How the Magic Happens: Behind the Curtain of Our Product Design Process

For most people, when a new product appears on the market, they either like it or they don’t, and that’s the extent of the attention they pay. However, for some other people who love product design and development, the process of going from initial insight to concept to finished product is an interesting journey that is often mysterious or kept secret. This blog is for the latter group of people. It hopes to shed light on our product development process. 

When we tell stories about past projects, we use a certain shorthand by describing the manner of ideation as “magic.” And while it often feels like there is alchemy at work, we all know there is no such thing as magic. 😊

Rather, we are a team of talented, passionate designers, with decades of experience, who methodically implement a product development process that has successfully brought to market thousands of products. For us, while product development is definitely more art than science, it is achieved on every project by executing on our process, which we’ll describe in the remainder of this post.

For more than a decade, starting with Michael Graves personal healthcare crisis, Michael Graves Design has been focused on bringing great design to the home healthcare category. We have worked hard within our regular business model (i.e. collaborating with manufacturing and distribution partners) to change consumer expectations within this category, much the way we changed consumer expectations for good design within mass market retailers by partnering with Target Stores in 1999. However, we have had the hardest time finding a retail partner that is ready to revolutionize the home healthcare category (this will change in January, stayed tuned), so we decided we had no choice but to pioneer the category on our own by designing, manufacturing, and distributing a collection of truly innovative canes. These canes perfectly express our dedicated focus to the discovery of unmet consumer needs and using design to fill the product opportunity gaps they present.

The initial insight, that consumers deserve better than grey, institutional looking, hard to use, stigmatizing canes, came from Michael Graves experience with paralysis. We learned how ineffective a lot of the medical goods available on the market functioned and everyone knows how horrible these so called durable medical equipment looked. We knew we could do better. We were determined to do better for users of assistive devices and for the people who love for them and care for them.

To start the ambitious design process of reinventing the canes category, we go into our Collect + Define stage where we begin our research, with the main goal of developing empathy for the consumers of these products. For this project, that meant in-store benchmarking research where we confirmed that most current choices are basic, unattractive, often cumbersome and generally unappealing.   



It also meant becoming inspired by consumer products brands that took a previously commotoized category and brought to it a clearly branded perspective with form and color, such as brands like Away, and HydroFlask. 

For this project, where empathy was of utmost importance, we also required all designers to live with and use a cane for at least a week. We realized the impact a cane has on a person from losing the use of one hand, to the unwanted attention the cane can bring a user, to the annoying clicking noises canes make when you go through the world, to the awkward fold of typical folding canes.


Woman walking with cane through snow 


Once familiarized with the category through a designer lens, we then focus our attention on ethnography, a qualitative research method where we observe and/or interact with real users in their real-life environments. For this project, we met with cane users, interviewed cane users, observed cane users, and learned as much as possible about what people liked about their canes, what they disliked about their canes, and gathered as many insights as possible.

In addition to hearing interesting anecdotes that informed our thinking, we also discovered that some people use a cane throughout the day, while others only need a cane part of the time (when tired or going long distances). As a result of this research, we realized we needed to design regular canes and folding canes that could appeal to all users and provide the flexibility and customization that consumers desire.

With a fully developed, research backed design brief in hand, we start with ideation, which we also call Explore + Design. In our studio, ideation begins with pencil and paper sketching, on trace and in Moleskine sketchbooks. It also means sketching on our iPad Pros in Procreate. Sketching by hand helps us organize our thoughts and facilities collaboration and communication within our studio.




(If you haven’t read it, and if you’re interested in why we believe drawing by hand is so important, check out Michael Graves’s 2012 op-ed in the NY Times about the Lost Art of Drawing.) 

We also built handmade models for testing functionality, scale and ergonomics. These models were essentially 3D sketching. When thinking about canes, the comfort of the grip is essential. As evidenced by the photos below, when making these initial form models, we deliberately use grey and neutral materials in the concept design models and renderings, to really focus on form. This is similar to logo development where you make sure it works in black and white before you start exploring color. We wanted to be sure the forms and proportions resonated, knowing color would just make it better! We also build alternative functional models to find the optimal user experience.     



Once we’ve established design intent, functional goals, scale, and other design parameters for each product, we delved into the materiality and color. We finished design refinement with 3D CAD modeling in SolidWorks, which leads to 3D printed models, and renderings and animations created in KeyShot.




The final stage of our product development process, Produce + Manage, is also known as Design for Manufacture. It is during this phase where industrialization happens, the designs are optimized for manufacture, and tooling and molds are created. Final prototypes and off tool samples are manufactured and reviewed to ensure fit and finish of the final products maintain design intent and achieve all goals of the program.




About Michael Graves Design

The Michael Graves Design consumer brand exists to create moments of joy that enhance people's lives by offering products that are delightful, purposeful, pioneering, and extraordinary. As the first design brand to partner with Target, Michael Graves Design is famous for pioneering the Design for All movement and is credited with establishing America’s expectation that great design should be available to everyone. To date, Michael Graves Design has sold more than $1 billion at retail. Michael Graves Design makes the world a more enjoyable place to live, work, learn and play. For further information, visit