Monday, January 21, 2013

Real Steps to Improve Your Craftsmanship

          Today's post is passing along some important wisdom I stumbled across from my friend, Jon Danforth on acting wisely as a designer in manufacturing a product in the real world. I normally think of myself if pushed as a commercial textile designer. This isn't really very accurate, but bridging two worlds (art and manufacturing) is never easy. Nor is putting a label on someone who wears multiple hats as an entrepreneur. I often get frustrated at the compromises between paying the bills and oh taking off six months to design the perfect historical reproduction hand-stitched from baby's tears. I am often driven to distraction by my jealousy of stay-at-home-mom friends who get to spend months working on one concept that wars with a knowledge I get shinier toys and make more volume. The whole quality vs. quantity argument. Last year, I turned out roughly 400 designs (mostly commercial), maybe a handful made it on the blog, but in my world if you don't produce, you don't eat. We learned a lot in the past year, but man the bruises on my shins from my fall down failures still ache.
          Which brings me to a topic today that I've been debating putting on the blog for six months for my artistic friends, but I've finally seen a good blog series worth mentioning that explains a lot of the hard work people I know have put in to make their designs salable and the logic short-cuts that put most start-ups into the flaming pile of poo catagory. Just read a little about Organic Transit's struggles on their Kickstarter page and you'll begin to understand the words sweat equity. My goal here is to be helpful, not cautionary. Almost all designers/start-ups fail around here when they try to go commercial (Crunching the numbers, I would estimate around 98% of all designs don't make it out the prototype door, especially first timers.). If you're doing a one-off or prototype, the chances are roughly 90-95% that you can get a test prototype off the ground and shiny enough to give it as a Christmas gift or take initial investor or seed money. Which I hope is comforting thought for the average DIY type, but a waste of time if your end goal is to sale to the public because it leads to sloppy thinking.
           If you want to learn to sale to the public, you can't just be able to produce a one-off or "bench copy," but a refine your design to a DFM (Design for Manufacturing). This requires understanding something which is death to most designers, how manufacturing and automation works. I've struggled to explain the differences between what you see in the various factories/industry and what artists and my university schooling insist is the truth. We mock China's manufacturing abilities, but they are very good at understanding using tools to create a system for ordinary people to do extraordinary things by working off the actual abilities of their employees on the floor. The more I work in the industry, the more respect I have for factory owners, employee, and everyone else in the supply chain. If you want the cliffs notes version, here's the best summary of how FUNCTIONAL design works I've ever seen.

The Factory Floor: Part 1
The Factory Floor: Part 2
The Factory Floor: Part 3
The Factory Floor: Part 4

            It also drives home a point I think we often gloss over, there are fundamental skills in making something real. These are skills YOU can learn and get much much BETTER at. Because experienced designers often don't have the same struggles a person just starting out has. So a little wisdom today from the elders. May it help you on your journey. Even if the only thing you ever "manufacture" is Christmas cookies for hungry relatives.

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