Well, the most correct but annoying answer is: it depends! There is no fixed price for hiring a design firm. It mostly depends on the scope of the project.

What are we defining?

Industrial design is a profession that focuses on the form, function, and—of course—the user experience of a product. It is a creative job, but, more often than not, the products will be mass manufactured, so it is also the designer’s job to design around manufacturing constraints.

The cost of industrial design we discuss in this article is not to be confused with the price of an object. The price of an object is determined by its materials, where the parts are built, how many of those are produced at the same time, who performs the assembly, the shipping and delivery costs, etc. All that information is certainly important and a relevant part of comprehensive industrial design studies, while the cost of industrial design is totally separate from the price of a single object.

What we will be talking about in this post is the cost of the industrial design work that precedes the manufacturing of a product.

How do we quantify the cost?

To give a quote, the designer relies mainly on the time that will be spent on a project. An established industrial design firm like SurfaceID knows, based on past experiences, how much work it will require and how quickly it can be achieved. The number of man-hours spent on a single project can vary a lot and is highly dependent of the scope of the project. Different services also have different fees. A “one-part wonder”, such as a new design for a silicone trivet vs. a product with many pieces and electronics such as an LCD screen will have wildly different scopes and budgets. But there are certain rules of thumb:

  • 1-2 weeks is generally a good time frame for brainstorming and concept development work
  • It is always good to make a really rough proof of concept model
  • Market study can add days to the front end of a budget
  • 3D CAD development can be done in days for something simple, whereas it would likely take weeks for something more complicated
  • Engineering for production is usually done as a final phase

Let’s try to illustrate: a big client asking for a product update probably won’t need our services regarding market strategies or intellectual property patenting. It will usually be an iteration of the previous generation. They could also ask us to give them a hand to produce units during the manufacturing process.

On the other hand, a small client with a big, innovative product idea can only benefit from consultancy, and must start from the beginning. They need to know first and foremost about the target market and what a realistic retail cost range is. They could also go through very different prototypes because their vision of the finished product might not be as rigid, or realistic, as the one from the big client. 

Another important factor to take into account is the road to discovery. When developing a product, whether it be from scratch or improving an existing product, there will most likely be unforeseen opportunities for innovation that cannot be ignored, and change the scope of the project. These discoveries could be issues with the product that had gone overlooked, or possibilities for additional features that would greatly improve the user experience. This means that the work done will sometimes exceed the original quote and add to the budget. For that reason, the budget is always open-ended.

Each client will ask us for a new and different thing. The work we can put in a single project can last between a week and several months. We have ongoing business relationships with some of our bigger clients that have lasted many years.

Keep in mind that SurfaceID is unique in the sense that we are small but we offer a turnkey product development operation. We don’t limit ourselves to the strict definition of industrial design as we can assist you from concept sketching to manufacturing and mechanical engineering consultancy. If you really have a project you would like to talk to us about, please contact us!

Example

Disclaimer: The following numbers are NOT representative of our prices nor are they meant as broad generalizations. They’re merely here to bring the point across (and because we know you wanted to see the numbers when you started reading this article, didn’t you?).

 

Let’s say a big client wants to build a lightweight, weatherproof flashlight. They want to produce 50,000 units and the retail price should be around $25. They contact an industrial design firm and provide them with the internal hardware. For everything else, the firm has total freedom of design. In this case, it really means that the designers will have to find the perfect balance between appeal, ergonomics and durability.

Industrial design studies could be around 80 hours for a small electronic device that isn’t luxury. Which includes:

  • Product and market research
  • Brainstorm and concept direction
  • Concept sketching (elegant? ruggedized? minimalistic? abstract?)
  • Detailed design development (this phase deals with features like ergonomics, textures and materials)

And usually customers also need the production 3D to get quotes. This comes at an additional cost depending on the ID phase discoveries.

  • Advanced engineering (Mechanical Engineering, 3D for production, getting in touch with a manufacturers network)
  • Building 3D models and physical prototypes

The industrial design firm tells the client it would cost about $15,000 to $20,000 to hire them. A big number that is easy to put into perspective:

$20,000 / 50,000 units = $0.4

The cost of industrial design research per unit seems almost negligible now. Yet it is important to invest in ID when developing a product, as it will greatly improve customer experiences and potentially amplify the sales volumes.

 

Another way to look at the cost of ID is as a percentage of all inherent costs it takes to put this new product on the market.

It’s a brand new design so they have spent money on new tooling equipment. Their injection mold alone might have cost $12,000.

Let’s assume that the determined retail price of each unit would be $23.99 and each unit costs $20 to put on the market. This $20 cost would include everything from manufacturing to packaging, shipping, taxes, etc. For 50,000 units, the total cost would equal $1,000,000.

Overall, the whole project has cost over $1,032,000 to finance, of which less than 2% was for industrial design.

Despite how fundamental industrial design is for a project, its cost is minor compared to the overall expenses—not to mention how good design will also help to reduce expenses by optimizing materials, minimizing part count, etc. So when trying to put a product to market, it’s often unwise to try to skimp on industrial design in order to save less than 2% of the budget. Not only is it a negligible amount, but it could also greatly harm the project as you risk a total lack of design vision or experienced manufacturing choices.