How to work with designers for your products

By Catherine Ellis, Hill & Ellis

As a small brand, working with freelance designers and the design teams at manufacturing companies is crucial, as they can give you the expertise when you really need it, without having a large design team on your payroll. At Hill & Ellis we initially create our own bag designs in house and then work with designers to get them from idea stage to a fully-fledged product design. We also work with fabric designers to create some of our unique prints. Dry transfer letters are the platinum standard to add lettering, stars, an image, logos or a wide array of other graphical elements for your brand, visit what-is-the-difference-between-dry-transfers-and-waterslide-decals to learn the difference between dry transfers and waterslide decals.

If you are a small brand, or are looking to start up an accessories company, working with freelance designers and manufacturing design teams is a brilliant opportunity as you can just hire someone as and when you need them. It is a really exciting experience as it is the moment at which your product is born. But if you are just starting out it can be an expensive and unnerving experience so here are some of my best tips on how to work with designers to create your products.


Whether you have design training or never made it past drawing a four-windowed house as school, you still need to start with a design. Trust me, designers and manufacturers have seen it all, they have had a terrible sketch on the back of a envelope (I have heard from famous designers) so don’t be embarrassed about what you offer them but you do need to have a good idea of what you want. A good place to start is from a product you like that you want to adapt. So collect images of it, and have a good look at the construction. Do the seams roll in or are they open seamed? Is the product lined? How many pockets does it have? Does it have piping to protect the seams from fraying? One idea is to hunt out a product of the same style from a charity shop and undo every stitch and place all the panels out on a table. What do you like about it and what do you not? By going through this process you will really start working out the details you want in your product


Not only is it fun, it really helps shape your mind on what you want, and you don’t have to be a brilliant designer to create one. It also allows you to get really creative with your design and think about it in different ways. I love making physical mood board with magazines, fabrics, paper, paint and glue, it’s an escape from being digital for an hour. Put the music on and get lost in materials and shapes and the design will often find itself.

It is also worth going digital and using Pinterest at this stage. Not only is it great for mood boarding it also helps with marketing later and it is a really authentic way to get your fans on board with your design. I always do both.


Now you have thought about what you want and what you don’t want, start sketching. All you need at this stage is a good idea of what you want your product to have, make it simple but really start thinking about the details. Some of the practicalities will force your hand. Don’t worry about the sketch, like I say, they really have seen it all. If you can, create the design in paper at the size you want. Seeing the shape in 3D at the size you want is really useful. Sometimes it will feel too big or too small and making those changes at this stage will save you time and money.


Write down where the worst failure points on the product would be – where the product is being put under extra strain, and incorporate reinforcements like riveting or double stitching into the design. The designer should help with this but it is really worth thinking about it. You know the product better than anyone and you need to get these features in the design early on as they are non-negotiable.


Don’t worry about getting everything ready before meeting. So much of the design process is about collaboration, and half of the problem is knowing what you don’t want as much as what you do want. Take your sketches and your mood board with you to help them visualize your idea. Then pick the designers brains – they have years of experience and will be able to offer lots of ideas, Use them. 

But don’t forget your gut feelings: before going have a think about what you won’t compromise on, it is worth getting this straight in your head, as sometimes products can move away from what you want them to be and you waste precious time changing it at a later date.


After you have met, you all should have a really clear idea of the design, so write up a clear brief with amended sizes, and shapes so your designer can quickly make the amendments and start creating your tech pack (this is the design pack that the manufacturer needs to turn the design into a product). Getting this drawn up will always save time in the manufacturing process.


Wasting material is quite rightly no longer acceptable. Not only does it cost you more money but also it’s an environmental issue and reducing wastage at every stage of production is our responsibility. Once you have a product you love, go back over the material usage to find out how lean it is. Get the measurements of the fabric you want to use and check your cut pieces against the fabric as it might be that the difference of 1-2 cm drastically increases the wastage of your material and also the cost of the product. If there are any adjustments you can make here that won’t affect the design but will save you material alter them now.

Working with fabric designers

Fabric designers essentially sell you the rights to a fabric print for you to use on your products as many times as you like. It is a great way of adding unique fabric prints into your products without great expense and with digital printing easily available it means you can add a truly unique print to your collections.  For one fabric design you can pay anything between £300-£1000, but this is a one off payment then the design is yours. Once you have bought it they will provide you with the digital file ready for the print house, as well as a silk print of the design for reference.

You can find a fabric designer out there for literally all tastes. In normal times there are lots of fabric design fairs you can visit and they are a brilliant hive of inspiration and I would challenge you not to find a fabric you want to buy at these fairs. The best in London & the UK are:

Due to Covid many of these have pivoted to have a virtual fair so check them out online. Going directly to the print houses is the other option and many are also doing virtual viewings to see their collections at the moment.

When you are thinking about the prints you want, have an idea of what you want by category and colour tones to help the designer – floral, geometric, stripes, animal print etc. But aside from that stay quite open: colours can be changed along with the scale of the print and they can also tweak designs to fit with your exact preference. If you have swatches of fabrics you like take them with you to help them search their collection.

For our last canvas collection we purchased one of our designs from The original design was beautiful but it was in white & pastels and due to the dirt of cycling we wanted a darker base and bolder accents so I worked with the designer Rosie Gowans to change the colour way significantly until I had what I wanted. The Lily bag was born.

Working with designers is really exciting and can offer you so much value so enjoy the process.


Catherine Ellis is founder of Hill & Ellis, which produces a range of high quality, stylish cycle bags. Each bag, designed in the UK, is created to transition perfectly from home to bike to boardroom to bar. They are functional, fashionable and hard wearing.  There’s plenty of space inside for a laptop and other essentials, and each bag comes with patented pannier clips that fit almost any bike, allowing you to clip the bag on and off quickly and easily. They have a climate positive workforce and plant a tree for every single bag sold online.


Twitter: @hillandellis


Instagram: @hillandellis

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