Every project presents its own unique challenges.
Finding a good fit in a design partner can help mitigate some of those challenges. Finding the right design partner, however, is also a challenge. Not all Industrial Design firms are equal. The right partner is aligned with your interests, can meet your business and project needs and can dramatically increase the success of your medical device. The wrong choice could be a costly one, both in time and money. Possibly resulting in mediocre results. Here I try to break down factors worth being aware of when choosing an Industrial Design firm to work with. Some of these are obvious, others less so, and some difficult to identify, but knowing the variables may help you ask the right questions.
Note too, this is a generalised list. I cannot claim projects have unique challenges in the first sentence and then attempt to cover every scenario. Conversely, while our expertise is in Industrial Design and thus the context of this article, it likely covers other disciplines too.
Cost is possibly one of the most important factors in selecting a design partner, especially for a startup with limited capital. While it’s the most important consideration, it is almost always a compound of everything else I discuss below. The depth of experience, breadth of expertise, infrastructure, raw talent and size of the team, can all impact what numbers you see on a proposal. However, a proposal that is two or four times more than another does not mean your needs are two or four times better met. When the dollars count, it is important to take a close look at what those costs represent, and whether that contributes to the success of your project.
One thing this pandemic has taught us is that location is now more and less critical than ever. Location is causing a lot of pain for companies trying to source materials, while for knowledge industries the need to be anywhere specific has diminished. It is now more possible than ever to work with any design partner anywhere in the world.
Location can drive many factors around how an Industrial Design firm operates and is directly linked to their overheads for rent and salaries. Further, where they work can often give you an indication of how they work, and how they communicate. Do they have a snazzy studio in the CBD? Or do they operate out of a workshop? These kinds of factors can often give you an insight into how they approach the design process and is worth considering when looking at the right partner for your project.
With unprecedented access to designers, and the idea of global reach for cost or competitive benefits an enticing one, for us in Australia it’s not quite that simple. Anyone who has spent any time out of Australia will know we’re a long way from anywhere. Differing time zones mean collaboration efforts are always asynchronous. This might not sound problematic, but an 8-15 hour difference is significant. And when it comes to the crunch, the interface between your team and theirs can make a big difference. It’s worth considering how responsive your design partner can be when you need them.
I’ve gone on record as saying that Industrial Designers are a versatile bunch. By applying design thinking to many sectors, they can achieve excellent results. While many consultancies will work on anything, some specialise in specific regulated industries such as mining, architecture and medical. An Industrial Design firm with specific expertise relative to your needs can speak your language and give you a head start on development. If you’re on a budget, be mindful about forgoing expertise to save costs. It can often be a false economy. The old saying – ‘if you think hiring a professional is expensive, just wait until you hire an amateur’ – holds true in medical and other regulated industries. Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. If cost is a limiting factor, there’s often other elements worth looking at to try and meet budget constraints.
Put simply, larger teams have greater overheads and therefore cost more. The size and composition of any potential design team can also have a huge impact on how your device is developed. When you’re on a budget it’s worth understanding what you need in a team, and what you’re paying for. Larger teams may have broader expertise, and complex projects requiring multi-disciplinary teams can benefit from having that cross-communication under the one roof. While large teams may offer greater resources to meet your needs, it also means greater resources needed to manage those, er, resources. More structure and infrastructure can mean less adaptability and reduced responsiveness.
Conversely, taking the time to ensure they can meet your needs, a small team of the right people can be agile, easily integrated, and cost-effective. They can pivot as your project pivots. A big team does not equal a better result.
By this I mean the infrastructure an Industrial Design firm may use to manage their projects, and is especially pertinent when working with ISO 13485 certified consultancies. Operating a 13485-compliant quality management system does come with a financial and time burden, and is an essential part of medical device design and development. How teams choose to apply this relative to your project is worth considering. In early stage translational or MVP design, trying to apply formal design control may not be appropriate. I don’t at all mean the design control process should be short-circuited. I mean R&D is fast and loose, and to maximise those opportunities of discovery, it should remain so. Once design inputs are well informed, design controls should be implemented. Attempting to do so beforehand can add time and cost to do (and then possibly redo). A good design consultancy will adapt their workflow to your needs, and not try and shoehorn your needs into their workflow.
Almost universally, project proposals are made up of the total hours a project is estimated to take at a certain hourly rate. Some firms will, however, present these proposals as a flat fee, while others will not. For a startup or project with a limited budget, this can make a significant impact to planning. For those unfamiliar, a flat fee is a commitment by a design firm that, presuming there are no mid-project changes, the fee on the proposal is accurate to the project costs. There is an imperative then for firms that offer a flat fee to invest their time up front to fully understand your needs, accurately define the scope of work and associated costs, and hold themselves accountable to it. It may appear as a greater cost up front, but there’s value in knowing there’s no surprises. The payoff is strong continued relationships. So, when looking at the value of the proposal, consider the value of a flat fee.
Got questions or something to add? Feel free to shoot me an email or hit us up on LinkedIn.