Help me become a furniture/product designer
April 30, 2010 7:39 AM   Subscribe

I've come up with a functional and adaptable line of furniture. Problem is, it's entirely in my imagination. What's the step-by-step process I can take my original idea from fantasy to an actual, sellable product?

I am not particularly talented at:

model making

I know nothing about:

auto cad
the manufacturing process


I really believe in my imagined product line
I have a natural eye for design
Furniture excites me

What now?
posted by mizrachi to Media & Arts (5 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Since you'll have to start working with other people pretty early on in the process (e.g., getting some sketches drafted up at the very least), I would consult a competent intellectual property attorney in your jurisdiction. This is not legal advice, but there are two main approaches you might ask an attorney about:

1. Draft up a non-disclosure agreement. This is a simple contract that you would have anyone you work with sign saying, essentially, that the designs are yours and not to be disclosed or used by the other party. Having an NDA drafted should not be too expensive and will give you some protection from an unscrupulous drafter or business partner running away with your ideas.

2. File for a design patent. A design patent covers the ornamental design of something like a piece of furniture, not its functional aspects. They are much cheaper and faster to get than a utility patent, which is the usual kind of patent. Having a design patent lets you talk about and disclose your designs openly without the hassle and awkwardness of requiring a non-disclosure agreement.
posted by jedicus at 7:56 AM on April 30, 2010

I am a woodworker and furniture maker, and have done some prototyping work for commercial products. It sounds like you might want to partner with a skilled woodworker to develop some prototypes. You may not be comfortable with models or drawing, but you'll have to find some way to convey your ideas. Drawings and models do not need to be perfect renderings; many highly refined products start out as sketches on a cocktail napkin.

In my experience, designers with no woodworking experience almost invariably design things that either can't or shouldn't be built the way they first imagine. Be prepared to have some parts of your vision shot down, for its own good.

Of course, the technical and design issues are just the beginning of your challenges. The furniture business is not an easy one to make money at.
posted by jon1270 at 7:57 AM on April 30, 2010

Why don't you try modeling your concepts in Sketchup? It's free, super-easy to learn, and your models can have as much or little detail as you feel up to.

It might help you work out some of the design details and problems (an trust me, there are lots of decisions to be made and problems to be solved between the idea phase and the prototype phase) before throwing money at the project and handing it off to someone else.
posted by Fifi Firefox at 8:49 AM on April 30, 2010

I don't want to come across as Captain Killjoy, but a common misconception about product design and development is that companies are starving for new ideas. They aren't. Almost all new products are market-driven. Companies spend a lot of effort trying to figure out what is selling, where's there are opportunities, what current and future trends are like, what their brand vision is, considering development and manufacturing costs, etc. Ultimately, they need to go with what will be profitable. The designers they employ have to work within that context for their ideas to have any value. Good designers can come up with hundreds of ideas at the drop of a hat, but 99% of them don't go anywhere. That's not to say there's no room for innovation from the outside. It happens, but companies and clients usually find it more fruitful to work with the pros.

You could contact companies and try to get them to buy your idea, or you could become your own client by starting a business. Either one will be tough. A lot of companies won't be interested, because the vast majority of submissions will be things they can't use. You will need to hire a designer to polish up your ideas, and maybe a furniture maker for prototypes, or learn these skills yourself. Even these people you seek to hire might not be interested, because they've likely been approached before by people with ideas much worse than yours, from whom payment seemed unlikely. I don't have to tell that starting your own business is a huge risk. Start-up costs will be enormous. You'd be banking on your one idea to be a huge hit, or that you'll continue to have good ideas. You'd be competing against people who already have design skills.

In other words, without a client, your ideas aren't worth much. Ideas are cheap. Ideas are plentiful. Really good ideas are rare. Really good ideas that will make money take a lot of work to develop. If your idea is truly innovative, someone might bite.

Right now, if I were you, I'd do a lot of research to find out more about the market. See if your concept is already out there. If it's a technical innovation, patent it. (Although defending your patent against a large company can be crazy expensive too.)

Take a furniture-making class. It's fun! Become a student-at-large at an art school, or look for studios around town that offer classes. Learn SketchUp and do your own CAD modeling.
Go to trade shows. NeoCon is coming up in Chicago soon. Wander away from the big lines in the big booths with their disco balls and free drinks, toward the dimly lit, forgotten corners of the exhibit hall. There you'll find the small booths with the folks who have invested a lot of money into their idea and are trying to break in. Ask them how it's going.
posted by hydrophonic at 9:37 AM on April 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Who do you want to be?

Do you want to be the person who flipped a great idea to a big manufacturer for big bucks? If so, get a prototype and a patent and start shopping it around.

Do you want to be a standalone product company, like the people who make the Ultimate Sack beanbag chair? If so, get a prototype and a business plan, and start looking for financing and manufacturing companies, and ways to bootstrap your business.

Do you want to be basically an artist with a set of furniture as an installation, the kind of thing that gets linked on BoingBoing and salivated over by designers? If so, get a prototype and start approaching galleries and taking really pretty pictures.

It all comes down to "get a prototype" to start with, so that's a good thing to focus on now while you try to make the bigger decisions. Heck, you can make one out of cardboard yourself as a starting point.
posted by ErikaB at 2:24 PM on April 30, 2010

« Older Large Group Dining in NYC   |   Should my friend pursue architecture as a second... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.