How to become a: product developer

Written by: Sarah Dawood
Published on: 4 Jun 2019

Design Week: What is a product developer?

Nikki Stuart: A product developer manages the process of transforming something from design stage, often a three-dimensional (3D) drawing, into a physical thing. This involves finding the maker or craftsperson, assisting the designer with the specifications and size, and sourcing materials, making sure it is fit for production. A designer will know what they want something to look like but a product developer will handle the technical side – will glass work for that, do you need screws there, would a different handle be better.

This could be anything from the interiors of an entire pop-up restaurant, to a set of branded plates and uniforms, to signage. They will also look at the expected cost of production, compared to a client’s budget. They are the bridge between designer and supplier.

DW: What’s your educational background?

NS: I studied fine art, textiles, psychology and business A-levels. I knew I wanted to do something arty so when I was 17, I did a work placement at fashion brand Warehouse’s buying team, based in London. I could see how creative the role was and could see it being a career for me.

I looked at art degrees but wasn’t sure about my job prospects afterwards. I ended up taking a degree in retail management at Bournemouth University. It was quite broad and included everything from marketing and managing accounts to designing shop floors, analysing the psychology of shoppers and looking at product development.

I had to have a year placement as part of my degree, so I worked in Homebase’s buying team, helping pick products such as window accessories. It was great to make sense of my degree, and it made me realise I wanted to work in buying, but in order for me to enjoy it, it would have to be a creative brand.

Bespoke shop display for Teatulia, by Here Design

DW: What’s your career journey been so far?

NS: After university, I went travelling for six months, then got a job in the brand team at House of Fraser’s head office. I was working on lighting, Christmas and gift products. I wanted to get into fashion, but after working there I totally fell in love with homewares. I was there for a year and a half, then moved onto Habitat, my longest stint, where I worked as a product developer in the buying team for five years.

I worked on a wide product range, including tabletop, ceramics, glass, kitchenware and furniture. Habitat design all their own pieces, so it was a very different buying office to other brands, who are just picking other companies’ products. I went to factories around the world, met suppliers, and helped designs come to life. I started as a buying assistant, then moved up to assistant buyer, then junior buyer.

I then left and worked with furniture designer Bethan Gray in her studio, as part of a tiny team of three. I ran the production alongside her senior designer and Bethan herself. It was really hands-on – I would help build the furniture, so was literally doing the physical production! I was there for a year and a half, then moved to Here Design, where I’ve been for a year and a half, working as the studio’s production manager.

DW: What first got you interested in product development?

NS: Really, it was when I was 17 and doing work experience at Warehouse. It was such a fun office. I knew I wanted to do something creative but didn’t know where my art would take me.

Tate tote bag, by Here Design

DW: What does a typical working day look like for you?

NS: I’m also a qualified yoga teacher, so I teach at Here Design and other design studios in the morning before work. I then start work at 9.30am, normally with a coffee, catching up on emails and checking in with various teams. I tend to work until around 6pm.

My day is never the same and tends to be driven by what projects I’m working on. I might spend it researching new makers or materials, ordering samples, visiting makers at their studios, or manufacturers to look at samples. Makers can be any type of craftsperson, from leather and wood workers to cabinet makers. I get a lot of stuff delivered to me – my desk is a mess! I also have a big sample library on the wall behind me, which the design team come to look at for inspiration.

I’ll liaise with designers regularly. I’ll work with them to make sure their designs can be produced on time and to budget. A client might come to us and ask us to design a pop-up restaurant within five weeks – I need to make sure it’s achievable. I also manage clients’ expectations and meet with them.

I might be helping to physically make things. After a 3D designer has created a technical computer-aided design (CAD) drawing, I help to mock it up in paper, scrap material or 3D-printed parts. If we’re creating a leather bag, I’ll create a version out of any fabric to see if it looks right, such as if the handle and pockets are the right size.

Projects could last a week or a year — I could be working on something quite simple like a bespoke tote bag, or a whole hotel opening, which will involve hundreds of items.

Recently, I worked on a new Covent Garden store for tea brand Teatulia, where I sourced products including trays, glasses, teapots, and tea timers, and helped to produce staff uniforms, signage and a bespoke jar display. Another was a new range of art materials and gifts for the Tate, where I helped produce sketchbooks, bags and pencil cases.

How I work depends on the client. Here Design is primarily a graphics studio, so we might work alongside an interior design studio on a new restaurant opening. We would focus on smaller items, such as signage, plates and cutlery, bespoke uniforms and napkins, and they would work on bigger items such as furniture. However, sometimes, we’ll do it all, especially if the client employs an architect rather than interior designer.

Teatulia Covent Garden, London store, by Here Design

DW: What are your main day-to-day tasks?

NS: A lot of communications, including talking to designers, clients and makers; attending meetings; visiting studios and craftspeople; critiquing samples; researching and sourcing materials; working with designers to make sure their concepts are fit for production.

DW: How creatively challenging is the job?

NS: I think it’s hugely creatively challenging. You’re basically taking a concept and bringing it to 3D life. Inevitably, there are problems — it doesn’t always go to plan. It’s very different to graphics, because 3D objects have scale and tactility. There are lot of decisions that can’t be made until you start sampling and testing.

DW: How closely do product developers and graphic designers work?

NS: We work closely, most people in the studio are graphic designers. I’m liaising with them frequently, and I informally walk round and chat to everybody in the studio once a week. I often find inspiration for designers before they’ve even started working on a concept, by going to trade shows like Milan Design Week. If we’re working with a client who is into sustainability, I could find a material, like a vegetable leather, that might influence a designer from the start.

DW: What strengths do you need to be a product developer?

NS: Production knowledge is a huge part of the job, which basically means understanding how things are made, what the limitations are, and where problems might occur. However, it’s something you learn over time from visiting factories and talking to suppliers. It’s also good to have knowledge of makers and take an interest in craft.

Organisational skills are important — you’ll have multiple projects going on with lots of different deadlines. Often, there’ll be a shorter timespan on projects than you initially planned — production is always the thing that gets squeezed.

Tate stationery set, by Here Design

DW: What are the best parts of your job?

NS: When I see the final product, especially when I’ve worked long and hard on something. At Habitat, I wasn’t working with any clients, it was all our own ideas that would go into the store. It’s really exciting when people start buying those things.

DW: What are the worst parts of your job?

NS: When we can’t achieve what we want to, because of budgets, timings, or projects getting dropped by clients. We might get really excited about something, but we don’t have the final say.

It’s also worth remembering that production isn’t the glamorous side of the job. You’re often taking someone else’s idea, like a designer, and bringing it to life, as opposed to coming up with them all yourself. It does depend where you work though — in a small graphics or furniture design studio, you will be much more involved in coming up with ideas.

Room book for The Fife Arms hotel in Braemar, Scotland, by Here Design

DW: If you were interviewing for a junior product developer, what would you look for?

NS: There’s no linear career path, people come from all sorts of backgrounds, which is great. I don’t look for any particular degree, but the more creative, the better. If your degree isn’t creative, you should show this through your hobbies.

DW: What advice would you offer people considering a job in product development?

NS: Be open as to how you get into the job — no experience is bad experience. It’s good to get internships at design studios to find out what different roles are, and understand how the whole process works from start to finish.

It’s a bit of a hidden role and not every design studio has a product developer yet, but every studio has a need for it — it might just be that the project manager or designer is taking it on.

If this is your first job in this space, then be organised and proactive, and show that you like putting your hand to lots of things. As a product developer, you could be with a client one week, and physically making things or painting a pop-up shop the next. Show that you like craft, whether that’s through work or free-time, and that you’re curious about how things are made — I’m that annoying person at dinner analysing all the plates.

If you’re more experienced, then consider product development as good career progression — often, 3D and product designers end up getting into the role.