There is nothing that excites us more than product design, but there are more than a few myths about what it means to be a successful 3D print product designers. The first of them being, are there even any successful 3D print product designers? In a world where product is everything, are 3D print designers designing products that will sell and approaching it with the correct mindset? Tom and Tracy Hazzard set the record straight of what product design really consists of in terms of time, finances, and communication between client and designer.
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Myths About Successful 3D Print Product Designers
Kicking around the subject of 3D print product designers today and our opinions on the matter might be considered a little controversial. We’re talking about myths about successful 3D print product designers. My first question is, there are successful 3D print product designers for 3D printing in and of itself? I don’t know. People are using it successfully in product development and they’re using 3D printing successfully. But are there “3D print product designers” that are successful today?
I would say they can’t possibly be financially successful. I think we have to define success. Maybe loosely define successful. “The prints come out really good out of my machine,” that’s successful. There are beautiful designs being created. Certainly there’s a lot of designers and artists creating beautiful stuff. If you’re going to define success on creating a beautiful design in and of itself, sure, there are successful designers. Financially successful, sustainable business model successful? I don’t know that can I go that far to define it. I don’t think it’s there yet. If it is, we’d be doing it by now.
Myth #1 of 3D Print Product Designers: Rush Design is No Problem
I wanted to go over and talk about my top four myths of 3D print product designers. It’s myths of being a product designer in general. It applies whether you’re 3D printing or not. My number one is rush design is no problem. That’s definitely a myth. People ask us to do rush, last minute projects all the time. “I need a prototype for a trade show that’s next week. And I need it to be the best design possible. I need to have enough time to paint it, finish it, do all of those things. And you have to ship it. I don’t want to ship it the day before because the shipping might not get there if there’s a problem. I want to ship it two days before just so I have an extra day. To my hotel.”
Rush design is just not fine. We were just talking about this actually because the whole idea of what goes wrong with automotive vehicles, like the Jeep. We were talking about that whole button … The Jeep with the whole transmission software problem where that actor died. Rush design is minimum viable product. Minimum viable product, at the end of the day, when you’re talking about hard physical products, is crap. You cannot do that. It’s not okay. It’s not even okay for a trade show, for showing up at a presentation.
I’ve seen it go so badly where they think, “Oh, I can get away with this.” We’ve seen it done on chairs. It’s not sittable but it looks good. Then, what happens? Somebody sits on it. The buyer sits on it. And it breaks. It happens every time. It breaks and then they look at you like, “What did you make this junk for?” You’re like, “You weren’t supposed to sit on it. Didn’t you see the big banner that say ‘Do Not Sit’?” It doesn’t matter. That’s what’s going to happen. That’s why it’s not okay to rush the design process. The process is the way that it is.
We’re really fast at what we do for the most part. Sure, but fast is a relative thing. That doesn’t mean you can do it a week. It doesn’t mean you can rush a project. It’s one thing to put something ahead of other projects and rush it in our priority schedule of things. But you cannot rush the design process and the way that it works.
Let’s touch on that Jeep reference just a little bit because I think this is a classic example of new technology being used in a product, in this case a car. It used to be, every transmission had a physical lever that you moved, that had a metal linkage that went down to the transmission to physically shift the gears, from drive to neutral to reverse or whatever. Now, with computers, every car has a pretty powerful computer. You don’t need to do that anymore. You could push a button here that tells the transmission to shift there.
The user interface, this is more of an issue of a user interface design and probably inadequate product testing that caused this whole problem with the transmission. You’re trying to make a whole paradigm shift with generations that maybe aren’t ready to make that shift. I’m sure long time employees at Jeep Chrysler or anybody who’s retired who was watching that on the news who was involved in engineering or development at a big auto company knows exactly what happened. Younger designers are, “Oh, we’ve got computers. We can do this with the user interface. We’ll just simulate it on the computer instead of actually making one and sitting people who are not us in it.”
We’ll move a lever that we’ll just move it to the driver’s position then you let it go and it goes back to a standard position. There’s a whole paradigm shift that consumers have to go through. They always know that transmission works a certain way. When the shifter’s in this position, “Oh, it must be in park.” Even though in this case, it really wasn’t in park. It was in neutral. Anyway, I think that part of that can happen because of rushing design. And skipping parts of the process. While I’m sure they spent years on it, they didn’t do all their due diligence and their testing of product with actual users.
They would have learned, “Oh my gosh. Somebody’s going to think that’s in park and it’s not. The car’s going to roll. That’s dangerous. We should change this user interface or change the software, change something about it so that can’t happen.” That’s an extreme example and a really big product. A little different than your trade show example, but I think there are some similarities.
I just want to go one step further in making sure to define this in terms of 3D product designers. Rush design is not okay here because you never know. By the time we finish the design process and we start dialing in settings on the machine, we have to print, we have to hold, we have to wait, we have to take it off the machine, we have to try to crush it, we have to switch materials because that’s not working, we have to order a new material in. It’s not a fast thing.
I’m remembering what Hector Berrebi told us, I think it was just two weeks ago, about developing all those things for Lowes’ that were the letter hangers. They made them in two parts. Even though they probably didn’t do scientific testing, they certainly did a lot of real world testing. Made a lot of parts, hung a lot of heavy things on them, used them for a long period of time. They did at least quite a bit of work to make sure that those designs were functionally going to hold up at least to a certain comfort level of theirs.
Even if it wasn’t a, “I can say you hang this many pounds on it and I know it’s going to last for a number of years,” type of thing. Still, they did a lot to try to prove that. I give them a lot of credit. I think Hector would agree, you can’t rush good design. Not good design, that’s for sure. I feel comfortable in making that statement, distinction.
Myth #2 of 3D Print Product Designers: Design Can Be Discounted
My number two thing. Design can be discounted. I don’t get that mentality. I’m sorry, but why should I be offering you a discount? Then my prices are just false to begin with. Discounted design is Fiverr. Go there. Don’t waste my time. Fiverr, Freelancer, whatever. If you want a discount, then you don’t want what my brain has to offer. You don’t want the quality, the level of hours and time that we put in. We have hundreds and thousands hours of design time. Put that against any young kid on Fiverr and there’s no comparison. Stop asking me to cheapen my rates. The old adage is true. You’re going to get what you pay for.
I can give an example from my experience when I was new in my career. 23 years old I think, you and I relocated to Grand Rapids, Michigan to work in that furniture industry. I was pounding the pavement. I was able to just start to build a consulting business. There was a company that didn’t have a lot of money to spend but at the time, I didn’t need to make a lot of money either. Hey, it’s a client. I’m going to take them. I was doing what I thought was a great job for them and created this design, had them make it an actual working sample out of real material.
This was a desk that was to be mounted in the back of a van. It was a mobile office in a vehicle. It became a really big deal. It was on TV and all that. The first generation was flawed. I had them build it in actual hard material. Spent a lot of time and money on it. Put it in a van and … It didn’t fit. It’s not that the whole thing didn’t fit but there was a lid that opened up and it wouldn’t open up all the way. It only opened a third of the way because part of the vehicle that was curving and above it got in the way and interfered.
Had I built this design, mocked it up in cardboard, cork and cardboard and hot glue would have cost about $20 of material and a couple hours of time. I would have figured all this out and not embarrassed myself. I wouldn’t have embarrassed myself in front of the client and I would have done a better job with the first generation.
The point is that this is a company that didn’t have a big budget and they didn’t have a lot to spend. They got what they paid for. Had they hired a more experienced designer, they would have hired a designer that would have not made this rookie error.
Also, one who wouldn’t have cut the hours, because that’s another thing. I had to cut corners because they had to cut hours out of the budget because there’s only so much time that they could be spending on clients like that. What I found is there are three things that happen when you ask for discounts.
One, you piss off the designer to the point at which they’re annoyed that you just disrespected them and their skill level and what they have to offer. If they’re a big enough firm, they will pass you off onto your junior designers and still charge you the higher rate. You won’t get their services at all. It’s a huge mistake to go in and ask for a discount. That’s the first thing that happens.
The second thing that happens typically is that the hours get cut and you get less of a project. Features get cut, time gets cut. They have to make it up somewhere. The third thing, which is an even bigger problem if you’ve contracted for a large project but asked for a volume discount or something like that, what happens is that they need more clients to actually make ends meet. If they need more clients to make ends meet, your project is always on the backburner whether you realize it or not.
I do think that it’s possible if you’re a big company and you’re going to contract for design services over a long period of time, you’re going to give a design firm a volume of business, I think there’s a legitimate discount to be had there because a design firm will have to spend a lot of time and energy and expense in going to get new clients. If you’re going to give them a volume of business over time and they don’t have to spend that kind of money, I think you can then see that reflected in a discounted rate given a guarantee of a larger amount of business. I think that can happen.
It has to match your expectations for the amount of time or amount of capacity from the firm that you’re getting or the designers that you’re getting. If you’re going to be taking up 60% of their design time, they’re still got to fill the other 40% if you then discounted it. If you’re taking up 100% of their time and they aren’t having to spend time seeking other work, then that’s really useful as well. But as we know, putting all your eggs in one basket is extremely dangerous. I don’t recommend it for designers out there. Just do it. Design firms will never want to do that. It’s too risky.
Myth #3 of 3D Print Product Designers: Royalty is THE Incentive
That moves on to my third thing that they always go for. That is, “Royalty is such a big incentive. You should come and work for royalty or a piece of my startup.” I have never heard bigger BS in my entire life. I have never seen it go right. We live off royalty of some of our good designs here. There’s no question in my mind that royalty works in some capacity but it’s a sales gimmick to draw you in as a designer and say, “You’re just going to get so much royalty,” because so many things can go wrong.
I can tell you from experience that we have had many royalty projects in our 25 year careers. Only one of those royalty agreements really ever came to pass to produce a large enough amount of money that it’s meaningful to me, that I’m actually making money out of the work that I did years ago.
We had on client who as soon as times got tough and their budgets got tight, the first thing they stopped paying was royalty because it wasn’t necessary to keep their lights on at that time. You can go and sue them but you’re throwing them more money at that. At the end of the day, you never recover everything you’re really owed. You have to go in to a royalty arrangement very, very cautiously.
I would never do that unless you really trust and have a real belief that this company is actually going to honor that agreement and pay you the royalty down the road. I think that all too many of them will not, unfortunately. We don’t do it unless we can actually affect the outcome. If we’re in the sales room and we’re in with the buyer and we’re selling, then we will participate in a percentage on top of it. We always cover our costs. It’s never a royalty only situation. It’s a discounted fee that at least covers a minimum of our costs and justifies our time, to a certain degree anyway in doing the work, and then you’re getting royalty on top of that.
It’s always in perpetuity. As long as they’re selling the product, you’re getting royalty. Forget this idea of caps and sunsets and all that thing. If they don’t want to do that, then pay the real fee it takes to actually do the job upfront in the place and don’t try to do royalty.
If it’s a startup, we do convertible design ownership. That means that they don’t get to keep it in their startup when they fail and they shut the doors. If we didn’t get our full payment, the IP reverts to us. They don’t get to liquidate our hard work and not pay us anything. That’s our protection against bankruptcy that happens with startups.
Royalty, it sounds wonderful. It has happened and it can happen. It’s a wonderful thing when it works that well. Nothing better than getting paid on something you did a couple years ago. It’s a great thing. It’s how you actually start to build some real income and wealth or whatever. But, it’s so volatile and there’s so many things that will affect the success or failure of that that have nothing to do with how good your design is. A lot of times you have no control over it. It’s a very risky endeavor. It’s not an incentive.
Myth #4 of 3D Print Product Designers: Contests are worth it
Now, this is going to be the most controversial one, because we don’t agree eye to eye on it, “Contests are so worthwhile that you should be spending all your time participating in our free 3D printing contest so you can win a 3D printer.”
Contests, I definitely have a bad taste in my mouth about contests for a number of reasons. Number one, it’s work that is on spec. Usually, the competition will require, once you submit it, they have full rights to that design. You actually lose your rights to it. That’s one of the biggest issues I have that they should not do. You have to be really careful with that.
The other thing that really bothers me about contests that I really have a hard time with is if there’s no real clear criteria up front for what the judges are going to use to make a decision on what is a winning entry and what it is not. If it’s really ambiguous, “We’ve got this panel of judges. These high profile business people and successful business people. They’re the judges for the competition.” If there’s not a very clear set of criteria as to what the point of the competition is and what they’re looking for, is it just a beautiful design, is it design at a certain price point, is there some other real tangible criteria you can work towards?
Because I’ve entered a lot of competitions and it takes a lot of time. Not only to do the work but even to fill out the forms and then ship samples to them and do all that sort of thing. I’ve been on the other side as judge. I can tell you, it’s so horrible to sit there in the judging room sometimes and have this debate happen about what everyone’s own paradigm is and idea is for what the contest is supposed to be about. Usually, it’s not well defined. That’s a huge problem for things.
The bigger problem is anytime there’s a fee, run away from it. Don’t participate. The only thing that’s going to happen at the end of the day is they’re going to keep your fee and you’re going to win nothing. The only people that ever win in those kinds of contests are the advertisers, the ones who are willing to cough up the money to buy the books to advertise and to do those things. You don’t realize, it’s a total scam.
Anyway, I think that there is very limited benefit for the people entering a contest. So many people enter, only one or a couple can win. Unless you already have something … Here’s my exceptions. If you already have a design that’s already created, that qualifies for the entry in to the competition, you don’t have to go then and spend 50, 100, a couple hundred hours just for that competition and if there’s not an entry fee, you can enter. Or not a significant one.
Sometimes maybe they can justify a nominal fee. But if you’re spending hundreds of dollars, I definitely wouldn’t do it. You might enter but make sure … I still would not enter, even of all those criteria are met, I still would not enter if they in any way get any rights to your design. Definitely not. You can’t give that away for entering. They’re going to be trading on the success of your design if it wins. You need to retain credit and ownership of that.
Here’s a little secret too as an employer or who looks over designer portfolios. When I look over designer portfolios, if see a lot of awards, it’s a big red flag that you’re not working enough. To me, it’s a sign that you have too much time on your hands and you’re not working enough. The only exception to that is somebody straight out of college. It’s a sign that you’ve had too much time on your own. You haven’t had enough projects. You’re not busy enough. You haven’t gotten a job. It’s a big sign that you may not be good enough. Actually it’s a red flag, not a good thing for your portfolio either.
That reminds me of a student I was mentoring a little over a year ago who had just graduated from college in May 2015. He was wondering and looking for suggestions for where to look for a job because he’s having a lot of trouble finding a job. He’s an industrial designer. I actually suggested to him, because he’s in the New York area, there’s a lot of companies out there who are involved in the 3D printing industry. I think that industrial designers are a good fit of the type of person who might do well in a 3D printing company.
Even if it wasn’t what he wanted to do long term, get a job, get some experience and start earning some money while you’re then looking for what’s next. I think that gets to what you’re talking about. If someone’s just, they haven’t found a job they really want, they’re just designing things to build their portfolio. They don’t have a job, they’re not getting any work experience. It’s a big red flag to me. I think they’re not doing themselves any favors in reality. It’s a big red flag to me that they just haven’t been working enough.
Final Thoughts on the Myths About Successful 3D Print Product Desginers
Anyway, those are our myths about how exciting and glamorous it is to be 3D printing product designers. However, I love being 3D print product designers and product designers in general. There’s no question about it. There’s nothing that energizes me more. My favorite part is product strategy. I love to sit down and think about what to make.
Tracy is definitely better at the real front end of that. Tom is better more at the design and execution end of it. Although we overlap, it crosses over for sure. That’s why we’re such a good fit and work well together. I couldn’t do this if I wasn’t passionate about it. You don’t do this because it is the most profitable career choice on earth. Hopefully it becomes that for a lot of people that choose it. It’s because it’s what you love to do.
It’s compulsive. That’s a great word. Definitely there are myths. I do hope we do live to see the day, we better live to see the day because it better happen within 5 or 10 years, but I really am excited for the day when there are legitimate, high paying or I guess I’d say appropriately rewarding, paying jobs for 3D print product designers. There’s absolutely a need. It’s coming. It’s undeniable. It’s inevitable. It’s not really here very much today.
In a world where product is everything, where it is the thing, it needs to become that because that’s your value. The value at the end of the day is not a bunch of filament and a bunch of nozzles. It’s what you’re making out of it that’s the value. It’s what is going to make our economy, in the United States at least, I won’t claim to know what’s going to make the economy tick in other countries, but in the United States, it’s what’s going to make our economy work in reality.
I don’t think people realize, and this is true pretty much of markets all over the world right now, is that most of your products are being designed by people employed by Chinese factories. Most of your products that are in mass market retail certainly today. Walmart, Target, Costco, Sam’s Club, Staples, any big box store, all those products or the vast majority of those products are designed by people in China, at factories who don’t know much about the American consumer and don’t understand the American market.
Design is a really loose term. Design is an overused term in general anyway. We’re using it to say something that’s engineered, developed. Our favorite term, when sales people get involved and they say, “Let’s take this color, put it on this part and let’s take this element and add it to this and let’s increase this feature,” we call it potato heading. You know what monstrosities come out of potato heading. I can’t even tell you where some of those noses and ears have been on our daughter’s potato head. It’s a scary thing.
No successful products ever came out of that process. It’s more of just an ego contest or a pissing contest among corporate executives who just think they know better. Sales person has to make their little mark. Or buyer who does.
Here’s my point about the Chinese factory thing. Look, that is the way it works today. Buyers from the stores go over there and shop for things that have already been designed most of the time. It’s the minority of products that are designed by people, designers in the US like us and are then sourced for manufacturing in China. There’s nothing wrong with manufacturing things in Asia. Those are the brands that are worth billions of dollars and the designed ones are worth more. You have to keep that in mind. They’re spending the money to develop it properly. No question.
What’s going to change is, as we get to more additive manufacturing, more local manufacturing where I really believe the economy and the manufacturing business is going to shift more to being local in the US as 3D printing technology gets more capable and more available. Who’s going to design that product? You got to have people here who know about the market and can be hired by the companies that need to develop those products to be manufactured in a digital on demand manufacturing world. The need for designers is going to go way, way up.
It’s not just CAD. No, it’s not just CAD technicians. That’s real product industrial designers. People who understand the test, the development, the iteration process, the whole thing about making consumer products. It’s got to be the whole gamut of it. That’s why we’re bullish on the design economy, that’s coming up in the future. We want to give you a little reality check on what’s successful in product design and what some of the myths are and what people think it’s so glamorous to be a product designer and the way people approach us sometimes, it just doesn’t work and doesn’t fly.
We love our clients. We love the way we work with them. What I remind my clients all the time is that you must think about spending about 10% of your revenue on design and development. If you don’t have that budget, and that’s extremely low. That’s an entire corporate budget, business budget.
That’s an entire corporate budget and that’s base on revenue, not profits, mind you. 10% of your revenues need to be on design because you will not be able to keep the growth rate of your revenue if you’re not spending a minimum 10%.
Companies like Apple spend closer to 20. I think it’s somewhere between 16 to 20, depending on the year that they’re working or the introductions that they’re working on. They always have a minimum level of R and D that’s going on at all times. You have a high level of value. Herman Miller, the companies I’ve worked for, that’s where that number’s based on. 10% is low.
Because remember we talked in the past, if you’re in business and you have a successful product, the time to start working on the next product is when that product is still tracking up in its growth curve. When it’s successful. It’s not after it starts to fall off. If you wait until then, it’s too late. You have to stack the next product that you’re company is going to make the line share of its money on right on top of the previous one as it is being successful. You can’t wait. That takes a significant budget.
The other thing is, in today’s world you can’t wait because if it also doesn’t take off fast enough or if it declines fast enough or if it declines too fast, if it just doesn’t make it, you got to have the next thing ready or you’re done. Your business is done.
Anyway, we just wanted to give you some thoughts on product designing today because we don’t touch on it as much now that we’re going to the new format. We want to make sure we give you a couple of product design episodes every month. All these things relate to 3D printing businesses in some way, shape or form. Yes, it’s not exclusively necessarily about 3D printing. But definitely relates. I’m sure there’s a lot of aspiring young 3D print product designers out there who are enjoying 3D printing and can use these things. Maybe even other people. Doesn’t have to be students.
Could be just adults looking to pivot and start a new business or get into something different. Or maybe you own a business and you just need to understand because you may be in a position where you need to hire a few 3D print product designers to help you develop that product, to be what it needs to be to succeed. Many applications.
As always, we love to hear your thoughts about everything. Any comments that you have to make on our conversation today as well as other ideas for future conversations you’d like us to have. You can find us anywhere on social media @3dstartpoint.
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