Difference Between Product Design and Industrial Design

What is the difference?

Product design and industrial design, is there a difference? The answer is yes, and no; it depends on whom you ask. My answer is yes since industrial design is a subset of product design. Product design encompasses all the disciplines associated with entirely developing a product. Industrial design is primarily associated with those tasks pertaining to the end-user, such as ease of use, product appearance, product branding, and ergonomics. Functional products can be manufactured and sold without industrial design input, but the opposite is not valid. Industrial design education focuses on esoteric aspects of products that are not necessarily related to product function, cost, or ease of manufacturing. If we take a deeper look into each of these disciplines, we will appreciate the significant differences between industrial design and product design. Let’s begin by examining the industrial design profession.

Industrial Design: A Brief Retrospective

The industrial design profession evolved from an academic movement in the latter part of the industrial revolution during the first decade of the twentieth century. This movement originated in Germany and was referred to as the Bauhaus, or “Building House” movement, which Walter Gropius originated. It migrated to the United States in the mid-1930s, being popularized by a small group of highly energetic, self-promoting, entrepreneurial commercial artists, including Raymond Lowery, Walter Darwin Teague, and Henry Dreyfuss. Although these industrial design pioneers had their own unique and persuasive personalities, they shared similar perceptions about designing products. These shared beliefs were based on sales appeal, styling, appearance, marketing, and user comfort. Since the United States economy was plunged into the Great Depression, many companies were looking to improve sales and survive this crisis. These new ideas were appealing and worked, giving birth to what is now called industrial design. Since its unofficial emergence as a profession, industrial design has been deeply rooted in the visual arts. Industrial design colleges have traditionally attracted young artisans and craftsmen seeking a career in the commercial sector. Historically, their education focused on the arts with a smattering of technical curriculums, including materials science and basic mechanics. Therefore, most industrial designers enter the workforce with little to no practical knowledge of engineering or manufacturing. Their skillset is concentrated on the end-user versus product function factors.


The Industrial Design Perspective

Today, more than 400 colleges within the United States offer industrial design as a major. The curriculums vary greatly amongst all these institutions. Some curriculums lean toward a pragmatic engineering focus, others concentrate on styling and appearance, and some focus on human factors, thinking, and conceptual development. However, all these colleges still maintain the traditional principles of industrial design, which focus on the end-user versus product functionality. Therefore, graduates are inclined to approach a product design project differently from an engineer or product designer. Let’s examine a few examples to understand this difference better, starting with an electric handheld drill. An industrial designer will question the weight, balance, overall size, and product use. Other considerations might include a range of drill sizes, power, storage, ease of changing drills, cordless vs. power cord, overall product image and brand, graphics, color, and end-user. These factors could drive the design direction based on their priority. For example, the priorities might include alternatives to retaining drill bits, alternative handle grips, or improved button designs. A product designer is interested in these parameters plus product cost, motor torque curves, materials for manufacture, drop test performance, heat dissipation, safety, and regulatory requirements. The product designer’s responsibilities include the entire product as a functional mass-produced item that will comply with marketing, manufacturing, and financial needs.

The Importance of Industrial Design for Product Design

A second example is an internal personal computer printed circuit board. Most PCBs are manufactured only to perform a function. So why would a PCB manufacturer include industrial design as part of the overall product development program? The answer is product differentiation and product branding. Some PCB manufacturers have gained a competitive market edge by differentiating themselves from their competitors by designing their PCBs with attention to aesthetics, style, and branding. This trend has become especially popular for high-performance video cards and motherboards. Companies like Nvidia and Intel have strategically branded their purely functional devices to maintain a distinctive market presence. Our last example is a line of common household kitchen utensils. We overlook thousands of commodity products like this simply because they have been around so long and are so plentiful. Eventually, the market becomes so saturated with many copycat competitors that prices plummet, and profits become razor-thin. Industrial designers have resurrected stale markets and products by reinventing them with fresh new designs based on new materials and technologies. Oxo, for example, has reinvented dozens of kitchen utensils by improving the appearance, ergonomics, and ease of use. They have carefully studied how these products are used, identified opportunities, and redesigned them with an identifiable brand. Creative use of rubber grips, bright colors and simple elegant designs have skyrocketed the Oxo name and brand to the top of this market.

It should be noted that industrial designers are not necessarily required to understand all the technical facts associated with engineering or manufacturing. Most actually have a limited or moderate grasp of these areas of expertise. Their primary contribution is creating designs that are focused on the user and the market. This perspective influences their priorities and objectives in a very different order than that of an engineer whose primary focus is product function. Great designs and highly successful products are typically precipitated from the synergy of these two professions.

Product Design

On the other hand, product design is the all-inclusive result of many design and engineering disciplines working together as a team. Product design includes all the resources required to design a fully functional product that can be cost-effectively manufactured, is highly reliable, safe to use, and appeals to the end-user. The range of disciplines, expertise, complexity, and cost of development can range from a few thousand dollars to hundreds of millions, depending upon the product. Great product designs represent a homogeneous integration of art and engineering without boundaries throughout the product architecture.

Product design projects are usually based on a primary technology and a number of other secondary technologies as well as a long list of specifications. The primary technology can include sophisticated optics, chemical assays, precision motion controls, and sophisticated software. These products include an attractive enclosure and structure to support all the internal components in most situations. Industrial designers usually focus on the external enclosure that embodies the product and the user interface, while engineers focus on all the functional product features.

Fully integrated design projects are planned based on well-coordinated development teams that constantly communicate. Effective design teams are comprised of highly talented individuals without any political agenda. Their primary focus is on attaining their objectives and achieving quality solutions. Successful product designs are honest, elegant, minimalistic, and beautifully detailed. Attention to detail at every level of product development yields clean, lean, and highly reliable designs that become revered classics.

Product Design and Industrial Design – The Push-Pull Effect

Industrial design solutions are often based on modern manufacturing, materials, electronics, or other technology-driven resources. The appearance, size, and user interface have experienced significant changes in the past fifty years. A product’s appearance and, most often, the concept can be traced back to one or more technological trends. One can readily appreciate this claim by examining a few of the thousands of products surrounding us. These include phones, TVs, automobiles, watches, furniture, lighting, and even product packaging. Forty years ago, industrial designers were constantly trying to minimize the bulkiness of computer CRT displays. Although numerous creative design solutions were devised, every monitor ended up in a bulky enclosure. It wasn’t until the price of flat-screen displays dropped, and the performance soared that the entire display concept vanished into almost paper-thin displays. The previous example portrays the pull of industrial design by technological factors associated with product design. Product design can also be pushed by industrial design, as demonstrated by Apple’s product line. Apple has been known to push the limits of technology to achieve a specific look or product image. In other words, a product vision created by industrial designers influenced the engineering team to develop new technologies to achieve the desired aesthetics specified by industrial designers. The latter requires a significant commitment by upper management due to the higher risk and costs associated with developing new technologies.

Product Design, Industrial Design, and the Product

Although product design is much more complicated and comprehensive than industrial design, the two fields can overlap or blend for specific products. Industrial designers with electrical engineering, software, or plastics engineering experience could completely design a product from concept to production. These individuals are rare, but the results of their work can be exceptional. These products include furniture, dinnerware, lighting, and hundreds of relatively simple electronic devices. More complicated products such as cell phones, digital cameras, or medical devices typically require a team of scientists, programmers, and engineers to develop the product ultimately.

Closing Remarks

The difference between product design and industrial design should now be evident. Although the industrial design is a subset of product design, it represents a critical phase in product development. Industrial designers humanize products by focusing on the end-user and imparting features into the design that engineers typically overlook. Although some industrial designers are skilled enough to design products from concept to production, most usually work within a larger development team. Product designs are improved when a talented group of industrial designers contributes their perspectives and insight throughout development. These contributions can be realized in increased sales, increased profits, higher customer satisfaction, and more significant market share.