How to become: a product developer
Design Week: What does it mean to be a product developer?
Nikki Stuart: Product developers are responsible for transforming a design, which is often a 3D drawing, into a tangible product. This includes helping the designer find the right maker or craftsperson and then sourcing the materials necessary to make it ready for production. While a designer may know the look they want, a product developer will take care of the technical aspects. For example, will glass work, will you need screws, or would a different handle work better?
It could include everything from interiors for a pop-up restaurant to uniforms and plates, signage, or even branded plates. They will compare the client’s budget with the expected cost of production. They act as the link between supplier and designer.
DW: What is your educational background?
NS: I have studied business A-levels in fine art, textiles and psychology. When I was 17 years old, I knew that I wanted to be an artist so I worked as a trainee in the London-based buying department of fashion brand Warehouse. I was able to see the creative nature of the job and it could be a career.
Although I was interested in art degrees, I wasn’t certain about my future job prospects. Bournemouth University offered me a retail management degree. It covered everything, from managing accounts and marketing to designing shop floors and analysing shoppers’ psychology to product development.
As part of my degree, I was required to do a year in a buying team at Homebase, where I helped pick window accessories. It was great to understand my degree and to realize that I wanted to work as a buyer. However, to really enjoy it, it had to be creative.
DW: How has your career path been so far?
NS: I was a student who went on six-months of travelling after university. After that, I got a job with House of Fraser’s brand team. I worked on Christmas lighting and gift products. Although I had always wanted to be a fashion designer, I fell in love with homewares after I started working there. After a year and half I moved to Habitat. Habitat was my longest tenure. I was a product development specialist in the buying department for five years.
My product experience included tabletop, glass, ceramics, glass, kitchenware, and furniture. Habitat designs all of their pieces. This made Habitat a different buying office than other brands that just pick other brands’ products. I visited factories all over the globe, met suppliers, helped design come to life, and was able to meet with them. I began my career as a purchasing assistant and then became an assistant buyer and then a junior buyer.
As part of a small team of three, I left to work with Bethan Gray, a furniture designer. Bethan and her senior designer were also involved in the production. I was their assistant. It was hands-on. I was involved in the construction of the furniture. After a year, I left the company and moved to Here Design where I am now the production manager.
DW: How did you first become interested in product design?
NS: It was actually when I was 17 years old and was doing work experience at Warehouse. It was a great office. Although I knew that I wanted to be creative, I didn’t know where it would lead me.
DW: How does your typical work day look for you?
NS: I am also a certified yoga teacher so I teach at Here Design as well as other studios before I go to work. Then I start work at 9:30 am. I usually have a cup of coffee and catch up with emails. I work until about 6pm.
My day is always different and driven by the projects I am working on. It might be spent researching new materials or makers, ordering samples, visiting studios or manufacturers to view samples. Any type of craftsperson can make a maker, including leather workers and cabinet makers. My desk is full of things that are delivered to me. The design team often visits my wall to see the large sample library.
I will keep in touch with designers. I will work closely with them to ensure their designs are produced on schedule and within budget. We might be asked by a client to design a pop up restaurant in five weeks. I have to ensure that it is possible. I meet with clients and manage their expectations.
It is possible that I will be physically making things. Once a 3D designer has created an accurate computer-aided design (CAD), I will help to make it look good on paper, scrap material, or 3D-printed parts. If I’m creating a leather bag, then I will create another version from any fabric to check if the handles and pockets fit the design.
A project could last for a week or one year. I could be working on something as simple as a tote bag or an entire hotel opening that will involve hundreds of items.
I was recently involved in the opening of a Covent Garden shop for Teatulia tea brand. I sourced teaware including teapots, glasses, teapots and teatimers and also helped with staff uniforms, signage, and a custom jar display. Another project was to create sketchbooks, pencil cases, and bags for the Tate’s new range of art supplies and gifts.
The client will determine how I work. Here Design is primarily an interior design studio. We might also work with them on a new restaurant opening. We would concentrate on small items like signage, cutlery and bespoke uniforms, while they would handle larger items like furniture. Sometimes, however, we can do everything, especially if the client has an interior designer or architect.
DW: What are your primary day-to-day tasks and responsibilities?
NS: Lots of communication, including speaking to clients, designers and makers, attending meetings, visiting studios, craftspeople, critiquing samples, researching and sourcing materials, and working with designers to ensure their ideas are ready for production.
DW: Is the job creatively challenging?
NS: It’s a hugely creative challenge. It’s basically about taking a concept and making it 3D. There will be problems. It doesn’t always work out the way you planned. Because 3D objects are scaled and tactil, it’s a completely different process from graphics. Before you begin sampling and testing, there are many decisions that cannot be made.
DW: How closely do product designers and graphic designers collaborate?
NS: We are close friends, the majority of people in the studio work as graphic designers. They are my main contact, and I walk around the studio and talk to them once a week. By going to trade shows such as Milan Design Week, I am often able to find inspiration for designers before they even start working on a design. If I’m working with a client that is interested in sustainability, I might be able to find a material like vegetable leather that could influence a designer right from the beginning.
DW: What are your strengths as a product developer?
NS: Understanding production is an important part of the job. This basically means that you need to understand how things work, the limitations and potential problems. It’s something that you can learn by visiting factories and talking with suppliers. It is also beneficial to be knowledgeable about craftsmen and to take an interest in them.
It is important to be organized as you will have many projects with different deadlines. You may find that projects take longer than expected. Production is the most important thing.
DW: What are your favorite parts about your job?
NS: I love seeing the finished product, especially if I have worked hard. Habitat was not a place where I worked with clients. It was our ideas and products that went into the store. It’s exciting to see people buy those items.
DW: What is the worst part of your job?
NS: When clients drop projects, budgets or timings prevent us from achieving what we want. Although we might be excited about something, we don’t have final say.
Remember that production is not the glamorous part of your job. Producing is often a collaborative effort between a designer and the client. You will have more involvement in the creation of ideas depending on where you work.
DW: What would you look for in a junior product development candidate?
NS: There is no set path to a career. People come from many backgrounds which is wonderful. While I don’t necessarily look for a particular degree, I do prefer to see creative work. You can show your creativity through hobbies, even if your degree isn’t creative.
DW: What advice would your advise people who are considering a career in product development?
NS: No experience is necessary. Internships in design studios are a great way to learn about the different roles and how the entire process works.
Although it’s not a common role, it is a necessary one.
This is your first job in the space. Be organized and proactive. Show that you are a person who enjoys doing many things. You could work with clients one week and then be onsite making or painting pop-up shops the next. Show that you enjoy craft, no matter how it’s done at work.
Consider product development if you have more experience. Often, product and 3D designers are promoted to this role.