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Product Design vs Industrial Design

Last Updated: January 13, 2019 • 23 min read

Unfortunately, design is too generic of a term to explain to someone what I do to earn a living. Fortunately, design has sub-fields just like most other professions. If I tell someone that I’m an industrial designer or product designer (both true by definition), she will still have questions. I’m a designer. When I tell this to people, their reactions vary a lot.

“My cousin makes logos.”
“So, you’re like an architect?”
“Do you design interiors?”
“Can you make websites?”
“Did you have to go to school for that?”

Many think industrial design relates to architecture or engineering. Product design brings visions of luxury goods or software. Since design can be applied to everything we create, it suffers from ambiguity.

To further muddy the waters, design is not always measurable or quantifiable and can be quite subjective. And since applying design to something is not inherently essential to its existence, its place in the development process of any good is fairly recent.

So, if it isn’t essential and it can’t be measured, but it can be applied to anything and it is often subjective, then what is design and why should anyone care? Before we answer that, let’s nail down a definition of Design.


The more specific and accurate we get with our definition, the more exceptions there will be to the definition, depending on the sub-genre or field of design.

Design (verb) – A problem-solving framework that seeks a balance of aesthetics and function.

So, designers make things better-looking and better to use. True. Once we get more specific, the definition evolves. Take Graphic Design for example:

Graphic Design (noun) – A field of design focused on improving function of a digital or print media through styling of visual elements.

This means a graphic designer might make a poster easier to read and more informative through deliberate use of color, logos, illustrations or typography. 

Put simply, an Industrial Designer contributes to the form and function of a good while considering mass-production techniques and limitations. 

We’ll get more specific after learning about the field of Industrial Design and how it’s changed over the past century. Doing so will also allow us to craft a working definition that may be more appropriate for the future of I.D.

All The Fields of Design*

*Okay, I’ll admit, there’s no way to capture all the fields of design, but this should give you an idea of the breath of niches within design.

Industrial Design Through History


Prior to designers, we had artists and craftspeople. The function of art is to elicit an emotion or tell a story. Artists have drawn illustrations, written poems, carved sculptures, played instruments, performed dances and so on to tell stories or evoke emotions. Art is often experienced or consumed as a form of entertainment (music, or plays) or decoration (paintings or sculpture).


People have created art for as long as we’ve existed. Education was shared through story and art. However, once we became less nomadic and the idea of possessions and homes were established, we saw the rise of craft. We spent less time moving around and more time accumulating wealth. Eventually we could afford luxuries such as comfort and much later, entertainment.


Before currency became a thing, people traded goods. It made sense to become skilled at making a single product. Building the same good over and over will allow it to be built faster and faster. For example, you could trade a chair you made for shoes. Eventually, you would be the best chair-builder in town and you’d be known for your skill. With each chair you’d make small tweaks to improve the design and make them more desirable to those you traded with.


For many centuries people became skilled craftspeople, however, there was a limitation to how many goods could be produced and how cheaply they could be sold for. Without factories, the only way to sell a product at a cheaper price was to create more of them or make them faster.


Enter the Industrial Revolution. A combination of factories and other technologies gave way to a new method of producing goods more quickly. Instead of one or two people producing dozens of products a month, factories could produce hundreds or thousands of goods in a short time period.


Once it became clear that mass-produced goods were the future, technologies developed quickly. Manufacturing methods and materials opened the floodgates to consumption. Products could be created faster, cheaper and companies could offer styles to meet consumer taste.


Wile factories improved production methods, marketers were focused on advertising to increase consumer spending. Marketers knew that if they pulled on the right heartstrings, people could be inspired to buy more or newer products.

Industrial Design Is Born

While it’s undeniable that marketing can sell products, it doesn’t necessarily improve the product being sold. After World War II, the maturation of mass-production and a booming economy gave way to the need for a new kind of skilled worker. This person would know about manufacturing, especially mass-production. They would have a keen eye for aesthetics and would study peoples’ habits and desires to create products that would be easier to sell. They became known as Industrial Designers.

What Is Industrial Design?

This video does a good job summing up what’s laid out above and goes on to discuss what we’ll get into below.

In the beginning, the Industrial Designer would optimize a product to make it more desirable. He might make a chair more beautiful, a washing machine easier to use or a record player cheaper to produce. Before computers, we had to rely on simple machines to automate processes. Before computers, Industrial Designers performed tasks that machines at the time could not do. They were in demand.

The Skills of an Industrial Designer

Traditional Skills

Before computers, Industrial Designers relied on analog skills to design products.


Sketching is a quick and easy way to explore many ideas. In order to be able to sketch competently and communicate form on flat sheets of paper. Once the sketches are evaluated, the designer will move forward with the most successful forms, often combining strengths from previous designs. This is usually repeated until the designer is confident he or she has reached an ideal design given the constraints of time or budget.


Drafting is the production of engineering blueprints. This used to be done by hand with pencil and paper. Typically, orthographic (right, left, top, and isometric) views are created. Orthographic drawings prioritize proportion, scale and accurate dimensions over photographic realism. Drawn without perspective, they serve as accurate directions for engineers to evaluate for production.


Prototyping is the act of producing models that look exactly like the finished product will. They can be done at a smaller scale than 1:1 to cut costs if the product will be quite large such is the case with vehicles or appliances. Prototypes allow designers to conduct research and evaluate models by recruiting various groups of consumers. Based on feedback from focus groups, the designers can improve the designs and increase the likelihood of product sales.


When mass-production facilities began pumping out plastic products by the truckload, designers would need to be familiar with technologies like blow-molding, rotational-molding, and injection-molding in order to optimize the designs for production. Cutting cost and increasing durability could impact the success of a product.

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Modern Skills

There’s still a place for traditional design skills. However, new tools pop up every year. Additionally, a highly-informed consumer base demands more of a modern-day product designer.

Ethnographic Research

Usually performed as immersive observations, a designer tries to draw inspiration from the following: Habits, preferences, ergonomics, culture, traditions, socioeconomic and demographic factors. Ethnographic Research should inform design decisions early in the conceptual stage.

Market/Competitive Analysis

Market or Competitive Analysis are when existing and competing products or solutions are mapped out on a chart to understand where the product being designed will lie within the field of competing products. If others exist like it, then designers can make adjustments to better position the product when it comes to market.

3D Modeling

3D Modeling is where a designer uses a software application to create a digital three-dimensional product that can capture more detail than a drawing might. These programs were originally just a digital version of 2D drafting. Now, they offer photo-realistic representations and can perform advanced calculations such as tolerances, material properties, finite-element-analysis, bill of material and more.

Digital Rapid Prototyping

Digital Prototyping is when a digital 3D model from a modeling application is sent to a machine that will use various technologies and techniques to produce a physical version of that digital model with a staggering level of precision. Rapid prototyping allows designers to 3D print models ranging from hours to a couple of days depending on the size, complexity and materials. These designs can be evaluated just like the physical models designers made by had 50 years ago. An added benefit is that the model-making process is largely automated, leaving the designer to use her skills elsewhere while models are made.

User Interface / User Experience

UI and UX for short, these two steps of the design process is where a designer considers how a person will interact with a digital product. Ever since computers have existed, they’ve been integrated into physical products. Generally, designers try to make interacting with computers as intuitive and natural as possible.


Packaging design is more than simply containing a new product. The packaging of a product is just one more component of the overall experience a product offers. With a heightened awareness of the implications of environmental waste, designers strive to reduce waste, which has influenced packaging design quite a bit over the past decade. 

Finally, I should mention that these are just some of the most common and foundational design skills expected of an Industrial Designer. As designers specialize and move into narrower niche markets, the practices, skills and tools often become more specialized as well.

The Educational Path to a Career in Industrial Design

Let’s take a look at the educational path of an Industrial Designer. While curricula may differ across schools, regions and countries, the traditional American Industrial Design path may vary depending on the exact degree. A B.F.A, or Bachelor of Fine Arts will unsurprisingly have a stronger fine arts foundation. A B.S., or Bachelor of Science degree will likely have more of an engineering or science and math background. 

Because of how much these programs can vary, I’m hesitant to list specific classes typically taught, but will rather focus on the skills taught and common content of an I.D. curricula.

Let’s put the skills into two categories, either soft or hard. Hard skills are often technical or mechanical in nature and can be learned by following specific laws, formulae or steps. For example, sketching, geometry, 3D modeling, physical prototyping and researching. Soft skills tend to be harder to teach, and have more to do with less tangible things such as empathy, divergent thinking and form aesthetics.

Unlike an education in math or science, a designer typically has to learn a combination of hard and soft skills and whether a design is successful or not can quickly become a highly-subjective topic. 

Often, the design education begins with a combination of design or art history, sketching and either a design studio or prototyping.

Primary Industrial Design Classroom Skills

Design History

Design history or art history is not vital, but certainly important for a modern designer to understand early on in his career. An awareness of trends, cultural influence on design and what products have been highly influential or successful helps build a designer’s intuition and vocabulary. Both become helpful in speaking with others about his designs and during collaboration.


Easily seen as the mortar of any design education, sketching is an expected skill of designers. Designers sketch to quickly capture and communicate ideas in a visual manner. This allows designers to communicate not only with each other but other non-creatives. The goal with design sketching is not to be photo-realistic or highly-refined, rather quick, descriptive and emotional. This helps a designer to communicate and sell an idea or concept quickly.

Physical Prototyping

Historically called model making, I’m choosing to call this physical prototyping. With the advent of digital tools such as 3D modeling and rapid prototyping, model making isn’t quite specific enough. A physical prototype is like the real-world three-dimensional version of a sketch, however, it depends on the purpose of the model. Some models are created quickly to test a concept and are meant to be a proof-of-concept. Others are supposed to be identical to the eventual product. These are used to validate designs before sinking money into manufacturing

Design Studio

Students combine the skills and apply the knowledge learned in other classes to create a successful product that addresses a real-world problem. The camaraderie often turns a studio into a proving ground. Studios might focus on a specific prompt or constraint to teach designers the value of working with real-world limitations. Projects created in design studios tend to become the content of portfolios and measure of a designer’s complete abilities.

Secondary Industrial Design Classroom Skills

No less important than the core skills listed above, the following skills tend to vary more across design programs and regions.


While it may not be the most popular or glamorous skill, research builds a strong foundation for a good design project. Studies reveal the problem or opportunity worth solving and who the target demographic is. Things such as cultural appropriateness, cost, deadlines, existing solutions, market research, ergonomics and trends are just some important facts to consider before designing any solutions. Nobody should waste her time heading in the wrong direction at the start of a project.

Graphic Design

Graphic Design is an important auxiliary skill for any designer. Whether creating user interface elements, considering color, logos, labels, proportions or presenting a product, being able to create aesthetically pleasing and effective graphical elements is important to making a design as enticing, attractive and useful as possible.

Presentation Skills

While many designers learn to communicate visually quite well, many suffer from lacking the ability to speak confidently and articulately about their ideas or products. Speaking to groups and presenting her ideas can put a designer in a very vulnerable position. Many programs offer presentation skills classes to help a designer craft both the visual and oral parts of a presentation.


When Industrial Design became an actual field and occupation, designing a product so it could be easily manufactured was a high priority. While it’s still important for physical products, we have entered a digital age where digital designers may not need to ever worry about or consider physical manufacturing processes. Recent technologies have enabled new methods of manufacture which can be cost-effective for small-to-medium production runs. New manufacturing technologies also give rise to new designs that wouldn’t be possible.

3D Modeling

So much design happens on the computer today, both for the convenience of working remotely and staying mobile as well as for production. Once a designer has narrowed the design direction down to a few leading candidates, she’ll create a 3D model using a CAD program (Computer-Aided-Design). This allows the designer to work out all the details and conveniently make revisions in a highly-visual manner. Engineers and production facilities can use these 3D models to offer more accurate quotes more quickly than ever.

Design School

Most designers attend a college for four years to earn a degree in Industrial Design. It’s quite common for design programs to require a certain amount of professional internships in order to graduate. Internships are undoubtedly the best way for a designer to learn real-world design skills and put his education to the test. Some schools offer graduate or even P.H.D. programs in design, though the number of designers who seek higher degrees in design are among a minority. Holding a higher degree in design doesn’t often necessarily result in a higher salary.

While this isn’t a comprehensive list, it should provide a good general overview of what it takes to become an Industrial Designer.

How To Be an industrial Designer

Should you choose to attend a design school and pursue a degree in industrial design, watch the video above for a glimpse of what to expect.

How Product Design Differs from Industrial Design

Let’s get this out of the way, many people freely use Industrial Design and Product Design interchangeably. I’m not here to tell anyone they shouldn’t or can’t do that. But since we’re taking a close look at Industrial Design as a whole, I think it’s important to consider how these fields differ. 

“As far as I can tell, Product Design is a slightly-more specific field under the broad umbrella of Industrial Design. They both draw upon the same skills and have the same goals.” 

Me, I said That.

I do think that the phrase Industrial Design feels both antiquated and misleading. Most often when I use that term, people take the word ‘industrial’ at face-value and begin thinking of cranes, bridges and architecture. Design, as we mentioned before is quite generic so… at best, this doesn’t do the field justice in my opinion. 

Product design has a bit more of a modern feel to it. Most people are familiar with products, so it’s easy for them to hear Product Design and think, oh, your job is to decide how this thing I own looks, which I’d say is just slightly more accurate than Industrial Design. Also, since we’re living in an increasingly digital world, (despite previous grudges I’ve had with Product Design including digital products) I would be remiss to exclude software products. Most physical products have a software or digital element to them anyway.

I think to most accurately and effectively speak about the occupation of an Industrial Designer, you should craft a short one-liner that describes what one actually does. For example, ‘Recreational Equipment Product Designer’, or ‘Luxury Transportation Interior Designer’, or ‘Product Design 3D Modeling and Rendering Expert’, should one feel comfortable boxing herself into such a niche.

How the Digital Age Has Changed Design

Some of you probably can’t imagine life before computers. Processors and graphical user interfaces have forever changed the things we own, use and create every day. With digital features replacing mechanical counterparts and touch-screens replacing buttons, a product’s function can change by simply loading new software. For example, an iPhone has become a modern Swiss Army Knife.

Digital Product

While physical products are sometimes just a substrate for software, we need to ask where the product ends and begins. Remove the software from a smart phone and it won’t work. It’s easy then to argue that the main features of a smart phone are digital. 

Like it or not, we’ve companies employ designers to design digital products. 

Digital Designers

Whether it’s an app, website, user interface or mixed media experience, designers can improve function through aesthetics and ease-of-use.

Digital Product Design Explained // How to Become a UX Designer || Crema

This video gathers insights from 4 different designers who discuss digital product design.

Using various techniques, designers solve problems while being sensitive to consumers’ preferences, behavior and manufacturability. 

Designing digital products share similarities with designing physical products but also require unique technical skills that differ greatly from those of an industrial designer. For example, a strong foundation in graphic design and typography is important for user interface design. As for manufacturability, a digital designer should know about software engineering, coding, internet architecture and how a digital product is created, hosted, served and maintained.

While a product designer can create digital products, often the road forks and tools become specialized enough to require a product designer to choose whether to pursue physical product design or digital product design.

Digital Tools

Where a design job ends and an engineering job begins is often gray area. Generally, it’s a designer’s job to solve a problem in an elegant way that’s both enjoyable and effective for the end user. Working closely with engineers, a designer can bring an idea to life leveraging the engineers technical know-how. The gray area between design and engineering varies greatly between companies, jobs, projects and fields.

When creating digital products, designers rely on digital tools to create graphics, wireframes, pictures, videos and other interactive media. There’s plenty of crossover in which physical and digital designers use some of the same tools and software to design and prototype ideas.

The Future of Industrial Design and Product Design

The fields of design have evolved greatly over the past century, but what does the future hold? Based on previous trends and observations, I think we can make some well-informed predictions. When successful products mature, their changes become more incremental and subtle. Ideally, this process eventually gives way to a product that is intuitive, unobtrusive and valuable.

As we continue to integrate the digital with the physical, I believe we’ll move away from physical products being simply a container for digital products. Our beliefs, emotions and personalities make us unique, but our physical body is more than a highly-refined container.

Ultimately I think design will create a much more elegant and complex relationship between hardware, software and wetware.


Hardware generally refers to any structural, physical product. As is the case with computers, hardware is a fancy container for interface or the software and computational features of a computer. Products have become more beautiful, comfortable, eco-friendly, lighter, stronger, and functional thanks to advances in technology, research and manufacturing methods. 

I think the future of hardware holds faster and cheaper manufacturing, eco-friendly solutions and less-obtrusive designs.


Software generally refers to a digital program that uses computer hardware to perform tasks faster and more accurately than people can. It’s also able to offer experiences that would otherwise be impossible. Software began as something fairly abstract and required a high competency in mathematics to use. Today, people can create programs and digital products without pursuing degrees in programming. 

I think the future of software lies in artificial intelligence, or A.I. This isn’t a new concept, but a program that can make better decisions and seek better solutions or ask smarter questions than humans will be of ultimate usefulness.

Some day, software will help us achieve what we truly want and will be like an advisor or personal assistant that is always a few steps ahead of the curve.  


Wetware, a term popularized by the cyberpunk culture refers to organic tissues and matter. Early machines were made of mechanical hardware. Now, we combine digital software with mechanical hardware to make robots. The next natural step is to combine organic matter with the latter to create more elegant solutions to problems.

While the subject of this video is slightly tangential to Industrial Design, I do think it offers a glimpse into the future of potential products.

While robots and machines are useful, they could potentially benefit by inheriting traits of animals or people. I think that eventually, we’ll find ways to merge hardware, software and wetware to create highly-refined solutions.

Regardless of your opinions or ethics, it’s safe to say that as long as we’re around, there will be a need to design better and more refined, elegant, unobtrusive, efficient and delightful solutions to enhance our lives as humans.

Career Advice for Those Considering I.D or P.D.

So, you’re still considering pursuing a career in Industrial Design or Product Design? Good for you! Having done this myself and observing changes to the fields, I’ve got some thoughts and advice to share.

Start With Why

Simon Sinek’s Book, Start With Why, examines the importance of understanding the purpose behind your actions and aspirations. He looks at how the most successful and influential people and companies all ether start with or understand their ‘why’ and he’ll teach you to do that too.

I believe it’s important to feel fulfilled when pursuing a creative career. Without that, it’s easy to find yourself asking whether what you’re doing is important. Often, happiness increases along with he feeling of contribution. It’s good to keep in mind why you’re pursing a career in design and what the greater purpose of your contribution is. 


Being able to mix your design skills with a special field of interest or serious hobby is a great way to begin carving a niche and working on projects you enjoy. Having external expertise is another way to build a competitive edge. Anything you can do to stand out against the crowd of other designers can contribute to your success.

Mix Digital with Physical

Mixing digital and physical (and maybe even organic) design skills will only help improve your designs’ relevancy and life expectancy. It’s clear that physical products aren’t disappearing anytime soon. If you can learn some basic programming skills to compliment traditional physical design skills, I think you’ll be much better positioned for a long career in design than if you simply stick with sketching and rendering your ideas.

So, is that it?

While much of this article is based on my opinions mixed with a decade of design experience my education and some basic research, I hope it’s both relevant and useful to a bunch of designers out there.

My goal when writing this wasn’t to convince you or push an agenda, rather than to inform and explore. The definition of industrial design and product design have felt ambiguous for as long as I’ve been part of them. I wanted to create a comprehensive resource that would answer many questions my former self had when I chose to become a designer. 

Will Gibbons
Will Gibbons is an industrial designer-turned rendering specialist. He's trained and worked with some of today's most recognizable brands and now is focused on creating the best product visualization content on the internet.
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