Industrial design: What it is and what industrial designers do

For every one of your favorite products, you probably have an industrial designer to thank.

3D product concept of an electric kettle

For every one of your favorite products, you probably have an industrial designer to thank. Take Jonathan Ive, the former chief design officer at Apple who was behind the development of some of the world’s favorite electronics, like the iPhone and the iPad. Or James Dyson, who invented the eponymous home appliance brand that includes widely celebrated vacuum cleaners, hand dryers, and fans.

Industrial designers don’t only have a hand in creating the electronic appliances that global consumers adore. Charles and Ray Eames, for example, developed modern, functional, and beautifully simple furniture — most famously, lounge and dining chairs — that are as beloved today as they were when the married couple designed the items in the mid–20th century. Walter Dorwin Teague, who launched the still-operating Teague design firm in 1926, helped invent iconic products such as the Polaroid camera, and even the Pringles canister.

So, you get the point: Industrial designers play a large role in shaping our world. But what exactly does the industrial design field involve? Here’s some background.

What is industrial design?

Industrial design is the professional practice of developing manufactured products, devices, and services with special attention to form and function. Industrial designers typically research how consumers might use a specific product, and then work with other professionals — such as engineers and marketers (more on that below) — to create the concepts and designs for the inventions.

Industrial designers generally specialize in one product category, such as automobiles, furniture, or household appliances. They focus on everything from the functionality and manufacturability of a product to whether it fulfills the target consumer’s needs and expectations.

History of the industrial design field.

The rise of industrial design can be traced back to the mid–18th century during Great Britain’s industrial revolution. The first use of the term “industrial design” has been attributed to a description on how draftsmen prepared patterns for silk manufacture.

The growth of industrialization caused a transition toward mass-produced products for larger consumer populations. The first design schools in the United States began to pop up between the late 1800s and the mid-1900s. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that industrial design was recognized as a vital profession within profitable industries. This change in perception was largely driven by the emergence of consumer electronics, as well as the broadening of global competition sparked by international trade.

The specifics of what exactly an industrial designer does have shifted over time. While industrial design students used to be trained primarily in areas of art and design related to a product’s appearance and function, today industrial design studios also tackle the business-oriented aspects of product design and development, such as material costs and corporate branding. As of 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics counted more than 43,000 employed industrial designers in the United States, with the highest concentrations per capita in Michigan and California.

What do industrial designers do?

Industrial design encompasses the development of all kinds of manufactured products — from cars, home appliances, and medical equipment to electronics and toys. However, most industrial designers have specific areas of focus. For example, some create computers or smartphones, while others develop the concepts for new consumer products, such as sports gear or furniture.

Regardless of which products they develop, the responsibilities of an industrial designer typically include:

  • Conducting consumer research to imagine how a product will be used
  • Sketching out or creating blueprints for a number of ideas
  • Using 3D software to develop 3D renderings of various designs
  • Determining if a design is practical based on product safety, appearance, and function
  • Working with specialists to examine materials, calculate production costs, and determine manufacturing requirements
  • Presenting designs and prototypes to clients for approval using 3D printing and augmented reality (AR)
  • Using problem-solving methods to create a quality everyday product that will be used by consumers in the real world

The kinds of tools industrial designers use.

In the ideation — or concept — phase of a project, industrial designers will sketch, render, or create 3D models, and then test those prototypes to find the best possible solutions to a user’s needs. The main goal for industrial designers in this stage is to understand how a product will work, look, and be manufactured.

During this process, industrial designers use 3D design software as a major tool for creating sketches and making changes to their ideas. Industrial designers who work for manufacturers may also use 3D software to create specific instructions on how to build the product once it is approved.

The types of people industrial designers work with.

In the final stages of the design process, industrial designers will work with mechanical engineers, material scientists, manufacturers, and branding strategists to bring the approved product design to life.

Industrial designers exercise creativity and resourcefulness to design everyday products they hope will be widely used — but to do so, they must be highly collaborative. The profession commonly involves working as part of large teams made up of strategists, engineers, user interface (UI) designers, user experience (UX) designers, project managers, branding experts, graphic designers, and manufacturers. This multidisciplinary approach allows industrial designers to fully understand a problem and craft a skillful solution that responds to the specific needs of a user. Some of the most famous industrial design agencies include IDEO, Frog, and Teague.