieces.

RP: Right. So the target price for a product is often unrealistic because of the production volume. Because if you try to manufacture something in tens of pieces, let's say, the unit price is going to be higher than if you're optimizing the product for millions. Then you can simply assume that the cost of tooling will have very little influence over the end price of the product. So it's often unrealistic to meet the target price if the actual volume is too low. And it's not even, let's say, our limitations on our end, but think about a manufacturer who's going to...

VH: It's just math.

RP: That's right. It's math. And if a manufacturer sees a project that is going to be mass produced, they can obviously give a better price and assume that the client is a long-term client and is going to, I dunno, stay with them for a few years at least. And this is a point for negotiations, of course, and you can try to meet your expectations in terms of the target price.

But this has to be taken into account because it's very often overlooked and often this factor is ignored when planning the end price for the product.

VH: I understand all of that. When I see a product on the market and I want to have a similar part included, or maybe I want to release a similar product, then I should simply analyze the competition more thoroughly to make sure if they're even local or global, are they a huge producer or a small producer...

RP: Yes, definitely. And just think about your company as well. What is yours? position in the market and how can you compete in this market in relation to your competition?

Because, of course, everyone wants their product to be the number one product in the world and sell millions of units.

VH: I would settle for number two. Yeah, that's good enough too.

RP: That's right, but think realistically in terms of what you're actually planning and what you're actually going to deliver in the market, and how low can the price get to still generate income for the company?

This is very important information in planning any project because it also gives a very good perspective on what the target for that product is going to be.

Whether it’s supposed to be number one in the world and absolutely top-notch or whether this is going to be the cheapest product, for instance, Think about your product in terms of advantages over competitive products that are present in the market. Whether you are going to compete on the price factor or whether you are going to compete on the quality factor. It's always good to know this information ahead of time.

VH: To recap, when preparing a brief for developing a new product and contacting an industrial design company like ours, I should introduce myself personally and the company and the brand, and my vision for the brand or the company's vision for the brand. I will describe the product in as much detail as I can at this stage, and I should be okay with the fact that I might not know as much as I would wish to know. Maybe even I am aware that I don't know some crucial things but I should tell you that because...

RP: Yes. 

VH: You will then try to find out for me the answers. I should try to describe the volume of the product that I'm planning to sell per year. If I don't know that, I should also tell you that I don't know that. Maybe you can find out some information about the target group. I should definitely play devil's advocate with myself and try to challenge everything I say to see if maybe I'm giving you wrong information or maybe I haven't thought everything through. And definitely, I should let you know what my plan for the timeline and the budget is.

RP: Yes. 

VH: The timeline if I don't have much experience, both timeline and budget might be black magic for me… 

RP: Yes. 

VH: …but here you can step in to help if I have some experience and I tell you what's the budget, what's the timeline, this will help you to assess better how to approach the design, how to even kick the project off with me as a more experienced player.

RP: Even if you're an inexperienced player in introducing new products to the market, treat the research and development process as a safety measure. That will simply help you avoid very expensive mistakes during the manufacturing, logistics and and marketing stages.

VH: And I guess that's the best description. Thinking about the design process, the research and development process as a safety measure…

RP: Yes. 

VH: …against cost mistakes, basically. So the better the safety measure is informed and performed…

RP: Yes.

RP: …simply the safer your business will be.

RP: And the less the risk is. True.

VH: That's a great note to end on. Thank you very much.

RP: Thank you very much.



Rafal Pilat is an entrepreneur and co-founder of Mindsailors, an awarded industrial design company, with over 15 years of experience as a designer himself.









Voytek Holysz is the COO of Mindsailors with 15 years of experience in running a business in creative B2B services, marketing, sales and video production.

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