This article is a transcription of episode #4 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 this episode Voytek Hołysz speaks with Rafał Piłat, ar senior designer and the co-founder of Mindsailors, on how a company or an individual should prepare to outsourcing product development or R&D, and what one may expect from a 3rd party in regards to developing your product.
Voytek Hołysz: Rafał, welcome. Today we are going to talk about tips for outsourcing product development and R&D, for companies that are thinking about doing it for the first time, or who don't have a lot of experience working with outside product development and research and development firms. You have huge experience in industrial design. Like, how many years ago did you start?
Rafał Piłat: I think it's been over 15 years.
VH: So you've probably worked with clients who have a ton of experience in the process of developing a new product and with companies that have no experience in developing a new product.
My first impression, thinking about the subject, was that it's probably a matter of communication. Especially in terms of communicating and agreeing on the technical aspect versus the aesthetic, artistic design aspect and how you work with them. Is this something that creates some sort of confusion or is it a problem in communication when it comes to a client telling you what they expect and your telling them what they can expect from you?
RP: Every process requires clarification so that we understand each other, that we speak the same language, and that we are on the same page in terms of expectations and what is going to be delivered. So no matter if this is a corporate client that we are talking to or if this is a startup company, we always try to educate them. We always try to give them some kind of example of what they can expect from us.
This basically saves us a lot of pain just in case there is a misunderstanding of, I dunno, certain terms or certain stages of the process. So I think this is the best practice that we try to apply to our process. Educate the client on the way and show them examples of what to expect at the end of each phase.
VH: You said terms and stages? I think this is very important; terms are one thing. When both parties believe they agree on something when, in fact, they have opposing views on a particular word or definition. A process—that's a whole different thing. That is, I think it relies more on experience. So how do you take care of the process side when working with clients?
RP: Our good practice, I would say, is to work according to certain stages that we developed. Every project is split into six stages, and I think this is the easiest way for us to apply those stages to our clients' needs or requirements. Because different clients come with different expectations. Some want the full package, let's say, starting with the initial conceptual design or even the research phase and ending with a manufactured product, and some come just for, I dunno, one stage. For example, we would handle only the conceptual design, leaving the mechanical design to them because it is something they could do on their own.
We do, let's say, follow a procedure. A process that is split into various stages for the project. And if necessary, we just execute one of those stages depending on the actual scope of work. We adjust to the client or the project.
VH: This process, I imagine, is very helpful. When a company with no experience in developing a new product comes to you and says, "Hey, we're a startup company; this is something new for our team," And you show them the industrial design process—the six stages—and it's helpful for them.
But what if a client comes to you, for example, someone from an NPD department in a large corporation who is simply understaffed and needs something out on the market or inside the company quickly and asks you for your help? Does he also need to work within that process? Is it something he might think is totally different from the workflow that he is used to?
RP: I don't think it depends on the size of the company because even larger corporate clients might have zero experience with introducing new products to a market. So I would say this depends on the actual experience of the staff members on the client's side.
We are flexible, so we can adjust our process if they have some very specific requirements for that but in my experience, our process, divided into those stages, pretty much reflects a standard, say, among different companies.
So there is a pretty good understanding among those clients who do have experience with designing products. I would say I don't remember any specific project with such clients that could be problematic in that regard.
VH: Okay, what about the other way around? Let's say that there's this experienced engineer who has his own team, and he might be afraid that our process will not live up to his or her standards. You said that the Mindsailors design process is somewhat similar to industry standards.
If a client would expect you to change it in some way to adapt it more to their workflow, is that possible?
RP: Yes. If there are some, let's say, trust issues or an expectation for high oversight to make sure whether we will be able to deliver specific types of files or quality of, I don't know, solids modeled, then there are various ways to handle this.
There were projects that were overseen by senior engineers on our client's side. And obviously, they were able to verify and accept our work. So I would say there are no issues on our side in being transparent in what we do and in also adjusting to our clients' needs.
Because if they want to overview our work, then certainly we can show them what we are currently doing. They can review the work. They are welcome to comment on it, and if any changes are required, we will make them.
VH: I remember when we were preparing to have this talk, you mentioned something like, "This industrial design process that we use is meant to manage client expectations." Could you expand on that?
RP: I think it's based basically on the most frequent requests from our clients, because I would say some clients come and expect only conceptual design from us. So obviously, this is something that every industrial design studio does. And this is the basic work that we do too. But of course, there are different clients who come to us and do not know exactly what they want to do. They just have some ideas about their product. But that is not specific enough to start that project yet. And this is also something we can help them with by executing a research phase for digging deeper on the subject matter in order to come up with a project specification or a good product brief, which is not always something that we receive from our client in the first place.
Then we also have clients who come to us with a conceptual model but are not able to move on to the next stage, which is preparing this model for manufacturing or executing mechanical design. And this is also something that we can do for them.
Depending on their actual needs and the most frequent requests that we get from our clients, our process is basically those stages or those most frequent requests from our clients to handle their product or their project at various stages of their life cycle.
VH: Yeah. In my perspective, our process also manages a client's expectations in the way that when a client with no experience comes in and says they have an idea and they want us to do a shelf-ready product in six months. The process, when you lay it out to the client, makes them better aware of how new product development works. Why it needs each stage and what they can expect at the end—that's how I also understand managing the client's expectations with that.
RP: Yeah, that's also correct, because you're absolutely right about the clients who come to us with a very vague idea of the timeframe for designing a hardware product. And this is also something that we have to do. If we see a client who comes to us and says he wants a shelf-ready product in six months, this is something that is maybe not totally impossible but highly unrealistic.
VH: It's probably possible when the problem is so simple and easy that you don't even need a design studio for it.
RP: That's right. But if we're talking about, I dunno, consumer electronics or any more complicated type of product, even considering the tooling phase, the design process, and testing and reviewing, this is almost impossible.
But I would say if you had a team that you trusted at every stage and a manufacturer who was just waiting for the project to execute, only then would it be possible.
VH: But that's quite unrealistic. A holy grail.
RP: Yes. And so we have to educate our clients, and we have to show them that specific stages take some time. It's not just that you constantly work for 3, 4, or 6 weeks. You need to review your research. Also, something our clients frequently overlook: they need time to review and rethink the information they receive from us.
They often forget about this, and sometimes it takes weeks for our client to, I dunno, review our work and come up with some feedback, which definitely influences the timeframe of the project as well.
VH: Okay. What are the typical scenarios? When a client has internal capabilities for product development and R&D but still comes to us, what may be a good reason to reach out to a company like ours?
RP: I see a few different reasons. And definitely one of the reasons is that they do have engineering staff or hardware engineers, but they lack aesthetic designers for their products.
So this is a very common reason for corporate clients who can handle mechanical design on their own, who can handle hardware in terms of electronics, but who do not have staff members in their team responsible for aesthetic design.
VH: Yes, I often hear that when talking with companies and people from companies at different trade fairs, when it comes to industrial machinery. "It's an engineer that designed a machine, and he does the aesthetic design as well. And it usually leads to the case where the company is seeking out someone who might do a better job."
RP: Yeah, definitely. This is definitely the case.
VH: And usually our clients see the need because they see the limitations of their staff. That's simply what they can do; they can design great working machinery, but the aesthetic part is still a different cup of tea, right?
RP: That's right. and requires a different skill set. And that's why they come to us for that purpose. But I suppose that's the only way an internal team could be.
VH: If you have an internal team, it might be simply—I dunno—overbooked.
RP: That's right. And this is the second reason companies come to us, because we also have clients that need that.
They run their own internal projects and have no means to simply handle another project. And this is where we can help them as well. And if they have a project that they can outsource, then we can handle such a project automatically. And just give them what they expect from us.
That's definitely another reason for reaching out to an external design studio, even if, for instance, you have internal designers for that specific product. But imagine if you're working for such a company and do the same type of work for five years, for instance. And you're designing only the same type of product, which can make you biased or narrow your vision. You no longer look beyond what has been done, and your work is basically influenced by your experience and maybe your past designs. This is something that a client may want to do in order to bring "fresh blood" to the team.
VH: I totally understand that. I remember talking to a guy once; he was a 3D graphics designer, and he worked for a company that was producing insulation, and he did product visualizations for them. So he said he's the master of insulation 3D renders. Because that's all he ever did. like all kinds of wool, with varying structures and densities, but nothing else.
And the very narrow scope of expertise kills your creativity. But at some point, it also starts to narrow your perspective. You're unable to think outside the box because you're always in this one specific box, right?
RP: That's right. By performing the same and similar types of work.So we have cases where a company with internal capabilities to do R&D or product development might be overbooked, need a fresh perspective, lack designers, for instance, or simply lack some specific skills within their teams.
VH: Yes. Does this also apply to R&D work?
RP: Yes, because. Industrial design studios not only develop products, but they also do a lot of research. That's why it's called research and development. This is also something in which we specialize. And some projects are just focused on that.
So doing research for our clients and delivering them with some kind of report, tests, or possible technical feasibility studies. Essentially, we conduct an analysis to determine whether something is feasible and what the overall cost of such a project might be. And this is something that we do. But there were also projects that focused on solving a specific problem during research, for instance, finding a technology feasible for manufacturing a specific thing. And if the client requires assistance with a mechanical or construction problem, we can handle it or even solve it.
VH: Let's say I lack designers in my team. I have engineers who are really good engineers, but they may lack a feel for aesthetics. Convince me why it's a good idea to hire a team, a whole studio, instead of, for example, going with a freelancer who is also experienced in this field.
RP: Many of our clients have used freelancers for their aesthetic designs.And they end up—not always, but occasionally—with projects that are not possible to execute because of what a freelancer might know about manufacturing. Beyond, of course, his or her aesthetic skills and whether he or she has any knowledge of the product's actual manufacturing, mechanical design, or any other stage beyond exterior design. So when you come to a design studio, you have some expectations that we can handle, not only in terms of the outlook of the product but also in terms of how to build it.
When we show our design to our clients, we verify it, we think about how it's going to be built, and I would say that hiring an industrial design studio over a freelancer is definitely a safer option, unless you're willing to take the risk of getting something that's not quite right. Pretty, but unlikely to be executed or very expensive to execute.
VH: Definitely, the wider scope of work that we do, the wider scope of talents that we have, and our insights into the whole process of introducing a product to the market are a big advantage over a freelancer.
RP: Other than that, we can oversee the full project if our client lacks such skills. So, as I mentioned earlier, you can come to us and expect that we are going to deliver a finished product, which is something that is line manufactured or that is a prototype, whatever your wishes are in this regard.
But we can handle the whole process, and we can manage this process as well. This is something that can definitely benefit clients who have no prior experience managing these types of projects.
VH: You were a freelancer once. You probably started as a freelancer, right? Do all the things you say now apply to you in the younger years of your career?
RP: That's a hard question because my age as a freelancer is considered a different branch of creative work than industrial design. By the time I became an industrial designer, I had already been hired by a company.
So that was obviously something different. When this company was still a two-person company, we always wanted to deliver more to our clients than other small, single-person studios would. And we always wanted to assure them that the projects that they received from us would be possible to execute.
And I think that was a big advantage over a typical freelancer who just came up with, let's say, beautiful pictures that had no basis in reality in terms of how a product might be made.
VH: You yourself felt the need to make your designs more manufacturable.
RP: Yes, in terms of actual manufacturing processes, it is more feasible and realistic.
And I would say this is a big advantage over something that cannot be executed or, simply, if a designer has no experience in manufacturing and delivers a product that is totally unrealistic or technically not possible to do. I do remember certain projects that we received from our clients. They came to us with attractive conceptual models, and upon analyzing them, it turned out that... one project that I specifically have in mind was, I think, 15 parts? I think. And out of those 15 separate parts, only one was manufacturable. That basically gave us a pretty good idea of what had to be done.
VH: You had to do a total overhaul of the whole design?
RP: We did our best to maintain the original vision for the project, but changes were unavoidable, and this was not an easy task.
VH: So coming back to managing client expectations, you said that, for example, a client came to you with a design that turned out to be impossible to manufacture. You basically needed to redesign it. I'm sure it changed the design in general, however hard you tried to keep it. But I assume that a client might come in and expect a guaranteed result. As if they came to you with this piece of paper with a design on it and they say it's supposed to be this and only this. How do you manage such expectations? Is it possible?
RP: If it's a realistic project, then yeah, it's possible. But if it's something completely, I don't know, unrealistic, and we've had such clients before, we simply need to tell them that guys, we can do something similar, but not exactly like that. For example, there is no technology that would allow us to do something like that.
Or you can just make a 3D print. Basically, a 3D printer can handle almost everything. But if you plan for mass production, then there are definitely different requirements for such a project and for such a 3D model. Sometimes our clients need to be aware that, well, compromises will be necessary.
VH: That's the nature of R and D work, right?
RP: Yes, but not always. For example, research and development can be unsuccessful at times. Let me give you an example because I think it's going to be the easiest way to illustrate.
We did have a research project that required us to find a specific technology for making a medical device placed inside a human body. And the issue was that our clients wanted to do actual testing on live subjects. Medical tests. But they needed to find the technology that would allow them to prototype the devices as well as a technology that could be used at later stages for actual manufacturing.
We took on this challenge because we knew the limitations of current prototyping technologies, but of course we didn't know the actual state of the most cutting-edge technologies.
It took us six months to actually analyze the market, to inquire with different vendors and manufacturers to find out about possible technologies and even try to get some samples of materials. But we did say to our client in the beginning that they had to prepare for the possibility that this project might actually end without any possible solutions because it might turn out that there's currently no technology available that would have the necessary certifications for the materials. We suspected maybe there wouldn't be any materials that would be mechanically compatible with our needs for this device.
So we made sure that they were aware that such a process might end without, let's say, a success or any specific guides for them on what to do next. And, of course, they were aware that they needed to account for this. Thankfully, we ended up with very specific ideas and points that our client could use.
They continued working on their own, but with our findings on this specific subject. This isn't a case of a company that does R&D or industrial design internally. But it's important to understand that for such a person, the R&D process—or even probably the design process—is not something that guarantees the result they have imagined.
So sometimes you just verify that something is not possible to do. And that's also a positive result of an R&D process. I would add that maybe sometimes it is possible, but finding the right way or exploring different ways just to find the optimal one to solve a specific problem is a time-consuming process.
For instance, if you have to design something that is a mechanical product and you have to solve the problem of, I dunno, transporting something from one place to another, And it's really not that easy. If someone has made it before, then it can be analyzed. Then it's really just an issue of actually analyzing how it's made and executing, let's say, a similar mechanism.
But if this is something completely new, which sometimes happens to us because we cannot copy a different solution available in the market because there might be patents involved, upon registering this, you come up with a new one. We need to come up with a new solution to solve something.
Then this is a very challenging process because when we come up with different ideas, those ideas have to be verified.
You have to make some calculations, make an actual design and execute a prototype, analyze it, and maybe it turns out that it doesn't work and you have to rethink the whole process. Go back to the, let's say, drawing board and start again. often from scratch. Some clients should be aware that, especially when they come to us with challenging projects, mechanical challenges, or constructional puzzles to solve, designing entails exploring different ways not to do things and finding the one way based on experiments and reviews.
VH: When someone is faced with the situation that either they have no idea how to introduce a new product to the market or they have an idea and they even have a team for that, but they're overbooked or maybe too specialized in some niche element of the whole product, and they decide they need to reach out to an outside company, to an industrial design studio like ours, how can they prepare for that? What should they bring to the table for the first conversation?
They should bring as much information as they can because the more input there is from their side, the better understanding we will have of the actual product, the actual scope, and the actual problem to solve.
I always say that designing is not guesswork. And this is something that we also try to tell our clients: we are not fortune tellers. We do not have a magic ball to see the future with. To design something that is in their heads, they must be able to transfer it to paper or verbally to us. And then we analyze, we ask them questions, and we brainstorm.
We sometimes challenge their ideas because they seem too complex or not specific enough. And only then, when we have a very good understanding of what actually has to be designed and what has to be done, do we engage in the actual designing process on our end. So, if a client comes to us, they should have a project brief or specification prepared that answers all of their questions. And that's, I would say, a perfect case.
VH: I think that's impossible, right? To leave no questions.
RP: Yeah. There are always questions and that's our job to ask those questions, to ask them as long as we need to get the final answer. So what I imagine a client should, except for the general idea of the product, they should be able to specifically describe the functions. Or maybe the look. Or dimensions. Maybe material.
I would sum this up in one simple sentence, imagine that you describe your product to a person who has never seen a similar device and never touched a similar device. Based on your description, this person has to imagine how it will work, how it will function, and what it might look like.
VH: Okay. So if I wanted a new phone I shouldn't tell you "What I need is a new phone that does this and that.". I should first describe basically a phone and then the functions that I expect.
RP: Yes, that's right. Of course, references are most welcome. If you can, if a similar product exists to the one that you are trying to design, then of course we would like to see this because we will also do market research for similar constructions or similar types of devices, if there are any.
But if you have references of your own if you did market research or competition research, then this is something, a very valuable input for us as well. We can analyze it, we can maybe see potential problems or dangers if you want to copy a solution which is already in the market, because someone might have patented it.
And it's always good to tell us as much information as you can. Sometimes our clients ask us whether this will influence the process, whether we will not be biased by their ideas or by their suggestions. I say, no, just give us this information because it might turn out to be very valuable information. Don't keep it to yourself. Give it to us. We are not copycats to mindlessly copy something and apply it to a new product. This is not how a design studio works. And of course, every piece of information is welcome.
And if they don't want to share it with us for a good reason, then of course, we also need to know this because it might help us in the process.
VH: So if I decide that I need help with a project , before emailing or calling to an industrial design studio, I should do my homework. And make sure I know what I expect, what the product's functions will be, maybe how much I want it to cost on the shelf or how much I want it to cost in production, when I need to be ready, what's the, more or less shape or maybe what materials I want to use. As much detail as possible, but whilst being aware that these might change in the developing process.
RP: That's right. So I think that would sum up basically our discussion. I think we fairly got through everything we should.
VH: Thanks for your time. Thanks for the talk.
RP: Thank you.
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.
IDology #4 - Tips on outsourcing product development
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