What to do when you're asked to do cheap design

I’ve been working at a ‘jobbing’ metal workshop, who identify as an oem manufacturer, for the past year as an industrial designer, and I work on custom projects for customers who don’t have in house design capabilities.

The average client wants products fast and cheap with little care for detailing or improvements if it in any way increases cost, and the company is in the same boat if it in any way reduces their margin. Ultimately, my scope for nearly every custom project is to design it quickly, as design isn’t charged for, to make it low cost, meaning no real detailing and ‘this is the competitor, copy theirs and make it look slightly different…and we’ll charge $100 less for it’. Usually we will propose a design that we are happy with, but most of the smaller refinements end up getting pulled to reduce cost.

I’m unsure of how to move forwards here, has anyone got advice for when you’re an employee of a company, can’t exactly refuse bad client projects, and you’re repeatedly asked to produce low quality work or copy to meet a predefined production cost?

I would say that’s probably the case with all metal workshops in AUS in order to stay competitive and even for places with internal design teams. It is a normal problem and it’s okay to be disheartened by it. I would suggest though to stay there and learn as much as you can about the materials and process, be reflective (e.g. how could I communicate what I mean better in order to help the clients change?), take the wins where you can get them, build a folio, move onwards and upwards.

It’s just the way of the world. There will always be innovators and there will always those who “copy” the innovators at a lower price point. Nothing anyone can do about it, just is.

With those type of jobs, to make it interesting, how can you be innovative in lowering cost? Innovation lies not only in tech, but also in service and operations.

I would agree with IAB and Mas and add…

Are there certain jobs or customers that may be more inclined to appreciate the kind of work you would like to be doing? Are there opportunities to show how your details or problem solving would ultimately save them money, or make them money? There are always going to be the jobs and projects with little to no hope to make the change you’d like to see, but if there are a few with even the slightest glimmer of hope, prioritize your efforts and spend your time appropriately, at the very least this should save some heartache on projects where there was really no chance, and ideally gives you a little extra time on the ones where you might get a win.

I think IDiot has some good advice here. “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink” comes to mind… that said, keep leading them to that water man! And make convincing case for why they should take that drink.

Another way I like to think about it is just because a client wants the lowest common denominator, don’t be afraid to show them a much higher denominator. One tactic I learned early on to help coax clients up is to show a broader range of concepts. Of course cover the base of the brief and give them what they want. I always do that first to get it out of the way. Then I set it aside and ask myself what is the furthest out there I think is acceptable to the marketplace. I set that concept aside and then do a theist concept that tries to go past what i think is acceptable. Then sometimes I fill in a few gaps in between. Sometimes I’ll even sketch out of 2x2 matrix of cost/features, acceptability/novelness, manufaturability/desirability, or some other set up on the x/y axis and plot concepts out to make sure I’m covering all the quadrants. Long story short, because we have shown something that is farther out there, it helps the client “settle” on something that was maybe just a touch outside of their comfort zone, but the right thing to do.

Put slightly more simply, if you only show a range from 1-3 on the mild to wild scale, the client will typically pick 2, but if you show a range of 1-10 with the midpoint the same, you can get them to a 5 on the scale… does any of that make any sense?

Of course it takes a lot of extra work, not to mention some social engineering. If your company is giving design away for free, they might not want you to spend that much time. the other way to look at is that if design is free, give them a lot of it.

Thankfully, not all clients needs this. Charging a premium for design helps naturally select out clients that don’t appreciate it. In the sales process I try to qualify people/companies as much as possible, because like I said earlier “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink”… I look for thirst horses. :slight_smile:

So maybe there is an opportunity to work with your biz dev team to help educate clients about design, and to educate the biz dev team about design as well. That way they are pitching your services as a premium value add instead of just a freebie.

Thanks for the replies everyone, I really appreciate your opinions here.

It’s true that it’s the current state of Australian manufacturing, although the race to the bottom can only last for so long. My current plan is exactly that, to learn as much as I can and hopefully get some wins here and there along the way.

I agree. My day to day innovations consist of breaking down complex assemblies of sheet parts into a big jigsaw puzzle that all notches together and minimises welding/process time. One idea (that didn’t go very far) was to provide a tablet to each fabricator so that they could see what they were putting together in 3D and be able to explode parts etc. when the drawings were slightly unclear.

There is 1 customer that I have a particular interest in, who are slightly more inclined to appreciate extra design. I suppose, at this stage, the challenge is the age old estimate, make, get paid process that they’ve employed forever. I won’t usually see a project until it’s already been estimated and the customer has accepted, so the cost is predefined and any extra features etc that I’d like to add comes out of margin. In this sense, the customer wants as much as they can get, and the fight for design is internally with my managers before the customer gets to see anything. I would like this to change for valuable clients to provide design first and actual production prices afterwards. Funnily enough, I made some progress with that customers project and managed to get a critical feature through the morning after posting. I think that you’ve given good advice to let the impossible ones slip and to focus on the better projects, I might have more success that way!

Your method for concepts makes sense, I’ll have to give that a shot on my next project. I also like the matrix method, I feel like that would carry the most weight for when I need to convince the internal team that a particular concept is the best option for both us and them. Charging a premium would absolutely help, the hardest clients are always the ones the least willing to pay for anything :laughing: The education with the business dev manager is on-going, when I first started I’m very sure that they thought Industrial Designer was a fancy way of saying ‘can use solidworks’.

Again, thanks everyone. I’ll put some of these methods to the test and keep pushing, hopefully there is some progress in the right direction.

One of the things I did when I started at Sound United was I put together a straight up art history lecture on the history of industrial design. I presented it at a free company wide “lunch and learn”. In the presentation I covered pre WW2 beginnings of ID so people understood this has been going on for a long time, I did a section on Eliot Noyes, head of design at IBM post WW2, Raymond Loewy and the MAYA concept, then Dieter Rams and all the parallels to Apple, ending with Peter Schryer and his 20 year plan for Audi that started in the 80s and how he did that in 5 years for Kia. The. I did a segment on what industrial designers do and don’t do and what characteristics make up a good designer, and ended with some common misconceptions .

The goal was to get every employee not only knowledgeable, but excited about design, so that everyone from the sales guys to the customer service people on the phones could speak about it.

This is great feedback. I like the educational perspective, it would help with getting more valuable projects, both for myself and the company, if the team knew design well enough to upsell our true capabilities. Was ingraining a good design culture with methods like this an ongoing activity to keep everyone stimulated?