Outsourcing Design Work – Why or Why Not?

A CAD artist who wants to draw for others on a contract basis gets feedback about the usefulness and value of that proposed service. February 8, 2008

I’m curious to know how many folks out there have ever or would ever consider outsourcing the drafting and design portions of their projects, and why or why not?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor J:
Okay, so you're doing a little market research. My gut reaction to the sort of services you offer is powerfully bad on several levels. That may not mean much, because I'm primarily a custom furniture maker who does very little with the sort of kitchen and bath work you're positioning yourself to deal with. The little work I have done in that area has gone from quick sketches directly into my shop, no renderings required. I realize this isn't the world you're aiming to work for, but hey - I feel like engaging you.

The first thing that strikes me from looking at your site is that I don't know what you mean by "design." The specification sheets you use ask your customers to do a lot of what I think of as design work - specifying things like cabinet manufacturer, door style, counter and backsplash materials, etc. These choices are design work, and you're asking your customers to have already done it before you start working.

Perhaps you mean that you'll decide which cabinets go where, designing the workflow of a space... except your forms don't gather any input whatsoever about the clients' unique needs. I can't believe many clients would want to turn such decisions over to some remote, anonymous service provider. This is not the engineering of a water treatment plant; my customers care deeply about their homes, and these sorts of decisions grow out conversations. I don't see how that can be farmed out.

So then, maybe you're really offering to provide renderings that your customers can use to facilitate these design conversations with their clients. My experience is that customers go through many potential designs before settling on one. It seems like this could quickly rack up one heck of a bill from you. Worse, many cabinet dealers/makers don't collect any money from their clients until the design is largely settled. Will they really be willing to rack up a bill from you on behalf of a customer they don't even have yet?

Like I said, the market you're aiming for is fairly alien to me, but the business model you're working with strikes me as terribly awkward. I just don't see where the value you can provide at a distance can possibly make up for the handicaps your process imposes on the relationships between your customers and their clients.

From contributor P:
I don't really outsource such things, but I do work under a designer quite often. About half of our work is done fulfilling a designer or architect's drawings or specs. I actually prefer it this way; less stuff for me to have to mess with.

From contributor N:
Contributor P has the right idea. You find your clients, do some design work for them, and then bring the cabinet job to the cabinetmaker. Then with his experience, he will demonstrate how this will work better or that might not work, etc. Often a nice drawing isn't a real workable design. I had a customer that hired a designer to design a wet bar and an island. She came up with an island that wasn't feasible, as all the drawers on all sides needed the same space to open and close. The island almost looked good on paper, then I redesigned it so it would work right and make sense. Get the work from your clients and then bring the work to the cabinetmaker, not the other way around. That is unless you have 10 or 20 years of working with or in a cabinet shop building cabinets that will all fit together and work correctly, and still retain the design aspect of the job. I'm not saying you don't have the experience, but most of us have dealt with designers, and you know the experts that work at Lowe's or Home Depot.

From contributor A:
First off, the website is generally quite good. Far better than most I've seen in your niche. We have outsourced CAD work in the past, with less than desirable results. The main reason? Overloaded with work, and a new, untested sub. In the future, I would pursue the path of developing a relationship with a reliable sub, and let them grow into the ability to handle larger, more time critical jobs. This has a much greater probability of success, in my opinion.

Why would I outsource? Because it can make me more profitable. Plain and simple. But it only makes me money if you can produce the same results for less than it costs me to do it myself. It is beyond me why so many folks on this forum will not think twice about subbing out their cabinet doors, or drawer boxes, but not give the same consideration to shop drawings. If outsourcing shop drawings can save you money and make you more profitable, why on earth would you say no?

Why wouldn't I outsource? Control. No matter how you market it, I give up some measure of control when I sub out drawings... or drawers. That loss of control can be minimized, with good and constant communication, but not completely eliminated. (There is a marketing strategy for ya!)

This is just another opinion, but what you should be marketing is drafting, or better yet, "engineered shop drawings." I agree with what the others have said, somewhat. It seems to me that if everything is spec'd (appliances, profiles, basic layout, etc.), then the design work is done. Now comes the engineering. That's where you come in.

Of course, this depends on your definition of what design and engineering is. I'd submit that (in this industry) design is generally thought of as the form, style, and arrangement of the millwork. Typically also things like appliances, wood species and color, and all the other fluff.

Engineering, on the other hand, is simply taking those designs, and making them work in the real world. So in contributor N's example above, I'd say he took a flawed design, and (re)engineered it to work in the real world. It's not rocket science, but it is engineering nonetheless.

From the original questioner:
Contributor A, I think you hit the nail on the head with all of your points. It has become clear to me, especially after viewing contributor J's comments, that my biggest challenge appears to be crafting my home page text to clearly illustrate and stress the drafting/engineering component of the process.

The tricky part is that I have five primary target customers:
Kitchen and bath showroom owners
Interior designers
Custom cabinet manufacturers
Remodeling contractors
Independent kitchen designers

So it is critical my homepage and services offered speak clearly to all. I also need to make clear that, while it is not my primary function, I do have the experience and background to make design suggestions to issues that always pop up once a project is taken from sketches and concept and put on the computer for engineering in scale.

Thus far my best customers in this current venture have been remodeling contractors who have the ability to purchase wholesale direct from cabinet manufacturers but can’t justify an in-house, full time position. They are comfortable with the process I assume because subcontracting is such a big part of their business.

Perhaps the message on my website needs some tighter focus. My services are of most value as an extension of the on-site designer by handling the drafting portion of the workload, using my 20+ years of experience to troubleshoot and offer solutions to issues as they occur. Good stuff… thanks. Changes will be implemented!

From contributor M:
I agree that contributor A hit the nail on the head. The engineering is critical, and even well engineered plans will have flaws. I would use your service, as I am a one man shop and already have more to do than I should, as long as it's cost effective. I would like someone that could not only draw a full kitchen, but could draw a piece of furniture like a dining table in 3D for a customer to look at, and again it would have to be cost effective.

From contributor Y:
As a two man shop, I'm a firm believer in outsourcing. While I do all of the cad work myself, there are times I've considered outsourcing. However, you need to be aware that if I am like many other cabinet shops, I'm not always ... er ... ah ... "time efficient." How many times have I waited until the last minute to order drawers? I'm not sure how much time would be saved in the design area because of all of the interaction that would be needed with a designer to get all of the details correct and in the construction manner that I use. It would take quite some time to build up a library of my design criteria with a given designer.

From contributor T:
I normally like to suggest to our small business clients that they strongly consider buying out doors, drawers and other materials to help save them time and money. However, this is one area that I would not suggest that they outsource.

Here is why. The design establishes the price of the job. The engineering establishes much of what the job will cost. If you control this part of the process, you control much of the cost of the job. Job costing is such an important part of the business that I would not suggest putting this in someone else's hands.