Outsourcing Basic Case Design

I’m finally returning following a long break, this article covers the topic of hiring a designer for your group buy board, or for a one-off keyboard design. It took a while to get all the information together, as very little information is available publicly when it comes to commissioning designers. This week, we’ll dig into the basics of hiring a designer, what to know beforehand, what to expect price-wise, and why it’s so difficult to find designers to commission for a keyboard design.

This is part of a long series of posts covering the A-Z of how to run a group buy, I highly suggest you read the previous posts before reading through this one.

What to know beforehand

Knowing your basics will help you more easily communicate with your designer, and save you both time and potential wasted money. You should have a basic understanding of how the rough structure of a design works, enough so that the expectations are realistic, this includes sharp edges, thin areas, and nonsensical design elements. It’s also important to note that there could likely be issues with assembly, making the keyboard unusable – this could arise from simply expecting too much out of the design, or potential manufacturing issues. In addition, consider that one-offs are generally not given the same kind of treatment as group buy items regarding flaws and remakes, as there is only a single unit made, additional units cannot be used to replace it in the cause of any manu or finishing defects

In general, the ideal commissioner:
A) Knows what they’re doing and understands the risks
B) Knows what is reasonable to commission
C) Won’t change plans halfway through the project

For the sake of facilitating the whole experience for yourself, you should have the following prepared before even speaking to a designer:
-Layout, Size, Shape, Angle, and material of case
-Mounting style and case assembly style
-Plate material and cutout plans
-Any weights/emblems and their locations and materials (mock ups of any engravings would save the designer a lot of time if you have them in vector format)
-What type of finishing you plan for each part (this will affect how they are mounted, and hooked for anodized parts)
-A small mockup (just hand drawn) of the more complex areas will go a long way to reduce confusion and reduce the total amount of revisions
-A top-down and side-profile sketch will be handy to show exactly what sort of design you are going for

What to expect price-wise

Pricing for design work is variable, and depends on the complexity of the design, the case and mounting style, how many features you want (daughterboard, maglev plate, multi-weight, etc), and the total amount of revisions. Some designers will charge a fixed price (these are usually in the realm of 2-4k USD), while others will take a small flat rate at the start (250-500 USD), with a percentage on revenue for the group buy (ranging from 2-8%).

Here’s a selection of pricing from a few designers:
Designer 1:
$250 for a basic design + 5% revenue from any buy. Features are charged from 25-50 depending on feature set
Designer 2: 5% of revenue, with some restrictions on minimum GB size
Designer 3: A large upfront cost (varies from 2-8k USD depending on design)

All designers preferred to remain anonymous

Why is it so hard to find commissioners

Through interviewing keyboard designers I noticed one common pattern; very few designers have any interest in dealing with design commissions. This arises from a variety of factors, from general lack of knowledge of what to expect when hiring a designer, to the simple fact that it may not make financial sense to even bother taking commissions…

When asked about the typical time investment for a commission, an unnamed designer had the following to say:

The same amount (of time) as I’d spend on one of my own projects and get paid multiple times more for

-Anonymous Designer

Considering the massive amount of work that can potentially go into a design, and the rather low profitability and risk of a product never even making it to market – It makes much more sense from a time and effort perspective for a designer to just design their own keyboards and run them themselves, or with a vendor they know and trust. This at least means that any issues that arise during the group buy workflow can be chalked up to “I fucked up” instead of “I got fucked over”

Consider learning design on your own

Considering the difficulty of finding a designer these days, as it does not make much sense for most designers to offer a commission service; it likely will be more realistic to learn design on your own. Keyboards are a great way to start learning CAD or Fusion or Inventor, as their complexity isn’t too overwhelming (compared to more functional objects). Of course it’s important to have a solid knowledge of how keyboards look, sound, and feel based off of minor design changes. But the process of the design itself is mostly extruding a piece, and then filleting and chamfering it until the desired effect is reached.

There are a great deal of resources to learn design, and if you are still in school, take the opportunity to pick up classes and activities on the side for CAD learning.

If you’re an old fart like me, there’s thousands of places to start learning online. I recommend starting with basic youtube videos until you are comfortable enough with your software of choice.