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Design Engine

Independent Design

Pictured above: Ayn Rand

Admit it. How cool would it be to sell a few thousand of your designs or have a museum curator acquire a piece for their collection? Better yet how about your picture on the cover of a magazine where other designers would envy and hate you all at the same time? It’s a seductive fantasy and for most it is only that. But for some, staking a claim in design is far more than fantasy. It’s a way of designing, it’s a way of life, that can be both spiritually satisfying and lucrative. To lead that type of life, follow Branchusi’s simple formula: “Create like a god, command like a king and work like a slave;with an emphaisis on the later.”

Designers Wanted

Follow the provenance of any of your design favorites and at their origin you find a single designer and a lot of guts. Charles Lucier from Booz-Allen Hamiliton, a business consultancy, said “(We are in) a decade of the talented innovator-both superstar and ensemble player. But while top talent is strategically critical, The path to superior profits still lies with their capabilities. The winners will drive industry restructuring around innovation: creating marketing powerhouses that expand scope and add value during commercialization-leading the redefinition of the industry value chain and mobilizing and targeting superstar innovators who are not full time employees.”

Lucier’s article “To Win with Innovation-Kill R&D” favors business alliances with independent superstar talent and he observes that a small number of talented superstars are responsible for most breakout products. He cites the entertainment and sports industries as examples that have used talented individuals and small teams for strategic advantage. Lucier points to Thomas Edison, General Motors Charles Kettering and designers such as George Nelson, Isamu Noguchi and Charles Eames as examples of talented individuals working with in an organizations that utilize innovation as a strategic tool. Lucier states that, “None of Hasbro’s hot toys -Furbies, Teletubbies and Pokemon dolls – were developed in house.” Even Hasbro’s huge licensing deal with Starwars can be traced to George Lucas, a talented individual. We don’t think of Lucas, Martha Stewart, Ralph Lauren and Michael Graves as individuals. They seem more like brand entities. Yet all of these design magnates emerge from the idea of the independent designer.

The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) is an example of embracing the view of the independent designer with a passion. MOMA has traditionally had an open door policy for independent designers and features new design in their gift shops, catalog and online store. Bonnie Mackay ,a memeber of the team that reviews new design for MOMA said, “We welcome the attitude and approach of outside designers. We’re looking for designers who have not put on the headgear of the corporate world.” Not only will MOMA review your design, but if selected, they will manufacture your design, help you sell it and fork over a royalty deal. Mackay added, “We work closely with outside designers because they can bring something to design that is difficult if not prohibited by commercial deign firms.”

Designers Not Wanted

MOMA’s enlightened view, however, is a rarity. Most likely, your best design efforts will be ignored if not snubbed. Despite how fascinating your new design is, competition is ferocious. Designers, artists, inventors, and crack pots all clamor for the attention of buyers. Forcing some companies to discourage outside submissions of designs. Umbra, a Canadian based manufacturer of contemporary design, searches internationally for fresh talent and is besieged with unsolicited design. “We always like to look at new design, but we have a team of in-house designers that have focus, know our product and know our market” – Mr. Les Mandelbaum, president of Umbra. “The chances of and outside designer sending us something that will hit the mark, is well… very, very remote. We like to stay with designers we know.” Mandellbaum warned. Just in case you missed the sublety Mandellbaum insisted: do not to send any designs to Umbra.


If the idea of personal selling leaves you with a bad taste, get used to the the flavor. Striking out on your own is not for the faint hearted or thin skinned. A more palatable option might be self-production. Self-production is a process of developing your design in close relationship with manufactures or setting up your own mini-factory for production runs of your design. “Frequent mistake that designers – or for that matter anyone – makes in self-production is not fully understanding what will happen at each and every phase of the manufacturing process.” Says Pamela Williams, author of the book “How to break into Product Design”. Williams’ book is full of examples of successful productsand savvy advice. Williams adds, “Things quickly become more expensive and/or mistakes get made. For instance, the designer may not fully appreciate the implications of specifying a certain material (e.g. special handling required) or the unique nuances of particular materials manufacture (takes 2 hours to make instead of the estimated 2 minutes).The good news is that many of these problems can be overcome at the outset by producing pre-production samples.”

Williams’ gives an optimistic forecast for independent designer saying, “The opportunity today for product design in so many product categories is richer than it has ever been.” She explains, “I think there are two reasons for this. First, design is more widely understood and appreciated by consumers. They want function but their spending habits indicate they appreciate form too. Secondly, the internet has made it possible for many designers to reach a mass market at a low cost whether they are designing their own products or selling the good works of other designers. A couple of years ago, you’d be hard pressed to find a George Nelson Clock. Now his work has been reintroduced in design and style websites.”

Independent design is not for everyone. It will probably mean moving out of your comfort zone into areas of manufacturing, marketing, raising capital, and selling. A successful design will demand artistic skills as well as business know-how. For some, this may be an offensive combination. For the intrepid, however, it can provide a level of satisfaction and personal growth that otherwise be illusive. So if you’re ready to take the plunge, dust off some your ideas and get them into production, but remember Branchusi-Work like a slave.

Article Written by: Keith Voit

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