Being a successful designer doesn’t automatically turn you into a successful manufacturer. Knowing how to design products which sell well won’t provide you with the skills to manufacture and market them. Designers who venture into manufacturing need to plan carefully before jumping in; the path to manufacturing a product can be fraught with complications, not to mention financial risks.
Those who have done so, however, have not regretted it. According to Martin Wharmby, one of the first designers to take the initiative, moving into manufacturing actually benefits design and helps raise its profile. Spurred on by the frustration of seeing their designs poorly manufactured and a desire to make better quality products, designers can enjoy financial rewards as well as improving the service they can offer. “There’s enormous potential – the surface hasn’t even been scratched,” Wharmby says.
David Jebb, who runs management consultancy David Jebb & Associates, stresses that in business terms designers have to be aware that manufacturing is “a totally different mindset”. He would advise consultancies interested in manufacturing to keep a clear distinction between the two operations. “It should not only be a different cost centre and legal organisation, but also a limited company,” he suggests, adding that limited companies can be set up for around 150. “You can’t do it on the run alongside your normal consultancy,” he warns.
Setting up a limited company is one thing, but organising how a product is going to be manufactured is more of a minefield. Most designers who have ventured into manufacturing have kept both businesses distinct, and are aware of trying to avoid one business affecting the performance of the other. “We made a decision early on that Priestman Goode wouldn’t manufacture because it’s a product design consultancy,” says partner Nigel Goode.
“Designers can become waylaid with their ideas. It can become a bit of a holy grail to get them to the market and they tend to lose track of profitability and what their motivation really is. It could also be confusing for clients – people tend to think if you only do one thing you do it well,” he adds.
Priestman Goode’s approach has been to launch Plant, which handles the manufacture of products for clients as well as designs which have evolved in-house. The intention is to develop Plant into a brand in its own right and keep it totally separate from the product design consultancy. “We’re taking a long-term view with Plant,” says Paul Priestman, partner of Priestman Goode and director of Plant. “We’re not mad inventors – we’re highly specialised and bring together people who are very good in their own areas. With Plant we’re using our skills as product designers in a different area.” ©
Both Plant and Wharmby Associates’ manufacturing arm WAG Products subcontract rather than have their own factories. This may, Wharmby admits, be viewed as an unnecessary link in the chain. But being able to produce better quality products and having control over the manufacturing process is a big advantage and one that is paying off for both. “The only sure way to survive is to keep coming up with consistently good products,” he says.
Graphics group Pethick & Money has taken the plunge and invested in manufacturing facilities. The consultancy set up a joint venture and now has a factory in Ireland to manufacture a packaging system it has developed. By manufacturing the packs itself (albeit through a separate joint venture), the consultancy maintains control and stands to reap any financial benefits. “People have tried to put us off, but we don’t regret it,” says P&M joint managing director Katharine Pethick. The consultancy felt it had little choice because other manufacturers were reluctant to invest in the new machinery to produce P&M’s Flexible Food Wrap system.
Other initiatives taken by designers include the D4 banner display system developed and produced by Dimensions, in association with French designer Christophe Gillet. Architect Mike Dowd established Dimensions because he saw a gap in the market for printed fabrics used in design projects. “We put a lot of research and development into fabrics and it seemed natural to exploit it commercially,” he says.
Dimensions has its own printing machines for specialist fabrics and recently began marketing D4. Although the actual manufacture of components is subcontracted, units are assembled in-house. “It is a risk and you have to create a market,” says Dowd. “Sometimes you get it wrong – we had an earlier display product which wasn’t successful and you have to know when to say stop.” Happily, D4 is selling well.
Dimensions currently offers all its services, from design to supply of display systems and fabrics, under one company. But Dowd is setting up a separate company to take on pure design commissions while Dimensions will be developing other display-related products.
Designers also have the potential to make more money than they would from pure design fees. James Dyson would be running a very different type of business if he had designed his vacuum cleaner for another manufacturer. But, as Dimensions project and sales manager Robbie Ewing points out: “A lot of designers don’t know how to go out and market themselves.”
Jebb advises against taking on big loans to finance ventures. “It has to be done very gently with as little financial risk as possible. The skills that make you a successful designer do not necessarily make you a successful manufacturer.” He adds that a business plan should be drawn up and suggests involving someone with manufacturing experience in a consultant role.
Not every story turns into a Dyson fairy tale, but who knows what opportunities might be missed if designers didn’t follow their instincts once in a while. Industry will certainly benefit from more design-led manufacturers.
Pethick & Money
Graphics consultancy Pethick & Money has found an unlikely backer to help it break into manufacturing. Music company Telstar set up a joint venture with the consultancy to fund a factory manufacturing its food wrapping system.
P&M developed its award-winning Flexible Food Wrap for the fast food industry following an earlier product called M-Pak. The frustration of trying to find a manufacturer proactive enough to push the M-Pak convinced joint managing directors Katharine Pethick and Julian Money to do it themselves. Raising the funding, however, was far from easy.
‘When we developed FFW we decided we weren’t going to licence it to a manufacturer – it’s too innovative,’ says Pethick. An initial attempt to develop it with a manufacturer failed after it was considered too high a financial risk. Pethick explains that she and Money were reluctant to take on loans or cash injections because they would have ‘lost control’. The Telstar joint venture, she says, allows them to keep control and came about through a friend.
The new company, Rap (Rapid Action Packaging), has a factory in Donegal, Ireland which opened last summer. Although the factory has been subsidised with EC grants, Rap has made a considerable investment of around 300 000 into machinery which was made to order in the US. ‘It’s the first machine of its kind that combines paper and board and took 18 months to develop,’ says Pethick. Rap is currently producing packs for Abrakebabra in Ireland and is trialing packs for a French fast food chain. Another machine is on order and should be ready this summer.
According to Pethick, ‘life is too short’ to ignore the potential of setting up a venture like Rap. Although dividing time between the design business and developing Rap has been taxing, she enjoys the challenge of getting involved in different areas. ‘Julian and I are quite entrepreneurial. People have tried to put us off but we don’t regret it because it was the only way we could get this off the ground,’ she says.
Plant was set up by Priestman Goode a year ago as a separate company with the aim of becoming a ‘producer’. The long-term aim is that Plant will handle manufacture for clients and establish a brand of its own, developing well-designed, well-produced products. ‘We work in lots of different areas and know a lot of component manufacturers throughout the world. We select the best people to do the job and bring it all together,’ explains director Nigel Goode, who is also a partner of Priestman Goode. ‘It’s design-led manufacturing. We take on different values from most producers. Having control makes all the difference.’
While Plant is a limited company, Priestman Goode remains a partnership and the two are kept separate. ‘We’ve been careful not to complicate things. Although the majority of our clients have no interest in Plant, there will be clients who will benefit,’ states Priestman. Although it’s still a young venture, Plant has already produced products for Virgin, Our Price and BAA, as well as the Centre-fold magazine holders and Vibro-chair which have been developed in-house at Priestman Goode. A range of felt placemats designed by Annemarie Adriaanse has also been launched under the Plant brand. The company aims to promote young design talent.
While Priestman and Goode are excited about the potential of Plant, they are also aware of the commercial and financial implications. ‘We do not manufacture without an order – we won’t do it just for the vanity of seeing our name on a box,’ says Priestman. ‘From a financial point of view it is a risk,’ he adds. But the risk is paying off. Plant was set up using profits from the consultancy and is already making profits in its own right.
However, the pair would have been reluctant to take on huge debts in order to get Plant off the ground. ‘We wouldn’t have wanted to take out a big loan to do it. Plant came from a successful company,’ says Priestman.
Not only does Plant enable Priestman Goode to forge closer links with some clients and have more control over the production of its designs, it also means fees are not limited to consultancy day rates. ‘We’ve always been interested in moving away from the fee-income treadmill,’ says Priestman. Plant charges a price per product and provides an alternative means of accruing profits to the design consultancy.
Having set the company up last year, Priestman says Plant now operates as a separate entity with its own staff and so far there hasn’t been any conflict with the design consultancy. In the long term it may even develop its own manufacturing facilities rather than subcontract – hence the name Plant. ‘This is a natural progression for us. Product design is evolving and clients want a lot more now,’ says Goode.
WAG Products celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. Since it was established by product design consultancy Wharmby Associates, it has produced products for clients ranging from Marks & Spencer to Sony. Martin Wharmby, managing director of WAG says, in hindsight, he didn’t appreciate the potential of adding a manufacturing arm to the product design side of the business.
What started as a company to manufacture a condom case developed in-house at Wharmby Associates, has grown into a business which turns over four times more than the consultancy. ‘We’d had a good response to the condom case, but people were slow at taking up the idea.
We thought we’d have a crack at producing it ourselves. At the same time, we had an order for 10 000 and thought we’d be able to cover the costs for the tooling,’ says Wharmby. He adds that one of the key benefits of setting up WAG is taking over the role of overseeing tooling and being able to make sure ‘corners are not cut’ when designs are being manufactured.
Although WAG and Wharmby Associates are separate limited companies, Wharmby admits there are some conflicts in running the two. ‘The pace of the two businesses is very different. When you’re manufacturing products you have to do quite a bit of selling. Product design is a slower process and requires a greater cerebral input than the commercial world of selling.’ Wharmby concentrates on marketing for WAG, while co-founder Chris Garcin handles design. Selling products is the tricky part and Wharmby often finds himself at trade shows which ‘opens a different set of doors’ to being a designer.
Although the two businesses are distinct, Wharmby says he can swap money between the two when and if he needs to. But he is pleased he has never had to take out big loans or rely on investors for the venture.
Before WAG takes on a product Wharmby is careful to assess its commercial viability. ‘We’re in the business of ideas and if we feel there’s a commercial merit then we’ll go for it, but we always try to get an order up front before going out on a limb,’ he says. There are also financial gains. ‘Royalties are nothing like the pay-back you can get from making it yourself,’ declares Wharmby, illustrating his point by suggesting royalties for the design of a product that retails at 5 would be mere pennies, but by manufacturing it you might get 1 per item. ‘Our income as product designers is capped by how many hours we’re willing to work, whereas WAG’s income is uncapped,’ he adds.
There have, however, been moments when Wharmby has had second thoughts. Such as when WAG took on a project and failed to deliver on deadline – it was a seasonal product and
WAG couldn’t get enough made in time. Luckily, the client was ‘very reasonable in the end and it proved to be an interesting learning curve’.
Wharmby sees ‘enormous potential’ for the future development of WAG and wants to manufacture more of Wharmby Associates’ own products. He also believes more designers should take the plunge. ‘If other people do it with gusto we can make a real shift in the way product design is seen.’