How to choose the right design firm for your needs

By Protolabs

So you have an idea and may even have a design sketched, but you need someone to help you get that part designed in CAD, prototyped, tested and out to market; where do you start?

In this blog we explore how to choose the best design firm for your project needs and how to make the most from your collaboration.


Design Process

What are Design Firms?

First of all, let’s define a design firm. A design firm, also known as a design agency or design studio, is a company that specialises in providing creative and professional design services to clients. At Protolabs, we tend to work with design firms related to manufacturing. A manufacturing design firm, or a product design firm, development firm or industrial design firm, is a specialised company that focuses on creating and developing products, typically with a strong emphasis on the design and engineering aspects of those products. Manufacturing design firms tend to offer product design and development, design expertise, engineering and technical expertise, regulatory compliance, project management, supplier liaison, testing and quality control and client collaboration.

Now we’ve defined a design firm, how do you choose one that’s right for you?


Defining the project

Firstly, you need to have clearly defined your project, its scope, objectives and specific requirements. You will need to understand what exactly you need from a design firm; if you are reading this now, you are likely looking for support with product design.

Let’s determine how much support you need. Suppose you are an engineer or a start-up with an idea designed but cannot get it to CAD. We can recommend our partner RS Components and their software, DesignSpark, which allows you to produce a full CAD, which can then be uploaded to our quote system.


CAD software on computer


So, you need engineering support. Perhaps you are a start-up without technical expertise or are new to the game and need someone to support you through the entire product design process. Then, you will be looking for a design firm.
Your starting point? Narrow your search down to design firms that support with product design. Choose a design firm with experience in the area you need support with, preferably with a strong track record in your industry.
Design firms tend to have a primary focus, such as Hodges & Drake, who specialise in products for the beverage industry or Hellerman Tyton, who provide effective structured cabling solutions. However, you can also find companies that are a little more generalist, such as Nebuelm.


Budget and Pricing

So you’ve narrowed it down to some general design firms or design firms that specialise in your industry. Another thing for your list of considerations (and likely quite high up) will be budget and pricing. Can the firm deliver within your budget constraints? Do try to think past the initial costs and consider long-term costs and profits.


Technology and Tools

Are the design firms you are considering using up-to-date software and tools? Do they have the ability to get your parts prototyped or produced at reasonable costs and within your desired timescales? What suppliers are they working to meet their manufacturing needs? Are they using someone like Protolabs who offers design for manufacturability, consultative design services, quality assurance and parts in as fast as a day?

As well as the here and now, you must also consider your long-term needs and scalability. Can they adequately support you with both prototyping and production and even customisation as you progress?

Protolabs digital network map

Geographic Location

Where is the design firm based? Can you see them face to face? Are you collaborating with someone in the same time zone as you, speaking the same language? Are they getting your prototypes produced locally or across the globe? With consumer preferences moving towards sustainable products, you may need to consider this.


Legal and Contractual Considerations

Are you comfortable with what the company is offering about intellectual property rights, confidentiality and project deliverables?


Communication, Collaboration and Culture

Assess how the firm listens to you, works with you, and even consider if they fit with your culture, values and work style. A compatible partnership will often lead to a smoother collaboration.


Compare, Compare, and Compare again

Once you have narrowed down your options, request detailed proposals and compare them all, including the most important sticking points such as plans, timelines and deliverables.

Finally, trust your instincts!

Choose a firm you are comfortable can deliver the results you require and whom you can establish a positive, collaborative partnership with.

If you choose the right design partner, they should be transparent with you and communicate with you during the whole process. We hope to be a part of that partnership when your design firm looks to find a partner to prototype and produce your parts.