Before arriving online, on store shelves or on the street, new, eye-catching and innovative products are often months, sometimes years in the making.
Have you ever wondered how products make the transition from an initial idea to a tangible object you can see, feel and use?
Using our acclaimed TOPL coffee cup design as a case study, here’s how we get from idea to ideal product.
What’s the big idea?
Let’s start from the beginning.
You’ve certainly heard the old saying ‘necessity is the mother of invention’.
It’s a pretty profound example of what makes humans unique. Instead of waiting for evolution, mankind has developed an ability to solve problems – either through trial and error or actively searching for solutions.
From stone-age arrow tips to satellites (or recyclable coffee cups, for that matter), products are the materialisation of ideas that solve problems and improve everyday life.
Here’s our updated Product Designer’s take on that saying: ‘Problems are the source of all good ideas’. And that ‘light-bulb’ moment is usually an idea that answers the question ‘how can this be better?’
Product Design Case Study - TOPL
The TOPL Coffee Cup was born out of our client’s idea of making the on-the-go coffee drinking better and to reduce the impact of single-use products.
The ‘problem’ to solve was therefore to improve the drinking experience, transport functionality, safety, ergonomics and aesthetics in addition to being a commercially viable product.
Let’s talk about it
When you have an idea, we know that talking about it, let alone with a product design company, can be challenging.
Many people think: ‘they’ll steal my idea, go into production and make a fortune’. That’s why we see many examples of time and money being spent on patenting ideas before contacting a product design business. But here’s the thing.
Firstly, when you contact an established, reputable and successful, uk product design company Flynn Product Design, your ideas always remain strictly confidential. We’ve honed our craft and experience through building trust, confidence and transparency with our clients over the last 20 years. And after all, your success is our success too.
Secondly, by getting in touch sooner rather than later, you could save time and expense on patenting that later proves to be unnecessary.
Our confidential Discovery Audits for established brands and Start-Ups Workshops for original business ideas are the ideal starting points for new product design projects.
TOPL – initial contact
Our clients had made some limited progress towards developing a design before they decided to get in touch. They had invested resources in a patent for one part of a valve system, but in essence, their existing ideas had come to a standstill. By contacting us at Flynn Product Design in 2018, they took a positive step to move their project forwards. So what happens next?
It’s time to get your Design Thinking cap on.
Design Thinking encompasses a range of actions and a cycle of phases that can be broadly defined as problem-solving.
But doesn’t the initial ‘idea’ already solve ‘the problem’? Isn’t that the starting point of a design?
Well, it might be. Or it might not. And that’s the point. As product designers, it’s our job to find out. We need to rewind from the ‘idea’ and first fully understand the problem.
And we can do that by asking questions, challenging assumptions and empathising with users. Only once we collect data, research the commercial landscape and review existing solutions, can we truly understand the human needs of the user and define what the problem really is with a Problem Statement. It’s this stage that frequently separates the pipe-dream products from getting products in the pipeline.
The TOPL brief
With the TOPL cup, we did extensive market research on brand values, niche scoping, and identifying form preferences. When a ‘single-use cup form’ proved to be most popular, our brief was to turn that into a new, classic shape. The brief also evolved from a technical point of view in the early stages with the added requirement of an integral locking system.
Imagination. Creation. Innovation.
At Flynn, we strongly believe that Product design is a unique creative process that is a fusion of art and engineering. Original ideas are formulated then channeled and distilled through the ideation phase.
What does the ideal solution look like? How might it work? How can we make that happen?
Steering a steady course towards ‘solving the problem’, the product designer must choose the most promising ideas based on the original problem statement.
We worked in full collaboration with our clients on TOPL design ideas and started working on ideas from the first few meetings. Starting from scratch rather than working from any existing ideas, the ideation phase peaked in the first few months after the initial contact.
From thinking to prototyping
The prototype phase is a natural progression of the ideation phase.
Prototyping can include a series of stages including concept sketching, virtual and physical prototyping that define a working specification, materials, aesthetics, form, and functionality.
During the TOPL development, we produced about 8 different prototype concepts. Following more market research, we produced about 10 prototype variations, working with proportions, the angle of the cup base, the profile of the lid and the issues surrounding the lip and packaging the locking mechanism.
The prototype offers Product Designers an opportunity to review, and principally to test the validity and veracity of an idea as a solution to the problem.
We do this through detailed analysis and performance testing.
The TOPL project featured lots of materials testing, including making our own magnetic polymers. We explored 3D printing and vacuum casting magnetic polymers and eventually worked with a company based in the Netherlands that helped us engineer a custom food-grade magnetic polymer.
Due to the technicality of 7 seals and the challenges of manufacture tolerances, the test phase of the TOPL cup took over 6 months and two trips out to Hong Kong.
Well maybe not quite from scratch, but the testing phase often brings the designer back to the nature of the problem.
What did we learn from the testing phase?
What new ideas have been generated from the prototyping and testing stages?
What further modifications can we make?
Design Thinking is more a repeating cycle than a sequential stage process. Competent Product Designers are always transparent about their processes and mindful to communicate to the client about what worked and what didn't.
Each discovery – both positive and negative, leads us closer to solving the problem.
In the final rounds of the concept stage, the TOPL product design was refined throughout. The engineering challenges of containing hot liquids safely were extensive. We iteratively worked the design and sealing testing up to our target temperatures of 70°C.
These refinements also included tool prototyping, the trial sampling of what we call T0 to T3 production tooling, in preparation for pre-production.
It’s an exciting time when products approach their final form and functionality. And getting closer to manufacture is another important step for the product designer.
The objectives are commonly to review the suitability of manufacturing methods, establish costings and supply chain as well as to produce engineering drawings.
The making of TOPL
For the TOPL coffee cup, we worked with our client on establishing costs, factory auditing information and matching a supply chain.
We used our established industry network to make meetings happen and broker deals leading to the manufacture of the final product. We supplied all the manufacture drawings and in tool engineering to our trusted partners and the manufacture launch happened in earnest in 2020.
Let’s make it happen!
Every project and each individual client is different with unique expectations, challenges and outcomes. Successful projects like the TOPL Case Study reinforce both our processes and our design philosophy - why we do what we do, and how. It’s gratifying for everyone when products are commercially successful and receive popular acclaim. And it also proves the point things can always be better. Not an easy task when the humble cup has been around for 15,000 years plus already.
Yet through innovative human problem solving and Design Thinking processes, after all the next great product is just a phone call away.