Creating an Effective, Collaborative Product Design Process

“Where do new ideas come from? The answer is simple: differences. Creativity comes from unlikely juxtapositions.” –Nicholas Negroponte, Architect

What are the greatest obstacles in establishing an effective, collaborative design process? Ask a designer, and they might tell you client and management personalities are tough to wrangle. Ask a client or project manager, and they might tell you the inverse is true. The truth of the matter is likely somewhere in the middle, and varies wildly based on who’s at the table. However, most productive design relationships result from harnessing the convergence of perspectives, objectives, and experience, and from establishing mutually respectful and beneficial connections between designers and their clients.

When I founded Bishop House, an art house specializing in high-end decorative housewares, I knew the designer relationship would be critically important to the success of the business. Our inaugural line of elevated teaware includes three designs, each incorporating a delicate balance of modern and classical elements for a timeless and distinctive look that enhances the tea and coffee drinking experience. In bringing these objects to life, I was extremely fortunate to find a visionary partner in Portland-based designer, James Owen. James not only brought a wealth of experience and raw talent to the project, but is as energized by and committed to the collaborative nature of product design as I am. In working with James, I discovered that each stakeholder in the design process can contribute toward a successful result, and gained valuable insights that managers should consider in their projects:

1. Be clear about what’s negotiable and what’s not. Bishop House produces luxury products for an audience that expects the highest standard of quality. While there’s a lot of room for artistic interpretation at the design level, ensuring that our materials meet that quality standard is critical to the success of the brand. One of our first decisions in creating this product line was a commitment to the use of 24-karat gold, pure silver, and hand-blown glass. We also emphasized from the start that these materials needed to be constructed seamlessly to stand the test of time. Involved from the very earliest stages, James understood this need, and worked with us to build a product around those critical, non-negotiable elements. Firmly laying out the essentials with clarity and at the start of the project, established a strong foundation for a productive and collaborative process.

2. Stay flexible and willing to learn. As an appreciator and collector of fine art, there are certain design periods and styles that resonate with me, and others that don’t. While my background informed my participation in the process, James’ extensive experience and perspective in product design really drove a result we’re all proud of. As a manager, it can be tempting to “show your design chops,” and establish a dominant role in the process. However, by keeping an open mind to suggestions and a desire to learn from a designer as talented as James, we created something beautiful and enjoyed the journey along the way. Corporate environments often reward quick and unilateral decision-making, but adjusting your perspective to value the experience and input of creative professionals creates better results and more productive, respectful working relationships.

3. Find what excites the team, and prioritize it. When two parties of divergent backgrounds collaborate on a project, there’s a tendency for each to silo their process, coming together only at notable milestones, then returning to their respective corners to try again. The fact is that managers and designers, in many cases, speak different languages and find value in different facets of work. Finding common ground, across industry borders, can address this gap and help create a result that all parties are proud of. In the case of Bishop House, we discovered early on that James loves working with small companies, taking on challenges with new materials, and finding true collaboration with his clients. Taking the time to understand not only his style, but his design philosophy, helped us recognize where ours aligned, and we were able to share genuine excitement for the critical stages in the process. Putting focus on the harmonious elements of the relationship helped us better understand each other when our philosophies and aesthetics diverged, an inevitability in any project of this nature.

While many factors come into play when launching a new product, a strong, mutually-respectful relationship with a talented designer has perhaps been most central to our business. By establishing clear parameters, recognizing the strengths of each team member, and finding common ground in the joy of the process, we were able to create a product we’re all proud of.

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