The Importance of Prototyping

"We're not going to prototype this. We are going to take your design and roll right into production." I had a client tell me this once. Luckily, he wasn't a client very long. For the client - Learn a lesson from them and build into your budget and time frame a prototype or two. Or more. Getting the product right beats getting it out fast and wrong every time. For the designer - Learn a lesson from me and don't take jobs with big red flags.

The product that is the subject of this blog was a piece of furniture and I'll leave it at that. I responded to a Craigslist ad for a furniture designer and off we went. The interesting thing was that the client didn't have time nor money to prototype. He wanted to pay me to design a product to go right into production. He had a reseller agreement in place before the first part was drawn and wanted to get the product to them as fast as possible. I made it absolutely clear that at a bare minimum an Alpha prototype should be made. I would even source the manufacture of it. I won that battle right up until I turned over the drawings then was told that they were going right to manufacturing from a difference source.

Why should you prototype?

Work the bugs out
No designer gets it right the first time. If they say they do, they're feeding you a line of bullshit and most likely giving you a mediocre result.

Design for manufacturing
I didn't know who was going to build the final product. Every furniture maker has their own set of strengths and weaknesses and as a designer it helps to know them. What is the limitation of their equipment? If you design something intended to be cut out of a 5'x10' sheet of 2" MDF, it would certainly help to know if the manufacturer's router can handle a piece of material that size. That's just one example. There is no point of DFM if you don't know "M's" capabilities.

You may not like it
Seeing something on paper at 1/2"=1'-0" scale is much different than seeing it in real life. It could absolutely not be the thing you had in mind.

Why wouldn't you prototype?

If you don't have funding for a prototype, you need to slow way down. Getting excited about your product is one thing, putting channels together before it's even designed is another. Prototypes usually cost much more than a final product and take more time to manufacture. I know that sounds really obvious but some people don't understand that. The client was livid at the costs I presented and the time frame to get the prototype completed from each of the three wood shops I sourced. Explaining how a working wood shop operates didn't help.

I used to joke that any product would "take a million dollars and a year", meaning it's most likely going to take much longer and cost more than you ever thought it would. If you have a hard date in mind for a product to be available for sale and have not had it designed yet is problematic.

Client knows best
No they don't. You are the professional in your field. That's why they hired you. Learn from my experience and understand that you need to not take some jobs and you can't educate everyone. Sometimes you can't fix stupid, and I'm talking about myself here.


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