How to Design a Product

A step-by-step guide to designing a product

This guide will take you through the main stages involved in designing a product. There are no hard and fast rules as every product is different particularly if it is innovative and hasn’t been done before. It is important to understand how product development integrates with production, marketing, patenting, packaging and brand development and so this guide will take you through some of that as well.

Product Design Basics

Product design consists of transforming an initial idea into an appealing and viable product that can be manufactured. It is often necessary to commission a professional product designer with strong creative ability and an excellent knowledge of engineering materials and manufacturing techniques in order to develop an idea.

The product design process should start with a clear brief. This is often best developed with a clear view of the target market and what they want from the product. This can be as simple as taking half an hour to write up the key requirements of the product, or it may take years of market research, testing the market with early stage products and detailed refinement of the brief until you have something that is truly right to describe the product that should be launched. Always, always, always start with your target market, after all that is where the project ends – with sales to your target market and so why would you start anywhere else? Having worked with start-ups for over a decade, we know that the biggest cause of project failing is running out of funds, but second to that is mistakenly thinking that you know what your target market wants.

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      Developing the Concept

      Research into materials, technologies and similar existing products is likely to be a next step, followed by a review of existing patents, if you looking to protect your concept. From here, initial concept development through sketching and early Computer Aided Design (CAD) models will start to bring your initial idea to life.

      This if often the right point to consider the overall styling direction, source significant components and develop basic physical models to get a good idea of overall dimensions and prove key functionality if possible.

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      Check Commercial Viability

      Often, a good designer, can then assess the commercial viability by running some desk based costing exercises and getting a firmer idea of tooling and development costs. This then leads into the first milestone where the project needs to be reassessed given the work done to date to try and establish if it is still a viable project. We would work on a rough ratio of 5:1 at this stage to establish the product is commercially viable. Ie. If it costs £10 to make then it will be sold for £50 RRP. If your cost price estimate is way off for what your customers are willing to pay, it might be time to end the project. After all, you’re bound to come up with another idea before too long. 

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      Feasibility & Protection

      Technical feasibility, manufacturing feasibility and potential for strong Intellectual Property protection may also be key considerations before moving beyond this milestone. Don’t forget to also start thinking about how the design can reflect your brand and also an initial look at packaging can help ensure that sensible decisions are made now to make all this cheaper and easier further down the line.

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      Refine the Marketing Message

      This is a critical juncture to think about the marketing of the product or ideally include your marketing team in determined the future direction of the project. We have seen people decide their core marketing message at the end of the process when, if decided earlier, the whole design of the product could have far better delivered on that messaging. Ideally decide now on one core marketing message and two secondary messages to help provide a foundation for design decision making during the next stages.

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      Computer Aided Design

      Detailed design for prototyping with full consideration of materials, usability, manufacturing, functionality and ergonomics would come next and this will be integrated with the necessary prototyping to prove various elements of the design.

      In most cases detailed design work needs to be completed before a prototype can be built. This design stage will result in a 3D virtual (CAD) model that can be used to check basic form and function. The resulting virtual model can be viewed from all angles and then photorealistic visuals can be produced to demonstrate how your concept is likely to look in production. 

      Prototyping

      Prototypes are an essential stage in developing an idea so that it is ready for presentation to industry or manufacture. However, prototyping can be very expensive and so it may well be prudent to ensure that you are fully happy with the CAD model before pressing go on prototyping. Reviewing the development to date with a focus group of your target market is a good way of building confidence. Alternatively, or as well as, you might want to talk to key buyers or potential licensees within your industry.


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      There are different types of prototype, including:

      ‘Visual prototype’ – Overall shape and size of the product but does not usually prove the function of the idea.

      ‘Proof of concept’ – Demonstrates the main functionality of the idea. This type of prototype is unlikely to look like the final product.

      ‘Presentation’ – Combination of the functionality of the product with the overall appearance.

      ‘Pre-Production’ – Builds on the work of a presentation prototype by fully considering mass production manufacturing methods and production.

      Sampling & Manufacture

      The more experienced product designers will start working alongside the manufacturer during these stage to ensure a seamless transition into production and to help realise potential savings in tooling and unit cost. (It is amazing how much can be saved on production setup and tooling costs if this is done correctly and we have redeveloped designs from other agencies that have saved our clients ten of thousands of pounds of unnecessary mould tools.)

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      Finalising the Design

      Innovative product design and prototyping will often help strengthen your patent application. It is not usually possible to protect an overall concept; instead, most patents protect the method by which an idea carries out an overall concept. Product design refines and improves how an idea works and is therefore often integral to achieving strong patent protection. At this point, it is often best to review your IP protection potential and strategy with a Chartered Patent Attorney.

      It is also good to review at this stage from a marketing perspective to ensure that the final product is inline with what consumer wants and how your team plans to market the product. Focus groups, online surveys and talking to potential buyers at this stage can make all the difference between success and failure.

      Now is also the time to think about brand placement on the product and the packaging. Involve your team or outside agency responsible for these elements to ensure that nothing is missed before going into the expensive and time consuming pre-production stages of development. It might be that some simple design changes now can make the product easier to box, pack and ship savings valuable margin once the product is launched.

      Textile Product Development

      Textile products are developed in a similar overall fashion but often don’t require 3D computer aided design but more prototyping is often needed instead. This is partly because computer programs struggle to mimic how different fabrics and construction techniques will react in real life. The development of fabric based products often requires more sourcing time as the textiles themselves have such a huge part to play in the function and quality of the final product. Find out more about our textile product development services here.

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      Ready to start your product development journey?

      Product development is a hugely exciting involved undertaking. Each project’s journey, from sketch to shelf, is likely to be different but overall the process of refining a product roughly involves the same stages. It is a difficult thing to do and most people will require the help of a professional designer or design agency to do it well. Once the product is developed, the next step is manufacture but that is the subject of a whole other article…

      Article written by Phil Staunton, founder of D2M Innovation ltd.
      D2M Innovation has helped hundreds of people and SME’s develop and manufacture their exciting new products. 
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