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Working with inventors is a challenging process for professional designers. These emerging entrepreneurs boast excellent design skills, engineering and marketing knowledge, and often the input of the professional is put on the back burner along with budge

There’s a long way from a bright idea to a finished product. Amy Chubb on offering a helping hand to inventors and small companies

Working with inventors is a challenging process for professional designers. These emerging entrepreneurs boast excellent design skills, engineering and marketing knowledge, and often the input of the professional is put on the back burner along with budgeting and time management. So why do clients come knocking on the door of professional support services like those run by Coventry University Enterprises’ Design Hub, if they can do it all themselves?

Perhaps their sheds aren’t big enough or they’ve run out of MDF, but the truth is that it’s a big world out there and being on your own – perhaps with a full-time job and 2.4 children to boot – and knowing who to trust and where to invest your limited time and resources can be quite a headache.

Clients also come to us because we can offer them a time-limited design service for free (yes, for free, don’t always expect there to be a catch). But we have, over the past five years, helped more than 120 companies with a range of design, management and organisational issues with support through a number of Government-funded projects.

At the Design Hub we work with companies in the West Midlands which qualify as new start-up businesses or micro enterprises and are not yet using designers or incorporating the design process into their everyday working. We work with them on an introductory basis to show them the many benefits of using the full design process by incorporating this into their business methodology. We encourage all companies that work with us to go on to access training and employ graduates and commercial designers to ensure the technology and process they have been introduced to continues as part of their long-term strategy.

We come across a number of common problems.

First, it seems ‘design’ simply does not feature on many small companies’ to-do list. Most would expect a new business to have done thorough market research and a degree of concept exploration and, from the first meeting with our start-ups, we get them to explore their potential market by undertaking significant market research.

We frequently see that the design process isn’t featuring in business plans or strategies and the product development time is often unrealistic. The benefit of using Government-funded programmes is that we can help direct people into the design process in a heavily supported way which then integrates design as part of their fundamental business process when moving forward.

The lack of knowledge around key areas such as design, manufacture and intellectual property are also real stumbling blocks, but with the right advice, they can be the make-or-break difference to a company setting up and establishing itself in the marketplace.

It is also common for clients to attend initial meetings with a fag packet sketch and ask for a working prototype. With 30 working hours per project, it’s a tall order at best, but when the ‘bit in the middle’ is explained and visualised further into the project, clients begin to realise the full extent of what they’ve overlooked. Many clients care more about filing a patent than the actual functioning of the product. Intellectual property is often seen as a necessity without fully exploring the variety of options and levels of protection available. Our feeling is that if the Government wants to encourage entrepreneurship, why are such fundamentals not promoted?

Many of the ideas that have been presented to the Design Hub are spawned out of everyday problems. Some of the inventions that have been revealed wouldn’t look out of place in a Tokyo market but that’s why we’re here – to inform the selected clients how their designs can be maximised in terms of manufacture and market appeal.

We work closely with our clients and set tasks for them to learn and understand the thought and design process and, in return, the clients are very much encouraged to develop their product in conjunction with the designers. Opening doors for people with limited funds and perhaps even less business experience can be very challenging, but it’s extremely rewarding and we have many proven successes. Inventors shouldn’t be seen as second-rate clients, because they are passionate, logical and keen to learn. After all, today’s inventors are tomorrow’s entrepreneurs, so Dragons, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Amy Chubb is industrial product designer at the Design Hub, Coventry University Enterprises

Inventors and design

• Frequently, design doesn’t feature on the agenda or in the business plan
• There’s often a lack of knowledge about the design, manufacture and IP process
• Clients tend to expect to see finished results too quickly
• Providing support on matters of design can open doors

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