Designing for Manufacturing – Hands-On Lessons

Author: Shoshana Burgett

I have watched colorkarma grow over the past year, and it has been wonderful to see how many people come to read, watch and listen. I have spoken to teachers, educators, designers, and suppliers, and I am confident we share quality information with the design community.


As a trained designer who went into manufacturing, I have watched the gaps between creatives and their suppliers throughout my career. Designers love to design and quickly fall into the trap of wanting others to manage the physical issues of production. In my years watching and listening to designers across a range of industries, this ‘hand off’ approach rarely works out. It has created a process that is extremely costly and inefficient with numerous back and forths between designers, product developers and producers.

Image by Seventyfour -

Over the years, designers have begun to lose their influence on companies. Marketers who focus on the customer experience are now leading the teams, not Art Directors. Metrics like open rate, time to market and margins, were not part of people’s thought processes 20 years ago but are now. Every big company has key performance indicators (KPI’s), which every employee must try to achieve. Companies measure the whole consumer journey, and the internet has led companies to learn to swim in both a physical and digital world with their consumers.

Not so long ago, designers were not taught to use data or design in 3D. Creatives latch onto physical pen and paper, and over time have seen their influence and value drift. If you don’t believe me, then look at the US job market data. Marketing roles are growing 8-9% annually, while art directors have no change, desktop publishing designers are declining, and even graphic designers are increasing at a slower rate of 3%. Yet, marketing data strategics are also growing at 8.5% (to learn more using data, check out Colorkarms’s article on designing with data).

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Image from Pressmaster -


When I went to design school 20+ years ago, we had apprentices, not internships. You might be asking… is there a difference? I’d argue there is a big difference. Today. interns are used to help and learn between school breaks. An apprentice is there to live in the shadow of the masters, learning the skills and nuances that are not in books or online classes. There was a time when design schools would have their students go to printers or suppliers to learn how to produce designs. This practice has fallen by the wayside, and it is time to resurrect this critical element of education. Engineers call it Co-Ops, where students earn credits for working full-time within companies to gain hands-on experiences that simply can’t be recreated in class or online.

Design students should be spending a semester, sometimes abroad, at a supplier, learning how products are manufactured; it does not matter if you are a graphic designer, sneaker designer, apparel designer, brand, or packaging designer. There are vast lessons to learn from the other side, the one that takes your ideas and brings them to life. Understanding production technology does not inhibit your creativity, though it can sound and feel that way. I know, first-hand, that when designers understand data, technology, and how things are made, it can be very freeing.   Shackles designers did not know they had on are removed, and new ideas, new products, new designs are born from these creatives.

Knowing how things are made and how to design for them not only sets the creative mind free, it also adds power. Those who know both sides of the process bring credibility to the design process.  And this is something often lacking at many brands. It is one of the reasons brand control belongs to procurement or color and material specialist. Understanding how design and production technology work together can make designers and creatives shine, and people will listen to you (and hire you) if you know how the processes work.


To help designers and creatives begin thinking about design for production, Colorkarma and Gerber Technology launched a new Design Dash Contest around facemakes.

Designers can submit a facemask pattern (now until December 5) for a chance to have it produced in the Gerber Technology’s Innovation Center in New York City and sold on ColorKarma. The winning designer will be paid a license (percentage of sales) and receive a Gerber Technology subscription.  To learn more about Design Dash, read our recent article or see the full contest rules.


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