top of page
  • Thomas Pannell

Who should design your new products? in-house vs. external designers

From large companies to start-ups, designing new products is a big investment. You need to dedicate time and resources to something that may or may not get to market. Whatever size your business is, giving your product the best chance of success if really important – and getting product designs right is key to this.

We have been doing a lot of new product designs recently, so I wanted to write something about my experiences. I do want to write more about working with start-ups on new products in the future – and I think the best way is to eventually put out a case study showing the whole process we go through. So for now I want to talk about the contrasts I’ve seen in how different teams work.

The comparison I’m going to make is between in-house designers vs. external design teams. We’ll look at a few pros and cons, then how different drivers and motivations play into this. The conclusion will look at the time and cost of putting a project together.

In-house design teams have a couple of distinct advantages. They know the company well, how things work, what style you are trying to achieve and have a great understanding of why you are putting your new product together. They’ve sat in on all the meetings – discussions with sales, customers and management – and understand the direction things are going in. It’s not impossible for an outside design team to get a feel for this, but it’s not always easy.

They also know the people involved in the project and have experience of working the people in their organisation. Coming in from the outside you don’t know everyone on the client side and its easier than you think to rub someone up the wrong way.

In-house designers are normally hired because they have relevant industry experience too. For some niche areas, like medical equipment, it’s unlikely that an agency will have this experience.

So at the moment its looking good for in-house teams, but I am going to come back to the point above. There is one thing to note first – design has two meanings.

1. How something looks, i.e. a pattern.

2. A drawing to show the look and function of something and how it works.

For professional product, industrial designers or engineers the second definition would be followed. Products are designed to meet a specification, but in a way that is considerate of manufacturing processes, product assembly and compliance. It’s not always easy to do this and, in a lot of cases, the aesthetic of the original concept is where compromises have to be made.

The first definition seems to be the leading definition for in-house designers. I think this comes about because companies promote someone internally who likes or is seen to be good at “design”, but with little or no background in manufacturing or product design and engineering. People with no manufacturing or engineering background tend not to be interested in the function and workings of products, so by default design just becomes about the aesthetics.

All too often we see concepts from in-house product designers that aren’t practical or can only be made at great expense for tooling, machining and item costs. There is often a reluctance to compromise and a lack of understanding about the processes needed to make their items. This can cause a lot of friction between the manufacturer and customer.

Factories need clear communication and like everything laid out for them – they don’t want the responsibility for your product designs. If the designer can’t explain the function and workability of the product, discuss compromises and show examples of similar issues and solutions to bring people on board, it will be very hard to find a good factory to work with.

When an industrial designer or engineer has been contracted to do design work, everything tends to come to us with a specification for every part – right down to the bolts – and often an explanation of how to assemble things. This makes it easy to produce prototypes, find and communicate with manufacturers and get the product to market quickly. This last point is so important as delays and communication with factories are the main reasons projects get halted.

I see a different set of priorities and urgency between the two types of designers too. With a company like mine we offer charge a fixed price for product designs based on their complexity. We want to get you the best item, meeting your specification, that can be made easily – and do all of this as quickly as possible. We’d be out of pocket if we didn’t work quickly and get things right first time. We also make money from manufacturing the products, so the quicker we can get to this point the better!

With in-house design teams I get the feeling that turning things around quickly isn’t always top of their list.

A good example of this is last year when I worked with an in-house designer on a number of kitchen storage ideas for their companies 2022 catalogue. These were the only new items they were working on and the designs we’re actually pretty good. We needed to make a few changes to reuse some existing tooling and use standard parts to save costs – some very simple and straight forward changes. It should have taken about 2-months to modify the drawings, make samples and get the items approved, but this project took forever to sort out with lots changes to the whole design. It took almost 12-months and only wrapped up quickly when the catalogues cut-off date was approaching.

This project has now moved into production we’ve been sent some new designs for the following years catalogue. It’s almost like the projects are stretched out, either consciously or sub-consciously, to fill the entire years’ workload. Is it a case of self-preservation? If the project was completed in 2-months, and they knew that there wouldn’t be any more design work for a year, does being quick make their position redundant? I can only guess at the answer to this, but it would definitely be cheaper to pay a fixed cost for these product designs rather than a full-time salary.

So, to round things off, if you get a qualified and experienced designer in-house may give you exactly what you want. If you don’t get the right person, the practicality and speed of product designs will suffer – causing difficulties finding and working with a manufacturer. You also have the cost of employment for one or more product designers.

An outside design team will work to your spec, as quickly as possible – so they get paid. Their designs are going to be more practical for manufacturers, but might have a few extra compromises to your concept and specification. It may cost a bit more to find someone with experience in your industry. However, you’d only have them contracted as and when you need them, saving you the cost of full-time employees.

For your new products to succeed you definitely need the right balance of quality, practicality and price – all within a reasonable lead time. For big or small businesses, I think working with someone on a short term assignment is the best way to achieve this within a fixed budget. Just make sure you involve them in a few meetings early on so they can get a good feel for your company and what you want to achieve.

If you have been struggling to get a new product design out, or just have an idea you want to make a reality, get in touch with us to see how we can help. From product design to price benchmarking, translation services to product sourcing, there are a lot of ways Pinpoint can help you.

Drop us an email at or call our MD Thomas Pannell on 07917 606 208 for a chat.

5 views0 comments


bottom of page