How Product Design Agency TAIT Design Co. Took Off
By: Margaret Andersen
Inspiration for entrepreneurs is all around, but the deep details about how a brand goes from an idea to a physical product or service are fuzzy. We’re breaking it down this week with Matthew Tait, founder of TAIT Design Co. In part 2 of a 4-part series, learn about how he got the idea for this product design studio and how he turned into a full-fledged business.
Be sure to check out the first part to this series on TAIT Design Co.
How did you get the initial idea to start TAIT?
Matt Tait: I was working as an Associate Creative Director in advertising and my job mostly entailed creating traditional and digital campaigns for corporations in a larger team setting. I would design, brainstorm, and ultimately play a key role in pitching this work to clients. I missed creating physical objects, and started signing up for machinery classes at a nearby maker-space called TechShop in Detroit, Michigan after work.
Through this, I honed some woodworking and metalworking skills as well as learning CNC fundamentals. I was making furniture at first—tables and record holders and also worked on trying to make small mechanical wind up toys. I even made kitchen objects like cocktail muddlers for fun, just creating projects to experiment with machinery. I shared personal projects on my Instagram and realized that people were interested in what I was doing. I had always loved vintage toys so I eventually made a balsa model airplane kit for fun and after showing it to some friends, I was convinced to do a photoshoot and launched the product on taitdesignco.com.
I didn’t really know what to expect, but I thought it would be funny to launch a small product like this in the same way a company like Apple would launch a product. So I went all out and took everything I had learned throughout my advertising career, creating a small front to back campaign for the little airplane. That weekend, the product was picked up by several large sites, it went viral and over 30,000 people visited my website. All of a sudden, I had a design company!
How did you come up with the name?
Matt Tait: TAIT is my last name, and I like how simple and direct it is. The logo design was born out of a branding iron I had made to burn into the bottom of some furniture pieces—hence why the A is knocked out. I thought the straightforwardness spoke to my design aesthetic quite well. I’m a big believer in sometimes just calling things what they are—designs by TAIT. Additionally, my relatives back in Selkirk, Scotland used to have a hardware store called TAIT The Ironmonger that carried the name, so I liked the idea of carrying it forward.
Did you have any prior experience in product design?
Matt Tait: Not formally, my background is in graphic design and photography but I have been building things all my life. Once I started learning more about manufacturing techniques, I started to combine my graphic design skills with different ideas I had for products and it grew from there. The only previous products I had made were for fun when I was in art school. I worked at an art supply store in Ypsilanti, MI during that time. The owner had piles and piles of cardboard in basement that they let me use for free. I was pretty broke at the time, so I started creating objects for fun out of it to sell at a local craft fair. My most loved product was called the hot dog emergency kit—a cardboard box that opens up to reveal a packet of every hot dog condiment inside, so that you are never in a pinch haha. It was a joke of course, and there was a regular version with just ketchup and mustard and a deluxe one with ketchup, mustard, chopped onion, and relish. I used to cut these out one by one with an xacto knife. I sold 100s of these at fairs and gave away free hot dogs with each purchase. Funny enough, it is almost the same exact packaging concept used on the Turbo Flyer today.
Once you decided that this was something you wanted to pursue, what were your next steps?
Matt Tait: After I set up the website and orders began rolling in, I worked on the business at nights and on weekends while balancing my full-time job. I set up an LLC to make it official, and tried to keep this balance. When I was first making the products, I was literally making them in my basement. Screenprinting at my home, laser cutting packaging at Techshop, and hand assembling everything one by one to ship orders. Eventually though, I started to learn about die cutting and how to manufacture packaging, so I was able to outsource that to a local company as well as the screen printing. This allowed me to increase production substantially. TAIT began taking up all of my time and I realized that the only way to grow the business would be to leave my day job and focus entirely on it. It took over two years of crazy working hours and a lot of mistakes (learning opportunities) to get to that point.
How did you take it from an idea to physical products people could buy?
Matt Tait: For me, the first physical product was the root of the idea, so the journey was a bit backwards. I didn’t set out to start a design company, just to spend more time creating physical objects instead of digital. I saw TAIT as a platform for me to share my work outside of work.
What was the first product you designed for TAIT?
Matt Tait: The Turbo Flyer—a hand-screenprinted balsa model airplane kit that comes in its own reusable cardboard carrying case.
When you were just starting, what did your operation look like? How many people did you have helping you then, and how have you expanded?
Matt Tait: When I was just starting, the entire operation was just me and I was selling directly to consumers through my website. Now, I have a business partner, Audrey Elkus, and we usually have at least one part-time production assistant. We have a new studio on the Eastside of Detroit in an amazing space with three other small businesses, which is very exciting. Our products are sold in over 200 stores, and we have 6 products instead of just 1, with plans to continue expanding our line.
How did you spread the word about TAIT when you were just starting out?
Matt Tait: First I was sharing small projects on my personal Instagram, and then after I made the TAIT website, I made a separate Instagram for it. My friends, family, and co-workers started following that account and watched the experiments I was making, and word traveled through them. I made an email newsletter of every email I had in my contact list and gathered new ones through the website. With each new project launch, I would send out a press release along with photos and videos to design blogs I admired. I have been incredibly fortunate to have The Dieline support every project we’ve ever put out.
Margaret is a freelance graphic designer and writer based in Los Angeles. She received her MFA in Graphic Design from the California Institute of the Arts. She writes for AIGA’s blog Eye on Design, and is currently designing futuristic things for USC’s World Building Media Lab.