If you are keen to design and improve the usability of everyday items, you should consider a career in industrial/product design

As a product designer, you'll create a range of items, from everyday products, such as mobile phones, household appliances and cars; to larger items, such as industrial tools, equipment and machinery.

You might work on new products or improve existing ones, and use your understanding of technology, materials and manufacturing methods to improve the design and usability of an item. The work involves:

  • designing
  • modelling
  • producing prototypes
  • testing.

Working alongside engineers and model-makers, you will conduct research and devise a design proposal for projects. You may need to work on the budget of the designed item to make sure it's cost effective.

Responsibilities

As a product designer, you'll be busy juggling different projects, but tasks usually include:

  • meeting with clients to establish the design brief, including the concept, performance and production criteria
  • working on ideas as part of a team or developing design concepts using CAD (computer-aided design)
  • taking part in specialist or multidisciplinary team meetings
  • sketching initial design ideas
  • identifying the suitability and availability of materials
  • producing detailed, final hand drawings and specifications or, more likely, using dedicated computer software (CAD) to produce design specifications, including parts lists and costings
  • making samples or working models by hand or using computerised prototyping equipment
  • testing the design concept by computerised modelling or physical hands-on testing of models
  • researching materials, processes or market requirements
  • arranging meetings and liaising with engineers and other departments, including marketing, to discuss and negotiate appropriate production processes, costs and commercial issues
  • occasionally travelling to clients' production facilities and evaluating the feasibility of production
  • making presentations to senior design management or clients, either when bidding for a contract or to present design proposals.

In addition to the above, if you choose to work as a freelance designer, you'll need to complete all the necessary administration associated with self-employment.

Salary

  • Junior designers can expect salaries in the region of £20,000 to £25,000.
  • Designers with significant experience in the role, including team leaders, can make £25,000 to £45,000 a year.
  • Senior product designers can earn up to £60,000 and sometimes more.

Salary levels vary according to the size and type of employer. Salaries in London are likely to be higher.

Contracting tends to pay higher salaries but depends upon your reputation and client-base, meaning it usually comes later in a designer's career.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours are typically 9am to 5.30pm but the role requires a flexible attitude as extra hours may be needed in order to meet deadlines or to resolve design difficulties. The additional hours will not normally include weekends or shifts.

What to expect

  • Your working environment is likely to be a shared studio/office and PC workstation. This may be situated in close proximity to the shop-floor production area to facilitate close liaison with production engineers.
  • Self-employment or freelance work is quite common but normally occurs after you have developed a track record of relevant industrial experience and a network of contacts and potential clients.
  • Although the industry welcomes more female entrants, there are still fewer women than men in the profession. Set up to encourage more women into the sector is WISE (Women into Science, Technology and Engineering).
  • While jobs are available in all parts of the UK, most design consultancies are concentrated in London and the South East. Point-of-sale manufacturers are concentrated in the East Midlands.
  • The dress code is normally relaxed and informal, reflecting the work environment. However, smarter business dress may be appropriate when meeting with potential new clients, negotiating new contracts or delivering product presentations.
  • Travel within a working day, absence from home overnight and overseas work may be needed occasionally.

Qualifications

Most product designers have a degree, foundation degree or HND in a related subject such as product design. Any courses that offer a design element as part of general design or technology studies, would also be relevant.

In addition to product design, the following degree and HND subjects may be useful:

  • industrial design
  • spatial design
  • 3D design.

Courses that include a relevant placement year or those with significant practical design content are particularly helpful. You'll be required to show a portfolio of your design work when applying for jobs so anything that helps to build this up will be useful.

Entry without a degree or HND is extremely unlikely.

A Masters degree or other postgraduate qualification might be an advantage in certain sectors, especially when working with European customers and competitors. Search for postgraduate courses in product design.

Skills

You will need to have:

  • a high degree of technical knowledge balanced with creative ability and a hands-on approach
  • visual and spatial awareness
  • commercial awareness
  • computer literacy including three-dimensional conceptual ability and CAD (computer-aided design)
  • knowledge of industrial processes, techniques and standards
  • communication and customer service skills
  • the ability to cope with the pressure of deadlines
  • a willingness to build and maintain positive working relationships and to share information with others
  • determination to achieve an end result, and optimism and enthusiasm when things don't go to plan.

International mobility may be required when working for multinational manufacturers and may influence promotion prospects, as will foreign language ability.

Work experience

Pre-entry experience is highly desirable. Experience gained through an industrial placement, freelance work, design competitions, exhibitions or a specific project will give you a distinct advantage.

Be proactive from early on in your course by gaining experience and developing contacts in the industry. Consider becoming a student member of relevant professional organisations to help expand your contacts and keep up to date with developments in the industry, see the Chartered Society of Designers (CSD).

Get your portfolio checked by a design professional. Ensure that it has evidence of the breadth of your work and any specialist interests, and that it shows how your design ideas were conceived and developed.

For access to information about a range of design careers take a look at Creative Choices.

Employers

You could work in-house for manufacturing or service companies, or work on your own as a self-employed freelancer. Equally, you might be based in a design consultancy, working on a range of client projects.

If you work in-house, it will probably be for a large industrial and domestic product manufacturing company, which is likely to have multidisciplinary teams working on new product development. Among these are multinational companies producing household-name products.

Some manufacturers, including the larger ones, seek designs from outside their organisation, giving rise to opportunities if you are in a design consultancy or working as a freelance designer.

Design consultancies may be large or small, specialised or more general in nature, and may work on designs for a range of products for organisations such as:

  • car manufacturers
  • industrial and domestic product manufacturers
  • point-of-sale designers
  • retailers.

Opportunities within small and medium-sized companies in collaboration with a university are provided by Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP).

Look for job vacancies at:

Professional development

Your training will be mainly on the job, in areas such as computer-aided design (CAD) and product knowledge. Throughout your career, you'll be required to enhance your expertise through in-service training to acquire specialist knowledge of equipment and software.

External short courses are available, in a number of relevant topics, with organisations such as the Chartered Society of Designers (CSD). The courses relate to the different stages of a designer's career and match up to the membership categories that are available with the CSD.

Training is also available in professional business practice areas, such as:

  • effective negotiating skills
  • project management
  • time management.

Continuing professional development (CPD) is very important and organisations such as the CSD support this. As well as completing training and courses, which can supply CPD credits, it is also worth your while to read industry press and keep up with developments in the field. To help with this, see:

You may wish to complete a postgraduate qualification. Studying for an MBA (Master of Business Administration) or a postgraduate course in project management might be supported by some employers as a vehicle for suitable candidates to develop enhanced management skills and knowledge.

Various management training and professional development courses are now available. Management skills are required for progression to design management and project management level appointments. Relevant professional courses in presentation skills and design effectiveness, as well as professional practice courses at various levels are offered by the Design Business Association (DBA).

Career prospects

It is possible to progress to the role of senior designer, although this is more likely in larger organisations. In particular, large automotive and consumer product manufacturers may offer this post if they have major design departments and a variety of specialised roles.

Depending upon the type of experience gained and your personal interests, progression from senior designer is sometimes possible to higher positions, such as creative director, or to a management role, such as new business director or project manager.

You may find opportunities in smaller consultancies and organisations are limited. In which case, progression is more likely through movement between employers or even between related fields of design, as opportunities arise.

Professional qualifications, specialist knowledge and breadth of experience will become more important as you climb the promotional ladder.

There is a significant demand for experienced designers, especially those with experience in a niche area and with a technological background.

You may have to relocate, nationally or internationally, to take advantage of opportunities for promotion within larger multinational organisations. Some designers achieve promotion by moving to non-UK companies, particularly in the USA.

It's possible, with significant experience and established contacts, to set up in freelance work.