Every item people touch, every item people use on a daily basis, every product on a store's shelves, they all have something in common. Someone had to design them before they made it to market or to consumers. There are several steps involved in designing a product and getting it into a consumer's hands. Product design is also referred to as industrial design.
A designer is involved in all three stages of product design: analysis of an idea or problem, defining the product's concept, and, finally, synthesis of the product concept, turning the concept into reality. In the analysis phase, the designer works to determine whether they can find a solution to a problem or can update an existing product. The concept stage is when designers work to create objectives to solve that problem within a set of specific parameters. In the synthesis stage, designers brainstorm solutions that fit within previously identified parameters and select the best ideas. They then build prototypes and improve on those prototypes to bring forth a finished product.
Individuals interested in completing degree programs or certificates in product or industrial design will take a variety of classes. The exact number varies, depending on a student's goal (degree or certificate), but courses often include the study of topics like drawing, art history (including history of design), visualization and several studio courses.
These degree and certificate programs often examine how individuals use items that become indispensable in daily life. Courses introduce the prototyping process and design methods. Students spend time in design labs to create products and learn how computers can be used in product design. Many degree programs require students to create items in a capstone course.
Product design is, in some programs, a specialization itself. In some cases, students can specialize in multiple areas, although not every specialization is available at every school. For instance, some degree programs include specializations like vehicle design. There are master's degrees that focus on the analysis and concept stages of product design as well.
While students are exploring the field of product design, they'll need to decide what level of education to pursue to achieve their career goals. Product or industrial design degrees are available at multiple levels.
Associate degree programs in product or industrial design give individuals opportunities to learn about their chosen career and complete coursework that can be applied to study in bachelor's degree programs. Associate programs do not typically lead to entry-level positions.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that product or industrial designers must have a bachelor's degree for entry-level positions. These 4-year degree programs are often available as Bachelor of Fine Arts or Bachelor of Science degree programs, which differ, typically, in the number of mathematics and science or language and art courses required.
For individuals seeking jobs that require a master's degree, like teaching, there are 2-year degree programs that focus on product development. These advanced degrees will appeal to students focusing on a specific area of product design (like vehicle or furniture, etc.) or who want to start teaching at the college level.
A doctoral degree (Ph.D) is appropriate for individuals interested in the research behind product development. A Ph.D program often focuses on specific areas of research like methods of design, design strategy or interaction design.
Beyond the four degrees above, students can also pursue professional certificates in product design. These typically take a semester or two to complete and are less than 20 credit hours.
Ideal Candidates for Product Design
Product design professionals enjoy creating new items to solve problems. They often create product sketches by hand or using computer aided drafting (CAD) programs after collaborating with clients. These professionals pay close attention to detail and are comfortable speaking with groups or individuals and incorporating client-initiated changes. They are comfortable working indoors and spending quite a bit of time at a computer. Individuals who don't mind these conditions and who possess the previously discussed personality traits would make good product designers.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts a rate of growth slower than most industries: just four percent between 2012 and 2022. Although the hiring of new product designers may be slow, established product designers may have some luck gaining advanced positions in their firms, moving into jobs like chief designer or design department head.
In May 2012, the BLS noted that the median annual wage for product designers was $59,160. While the lowest paid 10 percent earned an average of $34,610 annually, the highest paid 10 percent earned as much as $94,000. A product designer's earnings is dependent on multiple factors, including experience, economy and location. In this career path, the median annual pay was $24,860 higher than the average for all occupations overall in 2012. For self-employed designers or freelancers, pay can vary dramatically, depending on demand, location and skill.
If you're looking for more information about product design as a career, professional or member organizations and trade magazines may be of some help. Another possible source of information could be a currently-enrolled product design or industrial design student; they can provide insight into what their programs are like, what they've learned, and how their studies have impacted their career prospects. All this guidance will help you gain the perspective needed to determine if product design is the right, long term career for you.