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Getting Started


You are part of a very special group of folks that are creative enough to have your own idea for an invention and confident enough to actually do something about it. You have already jumped the biggest hurdle because many people have a great idea that they never move on, only to see that idea on the market later from someone else. Now that you’ve made it this far, there are a few dos and don’ts that you need to know immediately to reap the benefits of your idea as soon as possible.

In general, the staff of is very positive, but we’re going to start with the negative advice so we can end on the positive. Here goes:

Don’t do the following:

I know is sounds obvious but don’t publish your idea until you are protected. This includes uploading video of a possible prototype onto a social networking site like or YouTube, etc. As soon as you publish your idea you can no longer patent it. Along the same vein don’t make a prototype of the invention and use it outwardly and openly with clients. That’s another no-no for later patent submission. Don’t talk about the idea with friends and don’t let anyone help you without signing at least an NDA(non-disclosure agreement). Don’t hire an engineering firm or especially a late night invention consultant without full protection.

Don’t rush down to the patent office. Sometimes a patent is not enough. You can easily spend a bunch of money on a patent, submit your idea to a firm that is supposed to help you and have them steal the design. A patent only gives you the right to sue. But you cannot sue without considerable resources – so when you submit your idea to a large company that has a bevy of lawyers, there is a chance they will steal your idea.

Don’t bet the farm on an idea without talking to industry experts and doing your home work. We inventors are full of passion – sometimes to a blinding degree. It’s like when you write a term paper and you’re reading through it and you don’t realize that one of your sentences is utterly unintelligible. The industry expert can be an objective viewer. The right industry expert will be critical and may have a chance of seeing something that you missed. We have all heard of stories where a person had a great idea that no one else could see or appreciate. They invested everything they had, when broke then finally prevailed. This is the exception, not the rule. There are many successful inventors you’ve never heard of that do their homework and have many inventions. Successful inventors create good plans and take care of the details. They get funding and they minimize risk. If they fail, they live to fight another day.

Don’t necessarily share your idea with friends and family. Having what you think is a great idea is exciting. You will probably want to share it with family and friends – how can you resist? But family and friends are not necessarily objective. In an effort to be supportive, some family and friends will be too positive about an idea. They would love to see you progress. On the other hand, some family, and especially some friends, have a vested interest in keeping you in the exact same position you are in. Deep down, they may not want to see you progress because it will make them feel left behind. This may skew their view of your idea. The bottom line is there is an emotional involvement so sometimes you have to take what they say with a grain of salt.

Don’t give up. This one speaks for it’self.

Now that we have covered some of the don’t dos, here are the definitely dos.

Do the following:

Document the idea. Make sure you have drawings with dates and signatures on them. They could be hand sketches or computer renderings. It’s good to have a bound notebook with pages that can’t easily be put in or taken out. If you have created the idea on a computer program and it is only on your hard-drive, print it off with a date, sign it. Put it in the safe or under the proverbial mattress.

Improve your idea. Every invention that has ever been can be improved. This is a good attitude to have about inventions and products alike. Even the wheel has been improved by the advent of lighter materials and aerodymanics and then magnetic levitation. If you always try to improve upon your initial idea you will have a better chance of producing a product that is as good as the current technology allows.

Always be ready when a good idea hits. For some inventers and product designers a good idea hits at the most surprising of times. It could happen while you’re in traffic or in the shower or even in a dream. Please keep a note pad or a small tape recorder with you at all times. It is defiantly possible to have a great idea and then loose it for a while when you get interrupted or go onto something else.

Protect the idea. To get a patent is costly but worth it, even if big companies can often get around it. The patent will stop reputable companies and fair-minded individuals from steeling your idea. The knuckleheads may come after you anyway, but it will make it harder for them.

Consider a provisional patent. A full fledged patent costs several thousand dollars. When you apply it will take you years to get it. If you patent each and every one of your ideas before you make any money you may have to have some very deep pockets. You may consider getting a provisional patent. The provisional patent protects you for a period of one year. During that one year period you may be able to develop the idea and sell it off before you have to spend the big bucks to get it to the greater market. You may not get the full financial benefit of your idea but it may be a good strategy if you are not in the position of getting funding.

Work with a hand sketch. For an idea that involves mechanisms, even if it’s a fancy electronic device that needs a housing, please, please, please, do hand sketches first. Many inventors, especially young ones, tend to jump right into computer aided design. They work long and hard to create accurate product definition data, only to find that there is some fundamental problem they could easily have seen with some hastily drawn hand sketches. Also, a hand sketch forces you to visualize an idea in a way that CAD does not. Since a hand sketching usually requires less mental bandwidth than creating a CAD model, you may see important problems faster.

Let your industrial design be informed by other products. The look of a product can be as important sometimes as the actual function. The problem is how to make a product look “good” when good looks are so subjective. There are a few known examples of quantifiable good looks in the industrial design world such as 1.618, the ratio of the lengths of the sides of a “golden rectangle” and G2 continuity of curvature so that the light from a product is soft. But examples like these are far and few between. One good way to make a product look “good” is to gather up a number of “good” looking products and make a collage. The products that you gather can be other successful products that the target market uses. For example, if you are designing a product that will be sold to participants at a Monster truck rally you may decide to gather images from a number of related magazines. You may go to an auto parts store and gather a number of tools that have been well designed. Then you may go to a good sporting goods store and see what’s there. These products can be your guide. When you have the collage you can begin to borrow visual cues from various products. You may be able to borrow surface textures, colors, shapes, materials and many other things from other products that you find appealing. You may gain a wealth of knowledge from people who use similar products. Ask a hunter what she likes about her gun. Ask a tree surgeon what’s so good about a particular chain saw. Open the mind to a million possibilities.

Create an honest design. On a subconscious level people can tell when a product lies. When a product has large fins on it that don’t perform a function, when a product has a material that is supposed to look like carbon fiber but really isn’t, when a car has this massive scoop on the hood but makes a sound like a sewing machine as it drives off, people can tell that the design is a lie. When a car has a massif spoiler but as it drives down the street at 30 you can see it fluttering it’s a dam lie. It looks foolish – it’s a “want to be” product. If when you create a product you use authentic materials and although it sounds like a cliche let the form follow the function you will have an honest design.

Let the experience create the form. There is a great method that you can use to create a great product and it’s another cliche but let the product be designed by the experience. For example, let’s say that you are designing a new toaster. Begin by imagining that you want toast in the easiest or coolest way. Close your eyes and take a piece of un-toasted bread and load it in something that will toast it. What would make you the happiest? In the perfect world you will want the toast to be ready for you perfectly toasted to the darkness that you want. You want it to be even and you want it to call you when it’s ready. You don’t want to have to clean it out and you never want the bread to get stuck in the toaster so you have to stick your fork in there. With your eyes closed you can imagine a toaster that you place a piece of bread in or on and a toasting head moves over bread in a similar way that a fax machine does. Perhaps you can program the head to toast various patterns into the bread with lighter and darker patches. Perhaps you can get the bread toasted faster with less energy than a normal toaster because the toaster doesn’t’ have to toast the entire thing all at once and it doesn’t have to heat the entire cavity. Also part of the experience of using a toaster is blowing the fuse when you are using it and the microwave at the same time. We’ve all had toasters that aren’t big enough to take four pieces of bread, maybe a new look at the toaster can produce a new toaster that can toast as many as you stack in it because it only toasts a portion then moves on.

See, thinking about the experience of getting toast will lead you to new and sometimes better solutions than if you start with the concept of the product which is in a way the solution. Just recently I was driving a rental car and I looked down at the instrument panel to turn on the heat, and to my shock I noticed that some of the labeling was written under one of the knobs. I couldn’t see what it said because the position of my head was high above the instrument panel. It was obvious to me that the designer of the dash board designed the graphics looking straight forward at the dash on a large computer screen. That designer was designing a dashboard he our she wasn’t designing the experience of using the controls on the dashboard. In a way that designer failed to care about me and my family. In order to design a good dashboard you have to imagine yourself in the driver’s seat with a cell phone in your hand and very important decisions being made as you drive down the road. You shouldn’t have to look down and underneath a knob as you are driving and probably faster than the speed limit as usual. On one of my favorite cars – I won’t rat it out, the heat is turned off and on and up and down by two buttons. One with an up arrow and one with a down arrow. This is ludicrous. When the heat is all the way up and you want to turn it off you have to keep hitting the button many times. You can’t just turn the thing off with one touch. Also the same car has wheel for the heat that comes from the vents that are in the middle of the dash board. Not only is there two different controls but the wheel has a graphic on it that is painted on and not back lit. This means if you are driving at night and you don’t know that car you can’t see how to turn the heat off. It’s clear that the dashboard designer failed see the experience of using the dashboard from the perspective of a new user. In this day and age it’s surprising.

Let the form of a product be friendly to manufacturing. Professional industrial designers do it all the time. They go off on these ultra cool design excursions and they produce beautiful drawings of products that are impossible to build. They love it. They’re trying to win design awards and some of them don’t have the slightest care about the rest of the design team or even the user. When the product designers, the mechanical folks, get the design rendering from some industrial designers and are trying to figure out how to make it a reality, they sometimes scratch their heads. “How does so and so expect us to fasten these things?” or “How are we supposed to injection mold these parts when there’s this huge undercut?”. “How does so and so expect us to fit the motor into this design when the neck has been made so small?” Problems like these can cost millions. They delay the project with endless back and forth from the industrial design group to the product design group of major corporations and they serve no one. When the industrial design of a product is done well it serves the rest of the design group. The product designers find that the shapes are beautiful but have been carefully considered so they can actually be manufactured. The manufacturing folks find that they can actually produce the required bends in the sheet metal and that when they begin to define the tooling it’s actually easy to do so. They don’t need to invent some crazy new process just to achieve some strange looking design. Let there be no mistake, sometimes shapes are required that require a brand new and creative manufacturing process. Some of the most successful and beautiful products own there success in large measure to the new look that was achieved by a great design and a brand new manufacturing process but these are the exception not the rule.

When you do product design think of the person not the thing. A great product designer thinks about the person that the design will serve first and then the actual thing to be designed after that. For example when you design a chair it’s important to know who the chair is for and what purpose the chair serves. For example, the queen of a tiny island nation wants a chair for her to meet dignitaries in. If you’re not imaging the experience that she wants when she meets the dignitaries your may be missing the point. You may focus on comfort and styling and not realize that the purpose of the chair is to make her look grand, perhaps grander then she really is. The chair must elevate her and it must send a message to the dignitaries that she has wealth and power. Perhaps the chair should be covered with jewels, not because they are beautiful but because they’re hard to get. Perhaps the chair is up high such that the queen has to climb up into it. This makes her seem bigger and she may want to look down on the dignitaries. It’s not a chair that I would like to design but if that’s the person that you are serving, than that’s what your design has to be. Great product design means the product works well. You as the designer should know what the end user of the product does with your product. For example, recently I purchased an inexpensive table from an office supply place. It was for a booth that we had at a trade show. What I waned from the table was to be able to set it up quickly and put flyers on it. It was made out of plastic with inexpensive steel tubing underneath. When I went to set it up, I took it out of the box and I had to take off the wrapping. Some one at the company who made the table got the bright idea to wrap the plastic table than attach the leg assembly down over the plastic. I’m sure they saved about 15 cents worth of plastic and twice that much in time but the end user was pissed. It was impossible with out dismantling the table leg assembly to get all the plastic off. Even now there are little bits of plastic stuck on the underside of the table in-between the leg assembly and the table top. The designers never thought of the user experience. All they were thinking about was the price. Now I’m fully aware that the price is a very important part of the user experience of a product but there’s no way that having your customer laboriously pick plastic out from where it’s trapped in your product can be a good trade off. Let us also remember that the packaging of a product is an important part of the product experience. We all know that first impressions can be lasting. If you let your packaging people put a sticky label on your product so that when the buyer gets home with the product they have to use their fingernail to get the label off and they get that annoying residue on the product that they just can’t seem to get off, you have failed as a product designer.

Find an expert. By all means, find the right experts for the parts of the invention that you don’t really know about. Few of us, if any, know everything we need to know about the process, from performing the basic patent work, to finite element analysis, to manufacturing, to marketing, to packaging and distribution. There’s just too much to know for one person with one lifetime. Many inventors are extremely bright people who can figure out how to do almost anything. This is a blessing and a curse. When you spend time to figure out how to do something new and difficult it’s a great feeling. On the other hand it’s been said that “those of us who act as our own lawyer has a fool for a client.” When we decide to do all of our own work we guarantee that the various jobs can not be done in parallel. We can no longer leverage the skills of others therefore our product gets to market later than it would have. This may mean death for a new product. Also the effect of experience can have an exponential impact on your ability to perform a task. The experienced CAD jock can knock out a design in a tenth the time it takes for a person who’s just learning.

When you communicate with manufacturing communicate with manufacturing. It sounds odd but many designers and engineers make a huge mistake when they expect that just because they have prepared a detailed drawing with geometric dimensioning and tolerancing and they have sent it to manufacturing, they have done their do diligence and that their component will be manufactured correctly. In fact some folks think of a detailed drawing as nothing more than a legal document that guarantees that when you get parts from the vender that you don’t like you can inspect them and reject them if they do not conform. Although that is literally true it doesn’t’ make for a good relationship between the designer and the manufacturer. In reality a good working relationship with a manufacturer wins the day. If you allow the manufacturer to input his or her opinion early on in the design process you will have a better understanding for what is possible in the manufacturing process and you have a chance of having a better product or a less expensive product or both. When you allow early input you gain understanding of how the product definition data that you give to manufacturing is interpreted and you will have a smoother path to the end goal. When you talk to the manufacturer you will understand that some of the information that you spent time putting on your detailed drawing is ignored by the manufacturer or may be even misinterpreted. In some cases when manufacturers see the definition for the first time they don’t realize that there is a portion of the design that they can’t in fact perform. If you are in good contact with them you can perform slight tweaks to the design such that they can manufacture the design. For example, recently I designed a meter for one of my clients. The manufacturer that was chosen was in China. As the design was delivered I flew to China to be on site if they had any questions. The meter had a certain metal plate on it that had to be attached in a special way. When the manufacturing people began to really look at the design they found that they could not produce the metal piece as it was designed. Luckily I was there with a CAD system on a lap top to change the design to fit the ability of the manufacturing house that was chosen. The fact that I was able to have a face to face communication with the manufacturer and make the quick change saved the day.

Do the analysis. You must know every minute detail about your invention down to the last fare-thee-well. You must obtain a detailed definition for your invention. These days it usually means a CAD model. This includes things like detailed drawings with tolerances and inspection data, material specs, test results, and everything else you will need to ensure that when your invention is manufactured it will be safe, it will function as desired and be reliable, and it can be manufactured for the lowest cost. You must also think about scheduling and shipping and packaging and the full ramifications of the distribution network that your invention will be associated with. In many cases you must take into account the Christmas season and if you’re getting injection molding in Asia, the Chinese new year.

Prototype. You must rely heavily on prototypes. At first, get the cheapest, fastest prototypes you can. If you are designing a new kind of linkage for an auto jack or the lid on a new bucket loader device, by all means, make a scale model out of cardboard before you begin to spend the big bucks. You can learn an incalculable amount from a five dollar scale prototype. There are all sorts of fast and cheap methods these days of obtaining a good- looking production prototype; there’s stereolithography, selective laser sintering, 3-D printing, soft tool molding and a myriad of other techniques. Many of these must be driven by a CAD model, others are not.

Learn from tear downs. All of the most successful fortune 500 companies that we have worked with perform tear downs. A tear down is a learn be destruction process where you obtain a product that you admire for what ever it has that you think is so great and you take it apart. Many products are glued together or sonic welded so when you take them apart you have to break them. Not to worry, you will learn so much that it will be well worth it. You don’t have to tear apart a new product you can get used stuff off of Craig’s list. A tear down is one of the best ways to learn about new design configurations.

Let the suppliers educate you. You can spend a lifetime taking courses at a major university where you will be taught the latest techniques for manufacturing all sorts of things. But if you have a job and some great kids you probably don’t have time to attend university too. However if you need to know how to design something some times the best thing you can do is talk to a manufacturing supplier. Let’s say for example you are designing something in sheet metal. A single call to any sheet metal guy anywhere should get you the facts that you need such as, standard available sheet metal thickness, minimum bend radius, the properties of various metals, etc. They are not always design experts but they sure now a heck of a lot about their piece of it.

Get a bunch of quotes. Once you have a design to get built don’t be afraid to get a bunch of people working on a price quote for manufacturing. Make sure they sign an NDA and get them to work. Sometimes when a supplier is busy they will quote high because they will have to bend over backwards to help you at that time. Therefore the place that gave you the good quote last time may not give you a good quote every time.

Work with people who’s communication style you like. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how good a design or manufacturing supplier is they just don’t communicate in a way that you appreciate. Perhaps they are too curt or to wordy or you just can’t understand their accent, of the don’t have an FTP site or they aren’t good at getting back to you with e-mail of scheduled calls. You must be able to communicate well with the firm. Bad communication causes more problems than faulty calculations in most design to manufacturing processes. A lot of people in the industry like a detailed paper trail. Others like the face to face method. Both of these have their pros and cons. The best method is probably the one that you’re most comfortable with.

Test your product. UL, CE, and others. Your product must be safe. The worst thing that can happen to an inventor is his or her product accidentally hurts someone. Above and beyond the law suites is the guilt you would feel if a toy that you invented killed a child because of a calculation that was supposed to be made or a material that was supposed to be safe and turned out not to be. There are people to help you in this regard. Some time in the 1970s a bill was signed that created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). That organization in turn officially authorized a number of testing labs, the most prominent of which is Underwriters Laboratories Inc. Working together, a number of standards, tests, and certifications were created so when you design your product you can make the components safe. When your product is compliant with the recognized standards you can obtain a “UL” listing with means the labs will stand by your product. The UL listing certifies that your product meets the standards that are required by many distributors. Once you have successfully gone through the UL listing process you can display the UL logo on your product. If you want to sell your product in the EU you must have a CE listing. There are other listings such as the CSA, the TUV that you will find on many of the products that you already use and own. In order to obtain these you will have to go through an independent lab. When you work with them they will ask you a number of questions to find out which tests and certifications are appropriate for your product.

Packaging you product.

  • Finding a buyer.
  • Getting financing
  • Electrical engineering for your product. If your product has electrical components here’s what you need to know.
  • Mechanical Engineering

By Stephen Samuel, Design Visionaries

This Post Has One Comment
  1. Getting Started is about the experience you can have as an inventor. It is a check list of sorts for the kinds of action items that will help you as you go through the adventure of inventing a product and getting it on the market. As the author I hope you enjoy it or at least use it to your great advantage.

    Thank you,


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