In the first of a series of conversations, Chris Flynn explains the evolution of FLYNN and the philosophy behind the award-winning industrial design that have brought the company to the forefront of Product Design Consultancy in the UK.
Ed: “We've been working together on the Flynn Product Design blog, looking at some interesting elements of product design and product development. I know at FLYNN we haven't done typically a lot of outbound communication over the years so I'm interested to explore video as a medium in order to be able to put a face to a name.”
Chris: “Yes the YouTube channel slightly withered on the vine a bit. For a company that’s all about visual communication that’s not how we want to be perceived. So this is an interesting opportunity for us as big communicators as we love to have conversations and reach a wider audience. It’s very exciting and not something we've done before and so we’re really interested in this new format. I understand we're going to do a few these conversations.”
Ed: “Yes, a conversation is exactly what it's about. The objective is to give a different perspective and put a spotlight on your work and show what it is that makes Flynn Product Design stand out. In later conversations, we’re also going to touch on various problems and aspects that companies and individuals might come across when developing products.”
Chris: “Sure, I’m interested in this new format, so let’s dive in. I think you’ve got a few questions for me.”
Product Design Consultants - an introduction to FLYNN
Ed – “Yes, firstly to get a perspective on Flynn Product Design, could you start by explaining a little bit about the company started and today what is Flynn Product Design is all about?”
Chris: “There’s a lot to cover so I’ll try to give you the condensed version! We've been around going on 20 years, and in that time we’ve got a lot of interesting and fascinating projects under our belts.
I studied product design engineering back in the nineties in London and cut my teeth on human-centred industrial design and product design engineering. I didn't immediately go into the industry, I took some time out collecting my thoughts, I think there are some interesting things that I still remain passionate today about such as sustainability and balancing these emotive issues over consumerism and wrestling with those challenges as a product designer. Those issues were certainly on my young mind before I set the company up in the early 2000s.
The genesis and reason for being was an opportunity to bring our own flavour to industrial design and supporting businesses through design thinking. It's very simple in the sense of observing products that exist and the challenges for existing businesses - SME through to top brands as well as the entrepreneur. We found ourselves early on supporting the entrepreneur and start-ups have been a significant part of our client base.
Fundamentally for those that don’t know about product design consulting, it’s supporting businesses that’re looking to develop products and bring a product to market. It’s the design and development of that conceptual idea though to a mature and manufacturable solution.
We’re very focused on being clear on the business context of why a product is being developed, to minimise risk and optimize the opportunities with a human focus. There’s a clear understanding on the ROI for the client base. In a nutshell, we’re about industrial design, concept development through to design for manufacture and manufacture engineering in a vast array of sectors.”
Ed: “I think you’re in the Exeter office right now?”
Chris: “Yes that's right, I'm speaking to you currently from sunny Exeter. We’ve got a beautiful office in Exeter quayside. It’s really a fantastic place for clients to come and meet us for our workshops. In fact, we started using this office exclusively for our workshop sessions which we conduct confidentially as one-to-ones.”
Client profile and product design
Ed: I’ll ask you more about that later but could give a little bit of context in terms of the products that you have you’ve designed and you are designing. What kind of what constitutes your typical client and secondly, what types of products excite you when it comes to product design?”
Chris: “At least 50 percent of our client base would fall into the funded start-up company that's within its first 3 years existence and looking to penetrate the market with something new and disruptive. It's very common for that client base and we find that chimes with our passion for almost weaponising design thinking to be disruptive and gain market traction.
We've had success with start-ups such as with TOPL cup which has received critical acclaim from the Guardian amongst others and is available in Selfridges. It’s been a great success. Mekamon in Bristol was available in the Apple shop and we supported them through some of their development in packaging design. Unfortunately, I believe that they’ve had some dilution or changes of direction with their structure.
But we take a very strategic approach from the get-go with our clients. We find that that is a real added value for starts-up without the experience in getting to market. There’re lots of other clients and some that are more well-known. For example, we’ve worked with the NHS over Covid on CPAP connectors which we did as a piece of gratis work. That was a very rapid piece of design for manufacture when the hospitals in Bristol and Exeter were running out of CPAP connectors. These are disposable single-use parts used in the care of Covid patients. That was about 10 months ago now.
We’ve also worked with Liverpool FC, Airbus, The National Trust, Vodafone, H. T. C. and Yeo Valley. We have a product in development with Yeo Valley which hasn’t hit the market yet, but that’s something we’ve worked on in the last 18 months.
But typical? What’s typical about the clients we’d get excited about is finding a shared passion for the project. A client may have one particular view in terms of what they're doing but we’re going to bring a whole lot of passion for why they should be doing what they're doing as ambitiously as they can. By that, I mean improving things, whether that be from a sustainable angle or a human-centric angle. There's no point in getting us involved if you don't want to get passionate about the project. Our formula brings passion and ultimately leads to products that instill passion in the client base, in the user base and customers.
To sum up, what we’d find interesting in projects are opportunities to look at sustainability, opportunities to look at human factors, where we can bring a great amount of experience in ergonomics. Where there’s a problem - essentially where there’s a tough nut to crack, we’re suckers for that. Ultimately, we’re a factory for solving problems. Commercially if there's a problem to solve we can very rapidly – sometimes within a meeting, find solutions that go on to be tangible and feasible product outcomes that can make a massive difference to any company’s bottom line. Obviously, there’s a sliding scale and it’s different for different types of clients in different markets and at different volumes.
HUMAN: Problem-solving design philosophy
Ed: “That's interesting that you mentioned problem-solving because in fact that's something that we talk about a lot and it is central to the design philosophy of the company that we've developed isn’t it."
Chris: “Yes, it’s been useful talking about that and the work we've done together has prompted us to essentially brand our philosophy. We've rolled with our philosophy after 20 years, we can look back with self-reflection on what we do and why we do it. Out of that process, we’ve developed our design philosophy we brand as HUMAN. It’s something that we wrote about in our piece in New Design. It's fundamental that HUMAN is about bringing design philosophy from an entirely human-centred point of view.”
Ed: “But it’s not an abstract concept is it.”
Chris: “Absolutely not, but at the same time there are different levels. Lots of design companies talk about human-centred design and I see that in digital products too. But there are so many examples of people doing poor human-centred design. HUMAN is more about the connection. It's the idea that human beings develop products for other human beings. That connection between the earth’s resources and it’s the reason why every time you work on a project - whether that be something that's mundane to somebody, you have to bring your A-game to that responsibility. It's kind of like the pyramid, an apex influence that you have as an industrial designer when you're making products en-mass. That philosophy of connecting end-users is about understanding human beings and understanding psychology and what engages with the end-user.
It’s many more things besides, but yes, HUMAN is our philosophy - inspired by nature, human-centric and passionate about design and design for the right reasons. We can bring that through and help lead our clients - which might have other things that are going on, to help lead them in the right direction.”
Ed: “It's pretty fundamental when it when it comes to creating a product that actually works for the people in the real world isn’t it.”
Chris: “Yes it’s absolutely fundamental to how we go about every single project. It’s our approach and we just found it was high time we started defining that. I think it sets us apart from a great swathe of other companies involved in our space. There’s a myriad of great competition, I think it's our particular take and it's how we do things here at FLYNN. But yes, it is about a fundamental philosophy that moves into methods.”
The product design process
Ed: “So what are the different stages that a potential client could expect? We talked a little bit about the first stages of product development and after reaching a physical or a virtual prototype stage where the typical steps that a client - a company, individual or start-up could expect to go through to get from prototype to manufacture stage?”
Chris: “That’s a good question. The reason we haven't produced content like this before is because people come to us through word of mouth and through our award-winning product design work and the awards that our products have attained.
What that means is that people come to us at lots of different stages of their product development cycle. We could find typically that an entrepreneur might have had an idea but been a little bit kind of closeted. Perhaps they’ve not been able to reach out to anybody to roll through the idea and work through it. Historically, we’ve got this infrastructure of patent attorneys and so they might feel there’s progress to speak to a patent attorney. There’s some amazing patent work going on in this country and internationally and we work closely with IP. But it's about finding the right time. We kind of coach our clients to a degree and work out when the right time to patent is and when is the right time to do searches.
Clients are often at a stage where we want them to take stock and think about taking a few backward steps to course correct. It's again fundamentally down to our HUMAN methodology. We can stop and think about optimizing their trajectory because often people are heading in the wrong direction. To be honest it's 95% of cases and it doesn't matter if you're a start-up or you are Vodafone. That's consultancy and again why we're not just product designers. Product design consulting is fundamentally about being able to lead and support organizations even that are vast. People like Microsoft have approached us although we haven’t worked directly with them. When companies like that approach us, we have a great deal to offer those kinds of organisations.”
Cost and timescale in product development
Ed: “I think most people would understand that it’s individual to each project. But firstly, what is the common time-scale for product development and secondly what kind of costs are involved?”
Chris: “Time scale and budgets are going to be things we talk with our clients about on a very individual basis. There’s no hard and fast or concise answer. I’d say that people need to have a budget for design development and then manufacture. But there are many other drains on resources when you bring a product to market.
In terms of budgets, people could be spending upwards of 25 to 30 thousand pounds on product development on small items that don’t have a great deal of complexity. But when you’re spending time innovating and creating intellectual property, it's more fundamentally about the value that you’re bringing to a project. It’s very difficult to give a cost and timeline. There are projects such as TOPL which was supposed to be a year in development and it turned out to be significantly more. That was due to factors that were entirely outside of our control.
As a consultancy, we understand those challenges for our clients and support them regardless of some of those external things which can impact timelines such as manufacturers and moving tools. Small projects could be very quick. I think the minimum amount of time we could spend on the project which would remain conceptual was around about a week.
We support clients trying to gain investment through helping them with pitching materials, working conceptually. Understanding a problem, offering solutions, and communicating that, you're talking about a week. And for that kind of investment in concept you're looking at around sub £5000 pounds depending on the project.
Again it comes down to the market and the value that you’re bringing. There are also different ways of structuring projects. Otherwise, we’d simply list these things as a rate on our website. Every project is unique and every proposal has to be tailor-made to the client and their budget.
On timelines, we are adept at fast-tracking projects. We work significantly in virtual prototyping to save time and reducing the cost that goes into physical prototyping cycles. A typical project could take from 3 to 6 months to go from simple plastic parts to a fully manufacturable product. Some of that time could be external factors like tooling which could be 6 weeks. We then work with our clients to get them T0 samples to T3 and supporting them helping them and even securing a manufacturing base.
We’ll help clients on the front end with course correction. That’s generally something that they don't know they need - otherwise, they wouldn’t need course correcting. Then supporting them rapidly through concept into prototyping and helping them get into manufacture through procuring and searching for supply match. At that point, there is meshing and a cross-over.”
From prototype to manufactured product
Ed: “We talked a bit about the starting point of the product design journey and the product design process and the philosophy behind that. At the next level, the prototype is often seen as an important milestone towards manufacturing and so in terms of product design consultancy what is the journey from prototype to a final manufactured product?”
Chris: “Yes, before we’ve got to prototyping we’ll have been significantly involved in trying to create the DNA of this future product. By the time we get to prototyping we’ve got a sliding scale spectrum of what we call a prototype from mock-up where we could be just looking at form factors or scale or how something feels in hand, all the way through to end where you’re essentially validated tooling.
People get hung up on prototyping. They can be like ‘we've got this product, can you make us a prototype’. We’re often asking the question of what the actual objective is. A prototype is simply a tool. It’s like having a pencil. Then what are you going to do with it? Draw or write a book or whatever. So prototyping is merely a tool of which there are many different techniques. We offer our clients 3D printing, SLS, SLA, multi-jet fusion through to CNC and high-end metals and plastics as well as vac and rim-casting.
When I talk about spectrum, it’s the mock-ups on the frontend - which almost might be card, tape, foam and sketches, through to the other end which would be a functional, presentation prototype. We might take that prototype to a buyer or help our client pitch to secure pre-orders or gain some further confidence before they go to tool.
So prototyping is very broad and not a final stage, but it's fundamental to allow us to validate. It’s always about validating something and reflects the stage where we’re at. It validates that we’re on the right course or the mechanism works or the economics are right, or you might be looking at some element of functionality.
Towards the tail end, it's about how does your design to manufacture, your DFM work. Is it effective and therefore is the part design effective? You can validate that before you go and spend great sums of money on steel tooling to produce those items.
So it's very much a cost-saving like the old saying – measure twice and cut once.”
Product design project - TOPL case study
Ed: And so I wanted to ask you if you had an example product. You mentioned the TOPL cup and in fact, we've covered that on the design blog in a couple of different areas. You mentioned it’s had a lot of critical acclaim and so could you give us some background to that product?”
Chris: Yes, sure. TOPL was an interesting one in that it had a false start and had previously tried to exist in another guise. The client came to us wanting to make a fresh start and re-invent the product. The mechanism had been previously patented for a bi-stable valve. TOPL is a coffee cup that is battling single-use plastic and the USP is that you can have an open drinking experience. If you go to Costa or Starbucks you can experience fully the aroma of the drink. A lot of the tasting is happening in your olfactory, in the nose and there’s a high density of nerves in the lips which normally protect you from scolds, And so drinking through a slot where the infrared energies are blocked from your senses, you can burn yourself and you don’t get a good drinking experience. We considered something as evocative as a child being scolded at a McDonald's or something halfway around the world. And also the 100 billion disposed of single-use cups is a massive global issue. So we became very passionate about those two things and they ended up as a fusion within TOPL.
We went through branding and market research exercises. It was a curious project as it might have gone in a different direction without that market research. The output was that people wanted it to look like a regular coffee cup. And so we had to then reinvent a classic.
One of the great things about TOPL is the ratios and the technical constraints of fixing seven valve seals and plasticized magnets within all food-safe materials that can contain hot liquids. We created an additional patentable mechanism for TOPL which was the locking mechanism.
The pat on the back for us is that when I see the target market pick the cup up and use it. Opening, drinking and closing it, they have no idea about the two years of R+D that’s gone into developing what we think is the world's best reusable coffee cup. And certainly, people like the Guardian and GQ magazine understood exactly what we’ve brought to the table there.”
FLYNN- a straight-talking design consultancy
Ed: “So you mentioned the USP of that particular cup, but I'm not going to mention USP when it comes to Flynn Product Design because I know you don't like that.”
Chris: “Well, I think that USP is only used in business. We’re a straight-talking kind of company and I think USP is sometimes used and abused. Obviously, every designer works in the same way as an artist. A big part of what we do is sculptural, it’s sensory, it’s sensual I suppose, and it’s about alluring and getting people to engage in that HUMAN philosophy. I prefer to look at what sets us apart from other companies. I’d say we have a very nice sweet spot in terms of our size and that we can call ourselves a boutique agency and consultancy.
There aren’t any people in our company that are clocking in clocking out. We see that when people apply to work for us. With the competition, they’re often a small wheel in a big machine. Everybody here is passionate and fully responsible for their outcomes. And I think that philosophy of HUMAN and taking a craftsperson's approach to industrial design, where we're taking the responsibilities and using our resources in that way means that every time we do a project we raise the bar. I think our clients sometimes are a bit blown away as they sometimes aren’t used to being challenged. We fundamentally challenge our clients and when they understand, they go on to benefit from that. Those are the kind of clients that we want to work with.
For FLYNN, it’s simply about making things better. I’ll say that there are loads of fantastic companies out there doing industrial design. We’re often inspired by the great work that other people are doing. I feel sure we’re a country that supports that. We’d certainly see ourselves now - after 20 years in the industry, at the forefront of a lot of great companies in the U.K. doing product design.”
Ed: “Thank you very much Chris that was some very interesting insight.”
Product Design Insight
Chris: “Great. I’d be interested to know what other topics we might cover. Perhaps people could comment on what topics would be useful. Companies working to bring product businesses to market, entrepreneurs and startups - people working in that space, for example. What kind of challenges and pain points do they face that we could shed some light on.
That’s certainly something we can do as a dialogue. The point is that we sincerely and very much love to meet our client base and we love to get talking. This is a slightly new format for us and we look forward to the next one and seeing how it develops.
Watch this space!”
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