THE DESIGN PROCESS
The process of creating a product is long and complex, with many opportunities for breakdowns and miscommunications that can drive up costs and stifle creativity. I created this overview to help my clients understand the process so they can create excellent products efficiently. I hope you find it helpful.
The Market: What and who is selling similar to your design idea, and at what price. Think about how your idea can be different from what’s already out in the market place. Your idea needs to have a reason to exist that will separate itself from your competitors’ products, especially since you will be a new and unknown brand.
Your Target Customer: Who is going to buy your product? Where do they live, how much money do they make, how old are they, what is their lifestyle, what is their design style, etc.? It’s important that you understand who your customer is and that you have a focused direction with your product line with your target customer in mind.
Country of Origin: Where you manufacture your product is critical to what you will be able to produce, how much you’ll be producing, and at what price. Different countries specialize in different techniques, have different natural resources, different machinery, etc. It’s important to know what the countries are good at manufacturing and which country is best to manufacture your product. There is no ideal country to manufacture in, it just depends on what you want to achieve, how you want to work, and how big your production units will be.
Your Idea: Take the time to research shapes, silhouettes, materials, textures, details, trims, functions, key details, and all other aspects of your product idea. There are many different ways to create the same product and it is often those little details that can define your product and separate it from your competitors. Often times a selling point of a product can be something as simple as a pop color zipper, or a custom zipper pull detail, so it’s worth investigating different possibilities for the subtle details of the design concept.
Mood Boards: Each season designers create mood boards that represent the themes and overall moods of the upcoming collections. How thematic you want your collections to be is entirely up to you, but it’s important to establish a tone and a style for the collection that you can continually reference throughout the design process. This ensures that you don’t stray away from your point of view, and that you stay focused throughout the design process.
Shopping: Designers are constantly shopping stores and online to see what’s out on the market. We are always buying items that we use to reference in development. It’s often difficult for a manufacturer to interpret a design or a reference photo; it’s much easier for them to have a physical sample that they can reference for shape, technique, size, or texture. It is worth spending money on buying reference products and sending them to the factory so they can refer to a particular aspect of that item for development. I do not encourage clients to copy other products, but the reality of product development is you are usually referencing something when creating a new product, and it is very helpful for the manufacturer to have that physical reference rather then a photo. It is industry practice to send physical references as much as possible.
Scheduling: It’s important to create a timeline for the design, development, and production cycles before you start the process. Most likely you’ll need sales samples due on a particular date. If that’s the case, work backwards from that date to decide when to start the design process. Always add a few days or even a week or two into the calendar for late deliveries and delays. Inevitably something that you order will be out of stock or will be delayed, so account for those possibilities, because they will happen!
Once you’ve done your research, it’s time to start designing!
Initial Designs: These are the first sketches your designer will create to flush out the basic concepts and to nail down the key shapes of a product. They’re usually quick/rough pencil sketches that illustrate the basic idea with a nod to more details that will be added in at a later date. You’ll review and discuss the initial designs with the designer to determine which direction you want to go in. The initial designs are for you to decide on the shape, size, and patterning of the bag, not details, material, or color. That comes later.
From Initial Design to Final design is a period of revisions, adds, drops, and other changes to a product design to fine-tune the design idea and to land on a final design. This is the most appropriate time to change your mind about a design idea. If you’re unsure about a design, sleep on it. Creativity can’t always be forced and it doesn’t always work according to your calendar. You’ll know in the morning whether it’s a good design or whether it needs more work.
It’s important to show your sales and marketing team the design ideas during the development process but there’s a fine line between getting sales and market feedback and allowing sales to dictate the design. The most visionary designers do not rely on sales and marketing teams to tell them if a design is good or not; they trust their gut and their intuition. You can certainly take market and sales feedback into consideration, but don’t abandon your vision, just let it evolve in the right direction.
Sourcing: During this time, you should be sourcing materials and deciding on a color palette. If your factory has the capability to source materials, then use them as a resource. It’s important that your designer attend material shows throughout the year to collect the latest materials from vendors so that they have a library of materials to select from when the time comes to “detail” the collection. The most popular material shows for fashion are Linepelle in Milan and Premier Vision in Paris. Both are held biannually and are free to attend. You will find much better selections of Chinese goods at these shows then you will at any of the material shows in China.
Final Design: After a series of revisions to a design concept, you’ve finally landed on the final design- that’s great! The final design is used to present your idea to your sales team, perspective investors or clients, but the factory will need much more information then just the sketch to develop your idea into a physical sample.
Tech Pack: A Tech Pack (also known as a Spec, or Specification Sheet), is a packet of information that includes the final design, specifications, measurements, detailed information about the pattern and the materials, and all other essential information necessary for the manufacturer to develop a prototype/sample of the design. Each design will need a tech pack. So if you have 30 items in your collection, you’ll need 30 tech packs.
You will submit the tech pack(s) to the manufacturer to develop a prototype. It’s important to know how long your factory will take to develop protos and to give them advance notice of when you will be sending the tech packs so they can manage their calendar. A prototype can take anywhere from 2 weeks to 2 months to develop, depending on the manufacturer’s capabilities.
Note: Different companies work in different ways. I’ve always created tech packs just for a prototype, not for final samples These tech packs have basic material requests for the prototype, but do not include information about the final materials and colors. For final samples, I create Sample Specs, which have detailed information about the materials and colors. Other people include material and color information in their tech packs so the factory has that information in the very beginning. You’ll want to discuss with your designer at what point during the development phase you want to give this information to the manufacturer.
Follow-Up: Once a Tech Pack is submitted to the factory, there is a lot of back and forth correspondence between the designer/developer and the manufacturer. They will have questions about the designs and the materials, and they will come back to you with information from suppliers about material and component minimums.
It is industry standard for the designer to handle this correspondence because they understand the development process intimately and they often have established relationships with suppliers and vendors and know what they can and cannot make. An experienced designer will know when to accept “no” from the manufacturer, and when to push them for a “yes we can.” It’s not something you can learn overnight, it comes with working in the industry and knowing how things work.
Note: The tech pack is submitted to the factory/manufacturer to develop a prototype. It’s important to understand the difference between a prototype and a sample:
Prototype: A first or preliminary model of a design. The factory will use “sub” materials and colors- meaning they will use materials they can easily and quickly find that are similar to what you are requesting, but are not an exact match. This is so that you can receive the prototype quickly while you are ordering the correct materials and colors.
Sample/Final Sample/Sales Sample: The sample is the last and final model of the design and reflects the corrections that have been made to the proto. The sample is made in the correct materials and colors that you have ordered or requested.
Proto Review: After a few weeks of follow-up correspondence with the manufacturer, the factory will send you the prototype for you to review and correct. We usually schedule a “Proto Review” with the sales, marketing, design, and development team to review the protos and to discuss changes that need to be made to the design, how to sell the product, where to price and sell the product, and how to “detail” the product.
These meetings are often quite intense because there are often too many chefs in the kitchen trying to contribute to enhancing the product’s design. It’s important to listen to each team’s point of view, but make sure those opinions don’t dilute the strength of the original idea. On the other hand, it’s very possible that the original design isn’t actually that great and really does need amendments, so be amenable to that possibility. I’ve had amazing ideas that have executed to a great product, and I’ve had ones that have been complete flops. The design process is trial and error after all. There are no guarantees.
After you have your proto review with all the teams, have another proto review with just your design team. This is where you’ll discuss the minute details of each of the prototypes and what changes, adds, and drops need to be made to the collection. It is important to review the entire collection as a whole in addition to looking at each product. The product needs to stand by itself on the sales floor, but it also has to sit in a collection.
Correcting the Prototype: After you have reviewed the proto with your sales, marketing, and design team, proceed to making corrections to the proto. I mark corrections on the physical proto as well as take pictures and send a corrections packet that will also include an updated design and tech pack. This ensures that the manufacturer understands all the corrections that need to be made.
There will be another series of follow-up questions with the factory after you submit corrections to the proto.
Detailing the Line: “Detailing” a product means specifying what materials and colors each part of the product will be sampled in. You’ll need to decide how many SKUs/colorways each product will be made in. It’s important that you give the factory advance notice of how many styles and how many colorways you will be submitting in advance, so they can make sure they have the time and capacity to make your samples according to your deadline.
You’ll need to be strategic with how you detail the line. You need to know which material articles your suppliers have in stock, and in which colors. Custom colors and custom articles take significantly longer to develop (1-2 months longer), and you need to be aware of those lead times before you detail the line. You also need to know what the supplier’s MOQs are (minimum order quantity), what the surcharges are if you request less then the MOQ, and what the lead times are to produce those materials.
The last thing you want to do is use a material or color that you can’t use in production-whether you can’t meet the minimums, or the article is too expensive, or it’s discontinued, make sure that whatever you use for samples, you can use for production. This is really important because you will loose orders if you have to tell your customers that that material cannot be produced.
You need to be aware of how much things cost when you detail the line. 50 cents more for a nicer buckle, $1 more for better quality leather-these tiny little changes will add up to making a product potentially 20% more expensive if not more. If your bag looks more or less like your competitor’s but is 20% more expensive, the odds are that buyers will prefer your competitor’s version. This isn’t always the case, but price does matter.
Personally, I like to establish relationships with tanneries and suppliers and continue to work with the same suppliers. It establishes trust and you get more reliable service if you continue to give business to the same suppliers. It also means that you can ask for favors. You can’t expect a vendor you’ve never worked with before to prioritize and rush your last minute order. But if you’ve worked with them before and have given them good business, they’re more likely to help you out. And be nice to your suppliers! They are not going to be responsive if you’re rude or always giving ASAP as a deadline. Be reasonable with them, and they will be reasonable with you. They are not desperate for your business. Usually, you are desperate for their goods! So understand where you stand with them when communicating with them.
It usually takes me about 1 week to detail a 50 style collection. We do CADS/mockups to experiment with different materials and colors so we can see what works and what doesn’t. We often have another Detail Review meeting with sales and marketing to discuss the materialization of the collection. There are lots of meetings in this process!
The “details” of the materials and colors get entered into a Sample Spec Sheet which contains all the necessary information the factory needs to order all materials, colors, components, and trims for the final samples. This is either the product developer or designer’s responsibility.
Be very clear with the deadline you give the factory to make the final samples. Allow time for delays. We usually give a deadline of about 6-8 weeks from the date the Sample Spec Sheets have been sent. Discuss this deadline with your manufacturer in advance and let them know when you will be sending the Sample Spec Sheets.
Follow-Up: After you submit the Sample Spec Sheets to the factory, you’re going to have a lot of follow-up correspondence with manufacturer. They will have many many questions about the information you have just provided, and they will be providing you information about material quantities, stock colors, etc. You’re going to get a lot of “we cant find…” “we can’t make…” it can be quite frustrating.
Again, this is where having an experienced designer really becomes useful. I’ll give you an example. I had a supplier tell me that the MOQ for the material I wanted was 500 yards. Well an inexperienced designer might have thought, well we don’t need 500 yards, so we’ll have to find another article. Instead, I asked how much the surcharge was for producing less then the MOQ, then amortized that cost with the price per unit to see if we could still afford the material. And it turns out, we could! There are lots of little tricks to getting what you want in this business, you just have to know those tricks!
Be patient, and always ask for more information before accepting “no” for an answer. Also, ask for alternative solutions and offer solutions yourself. If you have a good developer in your factory who is good a problem solving, use them as a resource!
The development process can be very frustrating. The protos will often look very bad and very poorly made. It can be confusing and often agonizing trying to explain your design to the manufacturer over and over again, with little success. Approach your communication with your manufacturer with patience, professionalism, and compassion. Understand that most likely English is a second language for them and that they do not live in the same world we live in. It is acceptable to say that you are not happy with the quality of your samples, but keep it professional. This isn’t a passion project for them, it’s a job that pays the bills. Understand that you are approaching the situation from two very different places.
Final Samples: It’s been about 4-5 months since you first started the initial phases of design, and you’ve finally received the Sales Samples! I hope they look amazing. Now is the time to show your product or collection to buyers and potential business investors. You should have received prices from the manufacturer by now and calculated your margins, wholesale, and retail prices. You’ll want to make a line sheet with the entire collection and prices to give to buys.
This is where the Sales and Marketing team really gets to work and the design team can kick back and admire their hard work. It’s an amazing feeling to see an idea finally come to fruition. Designers often consider their designs their “babies,” since so much hard work and brain strain has been invested in bringing the design to life.
There will be a bit more follow up with the manufacturer that the designer will have to do regarding pricing the product: if a product turns out to be too expensive for the sales team to sell, the designer will discuss with the manufacturer how to bring the price down without sacrificing the integrity of the design. Options for achieving this can be:
- simplifying the pattern
- using cheaper materials
- using existing molds for components or hardware to avoid mold charges
- raising the quantity of units ordered
In the mean time, the sales team will be busy selling the product to perspective buyers. This concludes the Design and Development phase of product development. The next phase is Pre-Production. In a small company, this is also the designer’s responsibility. In a larger company, there will be a production team that will take over for the designer.