What You Need to Know About Industrial Design

Jan 06, 2016

Image of a young designer working on a new car design - Industrial Design | EverythingCareers.com

You may have heard the term industrial design before and wondered what it meant, or assumed it was related to the design of “industrial” factory machines and equipment. 
We’re all familiar with the concept of graphic designers, web designers, and even floral designers, but because industrial designers are responsible for designing such a wide range of products, it’s not always as easy to identify exactly what they do. The fact is, even if you can’t name any industrial designers (and you will be able to after reading this!), you are already intimately familiar with the products they create.

What Does an Industrial Designer Do?

Industrial designers use creativity and technical skills to develop concepts for the manufactured products that we use every day. They design much of your life, from items in your home like furniture, appliances, and toys as well as the cars in your driveway, to the devices you rely on daily such as your cell phone and shoes. The Industrial Designers Society of America defines industrial design as “the professional service of creating products and systems that optimize function, value, and appearance for the mutual benefit of user and manufacturer.” By combining art, engineering, and business, they bridge the gap between ideas and consumer-ready products.

Industrial designers sketch ideas by hand and with computer software, create models, and test their designs. They use three-dimensional computer-aided software to transform their 2D designs into models with the help of 3D printers. They may also use computer-aided industrial design (CAID) software to create specific machine-readable instructions that tell other machines exactly how to build the product.

What is the Industrial Design Process Like?

What would your day look like as an industrial designer? Much of that depends on whether you work for a design firm, as a designer in a company, or as a freelance designer, and of course at what stage of the design process a product is currently in. This handy infographic by designer Dan Curtiss details the industrial design process.

Infographic Explaining Industrial Design Process

The first step will be to consult with clients to determine their design requirements and needs. Next is to research the ways the product will be used and it users. From there you’ll begin to sketch and create renderings, either by hand or using design software to develop models, before rapid prototyping, where you will fabricate physical models. Then, you will examine the cost of materials and manufacturing and evaluate the product for safety, appearance, and function. Finally, you’ll present the designs and prototypes to your clients, get their feedback, and revise from there. 

What are Some Famous Products Created by Industrial Designers?

Here’s a small sampling of products conceived by industrial designers that you likely know of, thanks to their iconic design, influence, and ubiquity.

Dyson Vacuums

Dyson Vacuums example of Industrial Design | EverythingCareer

Sir James Dyson worked for years and produced more than 5,000 prototypes before he successfully created a vacuum that used centrifugal force instead of bags. In 1993 he set up Dyson Ltd., and set to work making DCO1 Dual Cyclone, the first vacuum cleaner to maintain 100% suction 100% of the time. It became the top selling vacuum in Britain within two years and the company has since revolutionized the way consumers think about purchasing appliances.


All-in-one iMac 1998 - Industrial Design Example

Apple’s Chief Design Officer Sir Jonathan Ive is often called the world’s most celebrated industrial designer. He is credited with designing the original all-in-one iMac computer. The release of the iMac in 1998 ushered in the reinvention of Apple and paved the way for Ive’s future designs—the MacBook, iPod, iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch.


Dave Hampton and Caleb Chung's Furby Toy | EverythingCareers.com

Dave Hampton and Caleb Chung spent nine months designing Furby before it made its first appearance at a toy fair in 1998. It was the first major successful attempt to create a robotic toy that could be trained and learn to respond to human interaction. The toy retailed for $35, but resale prices grew to more than $100 that Christmas thanks to high demand. 27 million were sold in the year following its launch, making Furby one of the most popular toys of the 1990s. 

The Egg  

Egg Design Chair explains industrial design that have become famous | EverythingCareers.com

Designer Arne Jacobsen is a revered part of design history and is largely responsible for how we view Scandinavian design. In 1958 he designed the iconic Egg chair for the lobby of the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen, Denmark. Inspired by the furniture of Charles and Ray Eames, Jacobsen’s chair combined ergonomics, a streamlined form, and state-of-the-art materials. The chair’s design has since surpassed its function—original examples have sold for more than $50,000 at auctions. 

Mazda MX-5 Miata

Tom Matano's design of Mazda Miata, Industrial Design | EverythingCareers.com

The Miata is considered a landmark in automotive history as well as the guidepost for Mazda’s engineering philosophy. It was designed by Tom Matano who held design positions at General Motors, Holden, and BMW before joining Mazda, and is currently the Executive Director of the School of Industrial Design at Academy of Art University. When it was released in 1989, Motor Trend called it “the best sports car buy in America” and the Los Angeles Times has called it the “direct forbearer to every compact sports roadster of today.”

Where Can You Study Industrial Design?

The Industrial Design Society of America publishes a full directory of schools with industrial design programs in the United States and includes which schools are accredited by the National Association of Schools of Art & Design (NASAD). Rankings to keep in mind as you consider schools are the annual ones published by Red Dot, a prestigious global organization dedicated to advancing product design.

2015 School Rankings for best design Schools | EverythingCareers.com

Of the five schools in the United States that make the top fifteen, three are located in California: ArtCenter College of Design, Academy of Art University, and California College of the Arts. Most industrial design positions require a bachelor’s degree, but often the strength of your portfolio and internships experience are the deciding factors as to whether you will secure an entry-level job.

What’s the Career Outlook for Aspiring Designers?

The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment of industrial designers is expected to grow 2% from 2014 to 2024. In 2015 the median pay for industrial designers was $67,130, with the lowest 10% earning less than $37,630 and the highest 10% earning more than $104,730. The employment of designers who design precision instruments and medical equipment is likely to continue to grow, and prospects are best for designers with a strong background working with CAD and CAID software.

As of 2013 there were 1,579 industrial design businesses in the United States with a total annual payroll of approximately 1.4 billion, according to the NEA’s Valuing the Art of Industrial Design report. California and Michigan employ the most industrial designers, thanks to the large automobile presence in each state, followed closely by Rhode Island, where industrial designers make up a large share of the smaller state’s workforce. Overall, industrial designers have great job mobility and the prospects for getting a job after completing a program of study are promising.

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