Design schools must do a better job showing why and how self-employment for their graduates is not only a natural course for creative people but also not necessarily riskier than traditional paid employment (someone here said jobs were “safe”?). I regularly meet young designers “thinking” about doing it but all they see is furniture and tired household stuff the stores already stand to explode from. Or design consulting, best left as a part-time hobby if you’re small in today’s market.
There’s a lot more to be redone around us than tables, chairs and lamps, people. Not to mention if you’re selling any of these, you are asking a majority of buyers to throw out the stuff they already have for yours. Furniture is not cell phones, if what people have is even half-decent, there’s little incentive to replace it. Which makes this category a tough-sell in this crowded market. Good for the designer’s ego and that magazine article but can you make a living at it?
Much hangs on how you as an individual define financial success. What yearly revenue does your lifestyle require? There are many self-employed visual artists, for example, making just enough to have - by their standards - a decent living free from the pressures of a regular job, yet enough to guarantee them the creative freedom they seek. Designers by and large tend to have much higher material standards, so it follows that financial independence is proportionately more difficult to achieve.
The opportunities will always be in delivering products or services (or a combination) in an original format. Nothing earth-shattering here, true. That’s because the secret is how to creatively have the maximum market impact with as little an investment as possible. This is where designers with too little industry experience get bogged down - they see capital investments of hundreds of thousands as their only passport to manufacturing success. This is not only patently false but a pretty sure killer for your credit rating down the line as less than 5% of new products even stand a minuscule chance of making it on store shelves.
The other major, major strategic mistake is attempting to base a company on a single product idea, and/or try to push a single idea as necessarily a fit-all solution for all people. This obviously forces you into the very expensive and time-consuming world of patents and high-volume manufacturing, all for the benefit of trying out a single idea. Which may or not click. You might as well play the lottery every week, right?
I don’t know where this herd mentality comes from, but both these make-it-or-break-it approaches are too high risk to consistently work out. Say you have a great idea for a garden tool. Where is it written that you have a solution necessarily fitting the way millions of people will use that tool? People will each hold, handle, press, clean and store that tool in a myriad ways specific to their age, sex, physical condition, technical abilities and so on. It follows then you might as well design for a small, even very small market highly receptive to a single very clear benefit of your product. Say, a garden tool for women over 60 suffering from arthritis. Lower production volumes mean lots of things, such as better quality control, a wider selection of low-cost manufacturing/assembly processes to chose from, less time to market, and so on. Oh, did I mention higher profits? Why? Rarity - no one makes exactly what that woman needs. If you had arthritis but loved gardening and only had one product on the shelf made just for you, you’d look at it as if divine intervention put it there - price is secondary.
So instead of making 2 million of your universal garden gizmo that tries hard to be all things to all people you have only served a defined market of, say, 20,000 people. At even $5 unit profit (a pittance) you have just made 100K, and hopefully this isn’t your only product in the pipeline. Your bigger competition will sneer at you for the simple reason they are tooled up for only millions of parts per year, effectively RESTRICTING them financially from considering niche products. Small runs don’t pay off for the big guys, but that doesn’t mean there are no opportunities in our over-standardized material world. The business model you once wanted to emulate is actually their prison.
The conclusion here is that more designers could become small, efficient and VERY profitable manufacturers if only they stopped dreaming of landing their stuff at WalMart or IKEA. The big boys play only among the big boys, that much is clear. However, if you are small and don’t ambition to become IKEA’s competitor (why would one anyway) you can fill smaller market needs very quickly and with very small capital investments, actually disproportionately smaller than your income potential.
Smaller markets do not attract the big sharks, in fact you will barely find any competition in some niche product categories, you do not need to bother with idiotic patents that do nothing for you anyway, profit margins are higher, and you can move freely from one product idea to another without continually having to fight the competition.
It’s a question of what leagues you want to play in. Certainly, some product categories are far more profitable than others, it’s definitely the case for more technical products or unusual items providing a continually satisfying (renewable) user experience. This is not easy to achieve, but it’s always better to stand out from the pack in front of 500 people than make no impression whatsoever on millions. If 500 people each provide you an individual profit of $100 for a limited-run item you have just made an annual pre-tax salary of $70K or more. And 500 units barely registers as a “market”. The exciting thing is that there is literally an infinite number of such micro-markets no one pays attention to because everyone is busy trying to sell hundreds of thousands of that single one gizmo to big-box stores. Profit margins decline steeply at such volumes, Asian competition is smiling at you everywhere and these chains are notoriously vicious with their suppliers. And you better sell all your stuff quickly when you’re in such debt.
The overall idea is not to always see small, but to start very small and gradually multiply these micro ventures as you see fit, economically feasible once you start hitting a sucess or two. This way, failures won’t paralyze you and you don’t risk losing your shirt, years of your life and sanity if “It” doesn’t pan out. Resist the temptation to announce the world that one big Idea that will revolutionize how people live and breathe, that’s Hollywood stuff you eat popcorn watching. Instead of attempting to hit it big right away because “you just know” everyone everywhere will just love you and throw their money at you, break your creative genius into many more, smaller bits that aim to resolve smaller, apparently trivial everyday product problems.
For example, make an object easier to clean, lighter to carry, rust-proof, or a sterile one just plain fun to hold in your hand. Enough people at any given time will thank you with their wallets for it. No need to reinvent the stuff, just take care of any one of the millions of small irritants that bother people everyday and they constantly groan about. The evolutionary market for small, incremential product improvements is, in my experience, far larger than for revolutionary products. It is fragmented and difficult for the larger players to seize and capitalize on but it is a wonderful and practically endless financial opportunity for smaller producers with an eye to detail.
Industrial designers are sensitive individuals in a unique position, especially compared with engineers, to satisfy precisely such smaller daily product “nuisances” in the form of short runs of well-thought, well crafted products with a clear, if very particular message. What to us may seem trivial makes another person’s day easier at a particular (maybe repetitive) moment in time. That sort of personalized attention today is a priceless commodity. It is also where the product has actually become … a service.