What makes a good designer?
Sean Sutcliffe, MD and joint founder of Benchmark, is often asked to speak at events about what he believes makes a good designer. We thought that many of our readers would value his views on what he believes to be essential qualities for designing desirable, useful and well made products so we’re sharing some of the notes he made for an article about design published in last year’s London Design Festival Guide.
“Sketching is a brilliant tool and good designers use it very effectively to quickly convey the spirit as well as the look of an object, a detail of a surface. A simple model, a 3D sketch, is a good development, and it helps designers and makers to tackle some basic issues of structure, proportion and stability. I love working with designers who master these two basic skills, and I find it a much quicker route to get to an initial prototype than the sometime sterile CAD modelling and drawings. It is also a good indicator that the designer is going to take a hands on role, getting involved in the process in the workshop, making “hammer and nails” full size mock ups, working with us to resolve the technical challenges and balance them against the visual issues.
The best designers we work with also have a very real awareness of the commercial considerations – they will know the cost implications of the choices they make. It is really important that designers gain in depth knowledge of the materials they are working in. How much does it cost? What size does it come in? How strong is it? What finishes can be achieved? There really is a lot to know, and whilst we can bring this knowledge to the table, it is exhausting to have to explain things that a designer should know, and worse still to have to argue the point when basic background knowledge should make the answer clear. I firmly believe that a year spent at the work bench is a huge asset to any designer. There is so much to be gained by knowing the feel of your materials, how they respond, and understanding the mindset of the maker.
Having worked through sketches, models and mock ups to our mutual satisfaction, we can begin the serious, and expensive, business of prototyping. Designers should understand that manufacturers invest a huge amount of money getting from this stage to the final resolved product on the shelf, and so it is a significant act of faith in the designer that we are called to make. Producing designs is a joint venture all the way. Designers should be looking at every stage of development to help ensure that we are talking the same language. If we are lucky we will get a satisfactory prototype at first or second attempt. Chairs may take many more attempts to resolve the ergonomics, the structure, the upholstery, etc. By the time we have a product ready to produce the designer will have invested many days and lots of visits to the workshop, and the maker will have invested something like five to ten times the unit price of the product. This is a rule of thumb we use – five times for a simple table – ten times for a chair. So it’s serious business, and none of us can afford the process frivolously.
Then there is the whole route to market – photography, marketing, press and exhibitions. Again the designer can really help. The product is going to carry his or her name, so to have his or her personality attached at every stage will carry the product further and faster.
And only now do we start the real making. Final specifications, clear drawings (including piece part drawings), jigs, CNC programmes and cutting sheets are vital for smooth production and finally we can cut wood, metal, plastic or fabric, and we are underway. Our final part of the design process will be a post first batch evaluation to review, and again the designer plays a central part. We are still a team.
If we have all done a good job of every stage, then the designer will start to get his hard earned royalty payments, and the maker starts on the road to recovering his investment in the product. Producing design is much more about grit and dust and perseverance than it is about cocktail parties inMilan, but for the designer/maker partnership it has very real and tangible rewards and we love it!”
Sean’s final and very important tip was that designers working with woodworkers should always wear dust coloured clothing!