Is good design good for business?

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We have often been told that good design means good business. Tanya Weaver talks to a few product design consultancies about their experience with clients to see whether this is indeed the case
Something that struck me while writing two customer stories recently was how both companies had invested in design in order to increase sales, improve customer experience, build their brands and
gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

In the case of Norton Motorcycles, head of design Simon Skinner makes it clear that he wants Norton to be a design-led company, using design to make the bikes distinctive and to really push the brand forward.

Similarly, MTT Technologies Group enlisted the help of design consultancy 4D Products to design and develop a new Selective Laser Melting machine.

At the end of the project, not only did MTT get a better styled product but 4D Products also managed to strip out as much cost as possible, while still creating a well laid out and accessible system. MTT is now confident that this new machine will increase its market share.

Although companies are starting to recognise design as a commercial tool, it is difficult to measure a return on investment in design

These two examples prove that good design is indeed good for business. However, not all companies understand that today product design consultancies offer far more than a mere styling and beautifying’ service.

In most cases they offer a complete design and development service that includes consumer research, concept development, design strategy, ergonomics, 3D CAD, engineering, brand identity, rapid prototyping as well as tooling and production support.


Although companies are starting to recognise design as a commercial tool, it is difficult to measure a return on investment in design. The reason being that, although product design plays an integral part in bringing a new product to market, it is never the only factor – as material costs, tooling costs, distribution as well as promotional and marketing activities need to be considered too.

Also, once launched you can’t only measure the success of a product by an increase in sales volume, you need to consider those things that are far harder to quantify such as an increased awareness of the brand.

Having spoken to a number of product design consultancies, it seems that what clients most hope to achieve from an investment in design is to cut costs and gain market share.

As Paul Neal, co-founder of industrial design consultancy Product Partners, says, “Ensuring the product is price competitive is a focus of all client briefs, whether it be cheaper to make, easier to assemble, lighter to transport and, at the end of its life, simple to dispose of/recycle.

All of these contribute a measured return on investment.” Alex Jones, director of Cambridge Industrial Design, agrees with the sentiment that, for clients, the economic benefit of using a product design consultancy is really down to reducing costs whether it be improved unit, part or assembly costs.

For instance, in a recent project for a manufacturer of laboratory equipment, the consultancy was able to achieve around 50% savings. But, along with this cost saving, the product also provided better cooling, expandability and looked better than what the company had before.

“The client was initially expecting a straightforward re-work of the existing casework. However, once we showed them that by re-arranging the internals we could get a number of advantages they were very
enthusiastic and quickly understood the fact that industrial design delivers so much more than ‘a slightly better looking box’. They will get back the design costs after selling 100 units – I call that value for money,” says Jones.

Companies that have never used a product design consultancy before take a real leap of faith as they don’t really know what they will get at the end of their investment.

However, once the product has successfully been developed and launched, they will often enlist the services of the consultancy again for future product development projects. In these cases, the consultancy can really get to understand its client’s business and the customers that their products are aimed at.

For instance, Lumie, a Cambridge-based manufacturer of light therapy products, has been working with product design consultancy, Product Resolutions, since 2002. In that time the consultancy has worked on 17 projects for them, 11 of which have made it into production.

Lumie obviously sees the benefit that design can bring to its business and is seeing a return on its design investment. “We’ve designed a range of products for Lumie which have enabled them to achieve wider distribution and so increase sales.

The challenge moving forward is to stay ahead of the competition in an increasingly competitive market, investing in design and innovation is the key to long term commercial success,” says Paul Robbins, Product Resolution’s director. Reducing costs in the development process, as well as ensuring a high quality product at the end of it, is made a great deal easier with all the digital design tools available to designers today.

Using tools such as CAD, simulation software, rapid prototyping and CAM ensures that products will be of a high quality and also perform reliably when launched. As Lloyd Pennington of Buff Industrial Design says, “Good design will consider not only quality of form, surface continuity, panel fit, colour and texture, but will also consider carefully the effect of variation in the manufacturing processes and design to accommodate.

This can be achieved by analytical means using tools such as tolerance stack analysis, Design Failure Mode and Effect Analysis and Design for Six Sigma. We took this approach for one of our recent projects, the Frontier Stove for humanitarian aid organisation, Shelterbox.

We carefully analysed the manufacturing tolerances to ensure repeatable manufacture. The results were much lower cost, quicker to market and tens of thousands of stoves delivered to families in need across the world without a hitch.”

So, it seems that good product design is indeed good for a client’s business. As Alex Jones says, “It’s always great if, at the end of a project, the customer ‘gets it’ and sees the return on investment. It means you have ‘sold’ the idea of industrial design as a valuable business tool.”

Tanya Weaver discovers that product design offers more than a beauty treatment

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