How to Invent an Idea that can truly wow: Part 1

Until the mid 18th century, individual craftsmen would invent an idea by using their skills and expertise, conceptualising the form, function, and identity of the product. This skill set was gained through apprenticeships under more experienced craftsmen, training and experience. The advent of the industrial revolution from 1760 to 1840 in Great Britain brought along numerous changes to the way products were designed and manufactured. It gave birth to new industries and services, one among them being industrial design services. For the first time, a dedicated group of industrial designers as part of a larger team could work on the design of products across a wide range of industries. Ever since, product companies have faced this daunting question.

When does creating an in-house design team make sense to invent an idea

Product Design and Development is unlike other departments of a company which are almost always done in-house. Companies don’t usually outsource their operations, management, sales, or accounting activities to external agencies. Product design doesn’t always follow this rule, even for product-based companies. In-house design teams don’t always have enough capability for new product development. They may stick to incremental updates to define an invention or an existing product lineups over the years.

However, some iconic products have emerged from in-house design teams. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

The iPod Story – successfully led by an inventor

The year is 2001 and Steve Jobs had come back to Apple. The era of file sharing and CD burning was in full swing and music record companies were in panic mode. Apple formed a team to conceptualise a small hard disk based digital music player that could store a thousand songs and fit in a pocket – the iPod. They hired Tony Fadell to design the product and lead the team.

Read more on the iPod journey in Tony Fadell’s Book, BUILD. Link here.

The legendary story Steve Jobs dropping one of the initial prototypes of the iPod into a fish tank, seeing bubbles come out, commenting that there is empty space inside and hence the device can be made smaller is a story that never stops doing the rounds. Even though Steve Jobs wasn’t a designer himself, his vision for simple design and user friendly products propelled Apple to the tech giant it is today. The iPod revolutionised the music market and in this case, an in-house design team made perfect sense.

The Dyson Supersponic hair dryer story– successfully led by an inventor

Sir James Dyson is an example of someone who successfully built a product company by being a designer himself. A designer by training and an engineer by learning, Dyson’s ability to marry invention and ideas worked wonders for him. For companies with an engineering design led leadership like Dyson, going through hundreds of iterations was understood as part of the product design and development process. Dyson has proudly stated that it took him 5,127 prototypes to get the first cyclonic vacuum cleaner right. While designing the Supersonic Hair Dryer, the unique form with the hole in the middle posed a serious challenge for Dyson.

How Dyson perfected inventing products like the Supersonic Hair Dryer and how it works. Read here

Conventionally, hair dryers use flat mica sheets slotted together in an array like a Christmas tree for the heating element. The hole in the middle meant the engineers had to design a heating element from scratch – custom designed mica tubes arranged in a donut shape with two wires wrapped around them. What began as a loosely wound one layer heating element quickly evolved to two tightly wound wires over two layers. This iterative approach was built in to Dyson’s design process, thanks to its design led leadership.

An in-house design team ensures better communication between various teams. In this case, the design engineers, electrical engineers, testing team, mechanical engineers, industrial designers and acoustic engineers. It took Dyson 3 years to get his idea from invention to the final product – a feat that would’ve been seen as 2 years and 364 days too late by some other product companies.

In a previous edition of this newsletter, we have explored how messy the design process is. Most companies don’t have a leadership with a temperament for design. Iterations are seen as failures and delays instead of crucial steps and problems that need to be solved. For such companies with business driven leadership, an in-house design team will have to bear the brunt of failures. Outsourcing the design to an external design agency will be a sensible decision in such cases; the in house team can focus on iterative updates to their existing product line up while the agency can work on more experimental new product design. Outsource the risk and share the rewards.

The VanMoof e-cycles story: a design dream to invent an idea

In 2009, VanMoof burst into the electric bikes scene in Amsterdam. After attracting investors and raising £2 million in its first funding round in 2010, the founding brothers Taco and Ties Carlier had a thought to invent an idea of electrified E-bikes that were technologically superior to regular bicycles. They got to work designing their first products – the Electrified S and X. Launched in 2011, the bikes received positive reviews from users, thanks to sleek design and innovative features. Over the next 10 years, VanMoof raised £100 million over various funding rounds.

When the S3 and X3 models launched in 2020, VanMoof priced them at £1,998, severely undercutting the competition by over £1,000. The bikes were an upgrade to the S2 and X2, yet they were cheaper. Did VanMoof hit a technology goldmine that made their products better and cheaper? The answer is far less appealing.

VanMoof had invested heavily in their in-house design and technology capabilities with funding from investors. The COVID-19 pandemic had severely crippled supply chains for crucial hardware and chipsets. The e-bike market had grown considerably after the pandemic with increased interest in alternative transportation options. New companies were vying for a share in the growing market. The sharks were circling, and VanMoof was bleeding money through every spoke of its metaphorical wheels.

VanMoof decided to sell its S3 models at a loss. It cost VanMoof €4000 to produce the S3, while customers paid €2000 to buy one. All the technology integration meant users couldn’t repair their bikes on their own. The local bike shop down the road wouldn’t touch the bike and only trained technicians could fix it – by replacing, not repairing the faulty parts. The end user bore the brunt of VanMoof’s cost cutting measures with S3 having a failure rate of a whopping 10%. Currently, VanMoof’s Dutch entities have been declared bankrupt.

How could they have avoided this while inventing products that were designed in a closed ecosystem

In hindsight, perhaps a better decision would have been to entrust an external design agency to look into a process that would create various options to invent an idea and then develop a few prototypes at a low cost and get user feedback, before going full throttle into new technology development. This would have worked to validate the market demand and VanMoof’s emphasis on tech while reducing their financial burden. VanMoof could have then gone full throttle with the design and technology stack development instead of taking a gamble.

The Braun x Dieter Rams story – successfully led by a designer

Max Braun, a mechanical engineer himself, hired Dieter Rams in 1955 and asked him to 's design team in 1961. Dieter Rams' design worked wonders for Braun products. As head of design, Rams could spread his obsession with attention to detail to every member of his team. The Braun ET66 calculator epitomizes Rams’ design principles, one of those being “Good design is long lasting”.  With everyone being under the Braun umbrella, the team led by Rams could exert their design principles and drive innovation through all departments of a product’s development - design, materials, packaging, engineering, software, and even operating system.

One of the advantages of Rams’ in-house design team was the Braun design language that could be developed from scratch and refined over decades. Having a dedicated team that continually receives learnings passed down from previous years plays a huge role in design consistency and maintaining design language. Even after Rams’ departure from Braun in 1997, his design principles still influence products coming out of Braun’s stables to this day.

Pros of having an in-house design team to invent an idea

  1. It’s easier to preserve confidentiality of projects when working with an in-house design team.
  2. Internal communication between various teams working on the product is smoother since they’re all under the same umbrella, understand the company culture and sometimes, are just a quick walk away from each other.
  3. Internal teams are more structured to follow the same process. The processes they use are approved by the company and the leadership knows what to expect at each stage of the design process.
  4. Incremental updates to existing products can be quickly done by in-house design teams since it may not be commercially viable to work with an external agency for small, incremental updates.

Cons of having an in-house design team to invent an idea

  1. Most In house design teams may not always have the full spectrum of skills and competencies required for all projects. If they do it will most certainly be a huge number of people raising costs heavily.
  2. Having worked on a single product line over a long time, internal teams sometimes find it tough to generate fresh ideas.
  3. Recruiting team members for an internal team is quite cumbersome and can take a lot of time and effort. Not to mention retaining creative resources.
  4. The cost of maintaining an in-house design team can be quite high.

What makes sense to create an in-house design team

Having looked at a few case studies, pros and cons of working with an internal design team, let’s see when it makes sense to use an in-house design studio

  1. For incremental design updates to an existing product, internal teams work best. Every project’s goal is not to create new inventions. Fixing design based on customer feedback, or  with special graphics and limited edition colours would be better than radically inventing a new product idea.
  2. If a product line already exists, an in-house design team can easily expand with different size, cost and functionality options. Garmin offers various products under a family – for different wrist sizes, dial sizes, with choice of premium materials and features like solar charging and flash light.  

Craft Engaging Product Experiences

request a call
No items found.