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Developing a product design vision3/1
I'm a strategy consultant working with a woodworking designer friend who needs to clarify her product design vision.
My friend does furniture, home decor objects and kitchen accessories. She has been working on her own for a few years and her work has gotten her into several trade shows, where she tends to make most of her sales of finished products. She also does custom work upon request. Of course, she has found it very challenging to make a living through this, and as part of this equation, I feel her product vision needs to be clarified and distilled into something strong, embracing concepts, aesthetics, form, materials, etc.
My question is about giving her a framework for clarifying her product vision. I've had her audit trends and products she is drawn to, and I'm asking her to think about these in function of her beliefs about design and products and how people relate to them.
I'm wondering if anyone has gone through this process formally or informally, and would have any additional advice in this regard.
You're on the right track. Our economy rewards specialization, so having her concentrate on a few, sellable items is a good idea - if that's what she wants to do, and if she can survive financially while she develops that market. But it's a very complicated question, and part of the answer is what channel she intends to use for marketing. Internet? Shows? A showroom? Word of mouth? Each of these is very different, and the best product for one might not work so well for another.
We are considering all distribution channels at this point, although retail obviously has implications in terms of margins.
She has her own approach in regards to materials and her best success has been in applying this approach to fairly standard kitchen items such as cutting boards.
I feel there is a need to develop a signature design vision and apply it to popular wood design items that are fairly sure of selling well. And then perhaps allow this vision to be expressed in more creative ways beyond these items.
I was impressed with the description of the process, until you got around to one of her products. Cutting boards would be one huge challenge for making a living. From Chinese imports, to every persons uncle with a table saw making them. It will take one heck of a vision! You should do her brochure for her. You made her product line sound pretty impressive.
With the different areas that you mention that she does, I think it would be beneficial to concentrate on one area. I agree with Rich that doing cutting boards unless VERY unique is not going to be a profitable line. Too many people doing it.
What items make her the most sales?
These are the questions that need to be answered by her and you. Once that is done, how will you market these items? Don't say through every means possible, rather develop a plan of how it can be done. If doing shows, consider time, expense and lost time in the shop into your calculations. If doing internet, who will handle website, develop it, etc.? If doing trade shows consider time, expense and lost shop time.
I started out with a small product line, expanded it as my mind developed more ideas. Now due to successful sales and volume increases, I am pulling the lower profit items down and concentrating on the higher margin and higher volume items. I am not the quickest at doing this, so it takes me a little longer than most to get things through my head. But it is working as sales keep rising along with profit.
The answers are inside of her. You just have to pull them out.
She has more interesting products than that. Cutting boards are just an example of what sells well.
One way of looking at this is on what basis a woodworking designer can become known, or what constitutes a "design signature".
Original products can be a strong and very "design-creativity" approach, which results in the person being seen as a kind of creative inventor, while working on the form of let's say more "classic" products could result in be associated with, say, minimalism, or an organic form.
Of course, beyond trends, this also comes down to what you are fundamentally good at and, bringing it back to business realities, what you can do efficiently and cost-effectively.
But I also feel it has to do with identifying what "type" of design woodworker you are - more an explorer, researching new ideas, more an obsessive type - pushing the boundaries of form and materials, or more a producer type, one who really enjoys the physical labour and who creates while doing.
"Interesting" should only be judged by one criterion: does it sell. And the path to being a "signature" woodworker usually involves 20+ years of consistent effort. The trick is to keep the doors open while doing that effort. (Unless you can get her onto TV somehow, then no experience is necessary. But I digress). I think, in reading what you've written, that you might have the cart before the horse. You're hoping that she can develop a reputation that will help her sell. I would recommend that she figure out how to sell, and that will either make her reputation or leave her wealthy enough that she doesn't need to care. Unfortunately, a focus on sales might run counter to her self-perception and how she wants to spend her days. If she's happiest making products, then it might be a struggle. If she wants to build a business, that's an entirely different matter. If the former, I recommend that you take a long, hard look at Etsy. It's an existing, popular sales channel with low barriers to entry.
Design signature will be based on how much marketing she does, and less about skill. If she wants that, she needs a marketing representative, a publicist, and like Paul said, a spot on a horrible TV show. I'm seeing advertising for one of the guys eliminated from one of the shows, as being a featured person at a closet show. No kidding? "Come on down and see a loser from a TV show." I did a search for cutting board on ETSY, only 25,189 results!
I'm not talking about choosing a distribution or even a marketing strategy, and by signature I don't mean how to become famous.
I mean making the right design choices in developing a creative/artistic approach and style you can call your own.
There's no particular need for design to be original or unique to be successful. I consider two questions when thinking about design:
1) Is the quality, beauty, and utility of this item self evident, without any knowledge of who made it or where it came from?
2) Can I execute this concept at the agreed-upon price without losing money?
If I can answer yes to both of those, then the particular form of the object doesn't much matter. I've never felt that it was important to have a recognizable personal style. Finding the intersection of questions 1 and 2 is enough restriction for me. I think you should consider carefully whether it's important that an object be judged by the identity of its maker or on its own merits. It's a lot easier to sell items that are simply good: functional, handsome, and reasonably priced.
Patrick, Maybe I should expand on my thoughts. Having a unique and recognizable design signature isn't worth a dime unless that design signature is in front of a broad section of the public. Hence the marketing and publicist suggestion. Maybe it is fine if she does a couple local trade shows and they recognize her work, but if she gets in some national art magazines, maybe the cover of a design magazine, and her work shows up in the background of a TV show or talk show, her design signature then starts to really mean something and is easily recognizable. In other words, the further a design signature expands from your local region, the more value it has. People in my region have told me they recognized my style of turning at art galleries and maybe even at a collector's home. But get outside of Central IL, and my signature work has no connection or value to the artist.
A tough road! Been there. Getting an identifiable design out to a large enough group of buyers will result in some Chinese guy realizing it is worth knocking off.
As a business consultant you should know there are only three possible strategies:
1) Own the only grocery store in town.
2) Have deep enough pockets to wear your competition down until you become the only grocery store in town.
The challenge to innovation is being able to stay off the radar of that guy with the deep pockets. As Larry points out, if you become too apparently successful that guy is going to kill you.