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February 16, 2017
5 minutes to read  

What To Look For in a Product Design Service Firm

In the beginning, there was an idea. But what comes next? How do you turn your vision into a reality? Or should you? Is it time to talk with an product development firm and, if so, where do you start?

Angela-Yeh-Looking-For-ID-Firm.jpgTo answer those questions, we contacted the folks at the Industrial Design Society of America, (IDSA). In turn, they put us in touch with Angela Yeh, president and founder of Yeh IDeology, a New York City-based talent innovation consultancy and recruitment firm in the design recruitment space.

With more than two decades of experience, Angela knows what she’s talking about. She taught career strategies at Parsons The New School for Design and is a sought-after lecturer on how to build winning innovation teams in organizations. She has held leadership positions in the NYC chapter of IDSA and sat on the IDSA Board of Directors representing the Northeast District. Angela holds a BA in psychology from the University of Bridgeport and Masters in Industrial Design from the Pratt Institute.

Bonafides established, our questions were basic, starting with how to find a good product design firm. There are obvious answers – getting recommendations from colleagues in your industry network, researching local firms and exploring professional associations like IDSA – but Angela also suggests a strategy built around asking questions.

“We recommend customers looking for a design firm ask ‘What is the product?’ ‘What are the goals?’ ‘What is the challenge?’” she says. “For one company the challenges might be more technical. For another, the challenge could be a combination of hard goods/soft goods or industrial design facing off with UX (user experience). It comes down to understanding the product, the goal and the challenges, then looking at firms beyond industry expertise, to look at the kinds of problems they solve. A lot of firms are industry agnostic to some degree in the sense that it’s not based on industry, it’s based on style of thinking/solutioning, execution (production) phase.”

Another consideration is scale of impact or innovation. “Are you looking for paradigm-shifting redesign,” she asks, “Or does your product line already have a brand identity, and there’s a subtle shift that needs to be tweaked?” There are myriad ID/product design firms, both in size and scope, from the major players like IDEO and Lunar to mid-sized firms and independent professionals.

It helps to self-assess where you are in the process, which leads to the next question we asked: what should I look for in terms of capability? Are there specific credentials to look for?

While there aren't accreditation for industrial design or product development firms, there are some basics to examine. “You want to look at case studies,” Angela says. “You want to see what they’ve done. How many things that they’ve designed have gone to market? Speak to the people they’ve worked with, talk to their customers.” If you’re creating a new product, you want a firm that is strong in research and ideation techniques that can help build your prototype. Some firms have a stronger technical follow-up to product development and others excel at the research, solution and/or branding aspect, leaving you to figure out the engineering and manufacturing.


Angela also recommends considering the limits of capability at your own company and determining how far it reaches into interacting with design. That type of self-audit offers an indication of the level of design capability to look for outside your company.

Next, we asked Angela, how early should you look for an ID or product development firm? Short answer: as early as possible. “You can never go to design too early, in fact we’ve seen people waste time and money,” she says. “Often laymen and even business people don’t understand that a good design firm can tell you whether the concept is viable. The firms that specialize in research and strategy help you decide if your idea is viable and profitable. (They can) eliminate all the time getting to engineering, manufacturing or investing in branding because they can tell you if the market is already saturated, how to differentiate, and possibly lead you to a tangent space. Your concept could thrive better in a different market. That’s what designers are great at, understanding that up front phase.”

Finally, we arrived at the bottom line: how much does this type of service cost? It’s tough to pin down an exact figure since it’s affected by several variables including the type and intricacy of the project, or the size firm you end up with. While larger firms tend to have broader capability and more resolved refined solutions, but that's not always the case either. Work to nail down the project scope as tightly as you can. If you put the project out to bid with several firms, you can compare the costs and develop a budget that can guide your decision-making process.

“Call and interview as many firms as possible,” says Angela. “Don’t ever lock down without interviewing as many firms as possible, at least 10 companies.” Researching firms also educates you about what capabilities and skill sets are out there. And hiring a design firm can save you a “ridiculous amount of money,” she adds. “So many tweaks and problems can be solved when you do your research and meet these kinds of experts. They’ll give you the feedback you need to suss out whether it's a legitimate pursuable, manufacturable design.”

We’ve given you a lot to absorb, so here are some of the key points of what to look for in a product development firm:

  • Get recommendations from your network.

  • Visit the IDSA website.

  • Understand your product, the challenges and your goals, and find a firm that can solve YOUR problem.

  • Reassess your company’s capabilities to figure out how much design service you need.

  • Check out case studies and talk to previous clients.

  • Look for a design firm as early in your process as possible.

For additional reading, check out our post about How Engineering Support Positions Your Project for Success. 

Click here for more information about what to look for in a Design for Manufacturing partner: 

Filed Under: Product Development, Design for Manufacturability, Product Design Services, Featured