Design — with help from more than friends
Wood industry shops across Canada utilize in-house design skills from a variety of sources. Whether someone is pulling double- or triple-duty on the floor, or a relative with a knack for the aesthetic, well-designed wood products get produced in this country.
However, sometimes getting a little help from more than one’s friends can increase business during challenging times.
Paul Epp is Wood Industry’s design columnist, a professor at OCAD University, and a former designer of wood products. It has been Epp’s experience that wood shops in this country could benefit from using outside design help. He says, “It’s just like anything in life or business. If you get someone that specializes in a field, and focuses on just that, then the result is probably better over the long-term.”
Epp understands the challenges of small business owners, having been one himself for much of his career. There is a need to keep overhead costs down. Nevertheless, he also believes that investing in the services of a professional designer will eventually pay for itself. According to Epp, “It has happened in my own experience. I once showed a very sceptical client what I can do for him, and it worked. He kept using me, which must mean his business was profitable and growing. That’s what it comes down to.”
Joe Knobbe is senior project manager at Exclusive Woodworking, a residential architectural woodworking company located in the Chicago, Ill., area. The business started with three employees in 1983, and now employs 45 people working on various lucrative projects. Asked how the business grew so much, Knobbe has a basic answer: “We deliver a high-quality product on time, on budget, with excellent customer service and a developed reputation. And we could only do that by sometimes using outside design help when needed.”
Knobbe is also president of the Cabinet Makers Association (CMA). He says that much of the CMA’s membership consists of small shops that use in-house personnel only and are very reluctant to get any outside design help. Knobbe says, “It’s a challenge for them. There is no question about that. I think it’s totally understandable. However, once I start talking to them on these issues, they start to understand the benefits of design help.”
According to Knobbe, the benefits are multi-faceted. He continues, “First, sometimes the project needs it. A client comes to us with certain requirements, and it’s beyond our people’s design abilities. Second, developing a relationship with a designer can enhance your company’s reputation and ability to keep and get new clients. Just having that name associated with your product can be great for business.”
But is it easy to get such help for this industry and in Canada? Epp readily acknowledges that there are challenges in this regard. He says, “I worked in wood-related design, but I have to admit that it wasn’t a crowded field. So my advice to people would be to do the research. Find out what design people out there are capable; who ideally have a body of work to prove what they can do.”
Epp continues, “Perhaps most importantly for the wood industry, any potential designer must understand the market realities involved. In other words, they must know that it has to be cost-effective. They have to be able to enhance the design capabilities of the people they’re working for, but in a way that enhances the bottom line. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
Knobbe says that the average fee for a designer in the field is about 15 to 20 percent. But he also says that he obviously wouldn’t pay such a premium if it didn’t pay off. “For the projects where it’s needed, the fees are generally worth the investment. You get a superior result that satisfies your customer. Another thing is that those designers can then turn around and refer you to prospective clients they have. That’s been a significant chunk of our business and growth.”
Yet Knobbe emphasizes the fact that an outside designer isn’t always necessary. He adds, “Often our own people are more than capable. Relying on in-house design will shorten the process time, probably cost less, and lessen the number of people who have to be involved. On the flip side, of course, we bring in designers when very high detail is required, or when we’re not sure architecturally what a customer is after, or we just need a highly trained and highly skilled professional to make a project work for us.”
One of the added benefits of getting help, according to Knobbe, is that it just sometimes brings in a new and fresh design perspective, and that might make a significant difference to a shop. He says, “Look, anyone can get into a rut in any creative endeavour. Sometimes you don’t even realize it. Bringing someone in and getting their professional opinion can not only help on a project, it can help with the shop’s in-house design knowledge, capabilities and habits, too.”
Yet Knobbe is also quick to point out the benefit that woodworkers can have for designers, too. He adds, “Sometimes a designer comes to us and has a kitchen design for their client, and they want us to do the cabinetry for them. Often times, their designs need fine tuning from us. They may design some things that are unreasonable, or aren’t cost-effective, so our cabinet makers can use their knowledge and capabilities to actually enhance someone else’s design. It’s often a two-way process.”
Knobbe has a lot of advice to give on getting design help on wood projects, and has spent years educating shops of all sizes on how to get started. The first thing that Knobbe recommends is to find out who’s building in your target market. He says, “Who’s building the kinds of projects you do or are interested in? Talk to subcontractors in the field. For example, painters know a lot of this information. Take the time to talk to them. Make contacts.”
Another recommendation that Knobbe has is to look up design professionals in your area. Epp recommends the Association of Chartered Industrial Designers of Ontario, often referred to as ACIDO, for businesses in central Canada. Other regions have similar groups. The Interior Designers of Canada, or IDC, is a group with experience designing kitchens, bathrooms and more. Kobbe adds, “Introduce yourself to some good local architects. Show them what you can do, and how a relationship could benefit you both.”
At the heart of this last recommendation is that woodworkers sell themselves as a potential resource to a design professional. For example, architects literally have hundreds of thousands of component parts to worry about for their projects. Become a resource for them when it comes to cabinets, for example. Knobbe says, “Woodworkers can provide a valuable informational and educational service to design professionals that ultimately works to each other’s mutual benefit. But you don’t have to call every architectural firm in your area. Try to develop a relationship with a few, and you’ll have better success at pursing new business through them.”
None of these suggestions are meant to imply that good in-house design isn’t being done in today’s wood industry. Nevertheless, businesses should always strive to gain a competitive edge, especially during challenging times. Perhaps that edge could come in the form of a little help from a designer. It can help to enhance the product, develop relationships, grow a business and control costs — all things at least worth considering, aren’t they?