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Designing Products for Profit

Posted by Cat How, February 28, 2018

Being commercial doesn’t necessarily mean selling your soul. Get designing, get selling and use the economic slump as a launch pad for new ideas and business models.

At art school I remember some of the harshest criticism in tutorials was reserved for those hapless illustrators or designers whose work was deemed ‘too commercial’ – not unique or conceptual enough, too simplistic: low brow. The rest of us produced weird final projects devoid of any connection to the real world… and they quickly went on to bag jobs at top agencies, set up successful businesses or sell their work in spic-and-span galleries.

Now, of course, I wish we’d had tutorials in how to be commercial. We left with fanciful concepts but no understanding of how to design, make or market a good product. We knew a lot about paper stock but nothing about profit margins, freelance rates, interview and pitching techniques, book-keeping and how to set up on your own if you wanted to.

I set up my old design shop – Howkapow – with my husband in 2010 (we sold it in 2017), specifically with the purpose of providing a platform for emerging designers and illustrators who lacked this knowledge to sell their work. The business know-how which I so missed at art college we learned from selling our home-made products at artist markets on the weekends over many years. We quickly learnt what sold and what didn’t, who our customers were and how to maximize profits. Illustrations were turned into jewellery – which sold a lot better as they were smaller, more ‘giftie’ and cheaper – but we found that the products which sold the most were those which successfully paired form with function.

A common misconception is the assumption that being commercial means selling your soul, following fads and producing work which looks like everyone else’s. Not true. Successful commercial designers are those who hone their own idiosyncratic style, but make products that people want to buy. The most successful use the conceptual skills gleaned from art school but apply them to the real world. As more and more graphic designers and illustrators turn to putting their work on products as a way of making their work more accessible to a wider audience – understanding of this is crucial.

One of the most successful designers on Howkapow was Stuart Gardiner. Lovely chap, kind and efficient and always answers emails – this all helps! A graphic designer by trade, he produces a range of beautifully illustrated info-graphic tea towels which tell you the best food to pair with red or white wine. They appeal to anyone who likes a tipple and capture the elusive male market fabulously. Being tea towels they fulfill a practical function, but their design also provides information which is inherently linked back to the kitchen. Form with function and beautifully designed in his own ‘Stuart’ style. By keeping his design to two colours only he has also kept manufacturing costs down – screen printing tea towels in large numbers is cheaper than digital printing, so designing with a small colour palette in mind is key if you want to maximize profits. The same applies to ceramics.

If you’re starting out as a designer-maker, consider a few things. Selling at outdoor markets can be a cold and depressing affair (red wine helps) – but it gives you unique ‘market’ research which you can’t get anywhere else. Use it to test out new ideas and designs but also ask people what they think of your products, which ones they prefer and why. Then give them your card with a link to your website, facebook page, twitter account and pinterest boards and get them to sign up to your newsletter.

Think long and hard about production. Don’t be snobby about getting a company to manufacture your designs for you if you can. It’s wonderful to make something yourself, but if you can pass that design onto someone else to produce in half the time, that leaves you with more time to come up with new designs! Find places which do small runs and factor in hidden costs like packaging, delivery and VAT.

Then think about where to sell them. Howkapow went from being solely online to having a pop-up shop space in Bristol. This was a huge eye-opener primarily because of the diversity of what we then went on to sell – online a lot of homewares, in a physical shop more prints and stationery. The web is great for selling to a worldwide market – especially if your products are exclusive to you – but people still like seeing things in the flesh and we found customers really responded to work from local artists.

Pop-ups are a wonderful thing and a great example of how the demise of the high-street, although sad, can be a time of exciting commercial opportunity. Yes – really! There might not be much money swilling around, but that also means that as over-stretched retail giants fall by the wayside there are spaces opening up for us little guys. Competition is fierce but make yourself commercial through experience and thinking outside the box. Don’t expect government grants or bank loans to help you, you’re better off investing your time in phoning up the landlord of a disused unit in the centre of town and seeing whether you can set up shop with some of your well-researched, beautifully designed and lovely new commercial products.

(Photo credit: Jen Sievers)

Cat How is a Creative Director and Co-Founder of Pollen Place — a unique workspace and event space based in central Bristol designed to nurture creativity and help people and their businesses grow. She is also Creative Director of branding and graphic design agency, Polleni. Cat studied at the University of Bristol and Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design. She has worked as a journalist and graphic designer for newspapers such as MetroThe Guardian and The Observer. Most recently, she was creative director of the e-commerce design business, Howkapow, she founded and ran with her husband Rog How. Howkapow was sold in February 2017. In that time Cat and Rog were running it, Howkapow was given accolades such as the “Best Online Shop for Stylish Homewares” (The Guardian); one of the “Top Ten Online Design Shops” (The Sunday Times) and their pop-up “The Best Shop To Visit In Bristol” (The Guardian).

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