How to turn design dreams into a commercial reality

The writer is co-founder of footwear brand Sante + Wade

It was a standard cardboard box, taped up on all sides, and I tore it open with glee. I knew what was inside, after all I had designed it. But when I spied the contents, my excitement turned to dismay.

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

Tinker Tailor is no stranger to design fails. The London-based company creates handmade collectible souvenirs and Christmas decorations for leading 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 similarly found herself in situations where the finished article does not meet expectations raised by the design brief. That’s 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. “This comes with a steadfast relationship and working with the same teams for a long time and not switching production 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 hard to get right. A study by the Product Development and Management Association found that failure rates can be as high as 40 per cent, depending on the market sector.

These are not disastrous odds, but they are clearly not so good that success is guaranteed. What makes a product successful goes far beyond how it looks. 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 gets cold feet about quantities and the price might be higher than initially thought . . . so they don’t follow through with an order.”

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

The best way to determine purpose is for companies to begin 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 maximising the chances of success by giving customers what they want and not to get so caught up in the design and manufacturing process that sight is lost of why they are creating the product in the first place.

At Tinker Tailor, Apfel gets around this by almost always producing new designs on request.

“In my experience, make too many samples and don’t follow through with an order and the production partner loses confidence in you. And make too many samples based on gut feeling and you can get stuck with a lot of stock, which obviously isn’t great for cash flow.”

The consequences of getting a product wrong at any stage of development can be disastrous. And companies must be prepared to act quickly when faced with errors that can damage their brand.

At Tinker Tailor, Apfel knew she had to switch manufacturers when “the 10,000-piece consignment didn’t match the samples in terms of quality and the samples made weren’t picked up by my clients”.

“I’ve had to make a similar call to stop working with a factory when they consistently failed to meet our deadlines. Starting all over again with a new production partner is never an easy choice to make, but it’s too important a relationship to leave to chance. It’s a painful decision but far less so than releasing a product that fails to resonate with consumers and ends up having no market at all.”