How to turn design dreams into commercial reality

The writer is co-founder of the Sante + Wade shoe brand

It was a standard cardboard box, taped on all sides, and I happily tore it apart. I knew what was inside, after all, I had designed it. But when I saw the contents, my excitement turned to dismay.

The item in the box did not reflect the sketches and drawings I had spent a considerable amount of time preparing. It was a sad reminder of the vagaries of new product design; if you dream of it, you can build it, but not necessarily on the first try.

Tinker Tailor is no stranger to design failures. The London-based company creates handmade collectible souvenirs and Christmas decorations for major heritage sites, art galleries, museums and luxury department stores. Clients include Liberty and the Royal Academy.

Its founder, Caroline Apfel, who designs new products throughout the year, has also found herself in situations where the finished article did not meet the expectations raised by the specifications. This is where the relationship and communication with the manufacturing team is so vital.

“You have to find the right fit with a manufacturer. If we get it wrong, we can fall flat,” she says. “It comes with an unshakeable relationship and working with the same teams for a long time and not switching productions just to get the best price or shorter lead times.”

Yet even with the best and most reliable manufacturing team in place, new product launches are notoriously difficult to pull off. A study by the Product Development and Management Association found that failure rates can be as high as 40%, depending on the market sector.

These aren’t dire odds, but they’re clearly not so good that success is guaranteed. What makes a product successful goes far beyond its appearance. Even the most aesthetically pleasing designs can still fail the litmus test of customer satisfaction.

“Sometimes the product looks amazing,” says Apfel. “But the buyer is cold-eyed about the quantities and the price might be higher than initially thought . . . so they’re not following up on an order.

The reality is that beauty is not the most important element of good design. The maxim “form follows function” was coined in 1896 by American architect Louis Sullivan, the so-called “father of skyscrapers”. It has since become the guiding principle of many architects and designers and applies to the creation of a high-rise building as well as to the most modest consumer product. Making designs look great on paper is easy, but the purpose of a product should be the starting point for creating it.

The best way to determine purpose is for companies to start a dialogue with their customers. They need to create viable goods that solve a problem for their end user and provide value. It’s about maximizing the chances of success by giving customers what they want and not getting so caught up in the design and manufacturing process that they lose sight of why they’re creating the product in the first place.

At Tinker Tailor, Apfel circumvents this problem by almost always producing new designs on demand.

“In my experience, oversampling and not fulfilling an order causes the production partner to lose faith in you. And do too many samples based on intuition and you can end up with a lot of inventory, which is obviously not good for cash flow.

The consequences of a mistake on a product at any stage of development can be disastrous. And businesses must be prepared to act quickly when faced with mistakes that can harm their brand.

At Tinker Tailor, Apfel knew she had to change manufacturers when “the shipment of 10,000 pieces did not match the samples in terms of quality and the samples made were not picked up by my customers.”

“I had to make a similar call to stop working with a factory that was not meeting our deadlines. Starting over with a new production partner is never an easy choice, but it’s too important a relationship to leave to chance. It’s a painful decision, but much less than releasing a product that doesn’t resonate with consumers and ends up having no market.

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