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How do designers translate the initial idea of a product into a functional product?

I do not understand how the design turns into a final physical product.

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Kim’s Answer

Michael Marino and Talbot Harty provided great overviews of the design to fabrication process. As a lifelong artist and designer who's created many different types of designs through various mediums, and for various purposes, I can say that translating an idea into physical reality can consist of many steps. The process depends on many variables, including the desired materials for construction and how an object will be used. For designs that originate within a corporate space, one person or a team may be responsible for just one of the steps. When designs are made by an entrepreneur or freelancer, they typically complete all or most of the steps themselves.

Depending on the materials and purpose of the design, prototype model making can be part of the process. Although 3-D computer modelling is now used extensively, there are some types of design that still need to be physically made in prototype form. Generally, the first prototypes are made of inexpensive materials until the design is satisfactory. For example, a design for an object that will be made of metal or plastic will first be carved in foam, or made from modeling materials. Architectural designs are often made in small scale models of foam core board or mat board. Textile or fashion designs are first made of inexpensive fabric like muslin. Illustrated picture books are design tested by making a "picture book dummy", prior to printing. Design is a wide ranging occupation that's used in countless industries, and there are just as many processes and careers.
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Michael’s Answer

Hi Amelia - great question, and the short answer is, there's no quick and easy way to do it, and that every and idea will probably have a unique process.

For example, if you've got an idea for a really cool and functional chair, it will take a very different process to bring it to market vs. a new type of snack food. So keep that in mind. However, the really basic overview is:

1. Draft a design - whatever you want to make, you'll need a plan and a basic idea for a finished product, so get it on paper or in software. Drawings, measurements, functionality.

2. Figure out your costs and what you'll need to make it - again, a new snack food needs a test kitchen and ingredients, a cool and functional chair needs wood, fabric and a carpentry shop.

3. Build some initial test products and test them with people - see what they have to say. Is there a major problem with the design you didn't realize? Maybe it's got another use you hadn't considered. Be sure to test the product on people who've never seen it before!

4. Use the comments on the test products to tweak your design and perfect it.

Sorry to say, there's no quick answer to all products - design and creating a product requires a lot of problem solving, lots of creativity, and determination because it isn't easy. That said, if you want to do something exciting and challenging that requires you to learn every day, launching your own product and business is a great way to achieve that!
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Talbot’s Answer

Great question! This is tough to answer but there are some key concepts here that you can do research on to learn more about how product ideas come to life. The first thing to think about is that all designs serve a core purpose or set of purposes and product design starts with getting clarity on the problems or needs that the product is intended to address.

Collaboration is key - Translating concepts into reality goes better when designers can harness the power of collaboration with a team of diverse contributers.

Trade-offs are inevitable - all designs require trade-off decisions about performance, cost, simplicity, quality, and time-to-market. The more successful designs are typically the ones that make the best trade-off decisions!

Iteration enables experiential learning - Agile product development and prototyping before fully developing a product are effective ways to learn firsthand whether the design concept is going to be viable before spending the full time and resource required to produce a finished product.
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Sarah’s Answer

Hi Amelia! I have worked in development of medical devices. I've compared notes with friends from other engineering industries, and I've found that most of our development processes have this general, high-level flow:
1) Identify customer needs. This is where you listen to potential customers and figure out what type of solution they may be looking for.
2) Concept generation. This is where you brainstorm ideas, usually in a group (the more diverse, the better!), of how to solve the problem(s) you heard from your customers.
3) Down-selection. This is where you consider your best concepts and decide on the one or two you want to try to bring to production. This step might involve rapid prototyping, such as 3D printing or beta testing. Ideally, you would get some input from potential customers so you can improve or modify your concepts based on their feedback.
4) Design & development. This is the phase that varies the most per your industry. You create product requirements, create the manufacturing process, conduct verification and validation testing, ensure your design meets any applicable regulations, and more.
5) Launch! Now you are scaling up your manufacturing and (hopefully) reaping the benefits of your wonderful new product. Importantly, you are also listening carefully to customer feedback so you can use this to improve your product or inform your next design - the process never truly ends!
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