What is Product Design?

tubbies concept
"Tubbies" concept drawing.

The products everyone uses had to be designed by someone, somewhere.

With the exception of some high profile individuals, designers tend not to get much recognition for their work. A painter or sculptor gets to sign the finished piece, the product designer doesn't. A few individuals have emulated fashion designers and branded themselves, but you'd struggle to have someone on the street recognise the brand let alone its creations. "Designer labelling" has been exploited and abused in the past by marketing minded types to woo the easily woo-able into paying a lot more for nothing special, some jaded individuals might even view "designer labeling" with a hint of disdain.

The role of the product designer in the creation of a product is variable. Some products are the designers brainchild. Here the designer is essentially in the role of inventor and creator, the designer is given a "problem statement" by the client and asked to solve it. Other projects involve revision of an existing concept, the designer's job is to give the product a "fresh look". Designers can be financially invested in a project to varying degrees: In some cases the design consultant is paid a fixed fee to develop a concept to a certain stage then has no further involvement. Elsewhere the designer may be negotiate a royalty and make sweet moolah on a successful seller. Early in their careers, designers may be coaxed to provide concepts to a potential employer "on spec" this is where the client requests artwork/concepts in advance for the promise of future work. Considering the time and effort (not to mention intellectual property) put into this process by the designer - with no guarantee of reward - it should always be resisted.

tubbies retail
"Tubbies" retail unit.

A product designer's skill-set can also be hugely variable. Some focus on visual aspects and have well developed drawing and aesthetic talent, creating new and exciting forms. Others are model makers who create detailed working prototypes to test concepts and tell the story in three dimensions. Others still conceptualise novel mechanisms and generate new approaches to solving problems. Many have a combination of all skills. All designers must have the ability to observe and gauge the market; to anticipate the consumer, to see what the trends are and to have a "feel" for future trends.

A designer also has a well developed understanding of how people use things. Products engage all the senses. It is the designer's role to ensure the product always delivers a positive user experience; safe, intuitive and uncomplicated.

Product designers bridge a gap between creative and corporate, with a foot in each camp. They create a translation layer between corporate drives and consumer desires. When applied to the function of a product, this translation process makes the science and technology inside modern devices accessible and often enjoyable to the non-technical user. With no translation of product form we would be surrounded by drab and unfriendly "black boxes" that fail to excite and fail to differentiate themselves from one another. Designers help inject a bit more humanity, art and fun into the world of stuff.

Product Design / Industrial Design?

where STUFF comes from

I tend to use the terms Product Design and Industrial Design interchangeably, some say they are vastly differing fields that should never be confused! I don't mind either term though "Industrial Designer" sounds tougher, like you might actually get your hands dirty.

For a more thorough approach to this subject read:

Where STUFF Comes From by Harvey Molotch


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