Product designers improve the usability of everyday items by creating new designs and enhancing existing ones

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.

Using your understanding of technology, materials and manufacturing methods, you’ll improve the design and usability of an item. This may involve working on new products or improving existing ones.

You could also be known as an industrial designer.

Types of product design work

The design process involves four key stages:

  • designing
  • modelling
  • prototyping
  • testing.

Responsibilities

As a product designer, you'll need to:

  • meet with clients to establish the design brief, including concept, performance and production criteria
  • work on ideas as part of a team or developing design concepts using computer-aided design (CAD), being mindful of the client's budget
  • take part in specialist or multidisciplinary team meetings
  • sketch initial design ideas
  • identify the suitability and availability of materials
  • produce detailed, final hand drawings and specifications or, more likely, using dedicated computer software (CAD) to produce design specifications, including parts lists and costings
  • make samples or working models by hand or by using computerised prototyping equipment
  • test the design concept by computerised modelling or physical hands-on testing of models
  • research materials, processes or market requirements
  • arrange meetings and liaise with engineers and other departments, including marketing, to discuss and negotiate appropriate production processes, costs and commercial issues
  • occasionally travel to clients' production facilities to evaluate the feasibility of production
  • make presentations to senior design management or clients, either when bidding for a contract or to present design proposals
  • carry out administrative duties, if you work as a freelance designer.

Salary

  • Starting salaries for product or junior designers are £25,000 to £35,000.
  • Product designers with five to ten years' experience, including team leaders, can earn £35,000 to £45,000.
  • Senior product designers can earn £50,000 to £80,000. The top end of the scale may be earned by a creative partner or director position.

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

Your working hours will typically be 9am to 5.30pm, but there may be times when extra hours are necessary 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.
  • It’s quite common to work in a self-employed capacity in this career, often in the form of freelancing. However, this is normally only possible 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.
  • 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 postgraduate courses in product design.

Skills

You'll 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
  • 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
  • the flexibility to travel abroad for work - this may be required if you work for a multinational manufacturer
  • foreign language ability - could be desirable when working for an international firm.

Work experience

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

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

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.

Find out more about the different kinds of work experience and internships that are available.

Employers

You could work in-house for a manufacturing or service company or be based within a design consultancy, working on a range of client projects. Another common option is to work freelance.

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're 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:

University careers services and academic departments also advertise opportunities.

Professional development

Your training will be mainly on the job, in areas such as 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, delivered by organisations such as 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. It's also important to read industry press and keep up with developments in the field. The following organisations can help with this:

Studying at postgraduate level can develop your management skills and may be supported by your employer. Search postgraduate courses in business administration.

Relevant professional courses in a range of design management subjects are offered by the Design Business Association (DBA).

Career prospects

Progression to the role of senior designer is the usual next step, although opportunities in smaller consultancies and organisations are often limited. In which case, progression is more likely through movement between employers or even between related fields of design, as opportunities arise.

Depending upon your personal interests and the type of experience you’ve gained, you may be able to progress from the position of senior designer to creative director. Or, to a higher management role, such as that of new business director or project manager.

There is significant demand for experienced designers, especially those with experience in a niche area and with a technological background. Being able to relocate, either within the UK or overseas can enhance your promotion prospects.

With significant experience and established contacts, you could set up as a freelancer or even establish your own product design company.

Find out how Timea became a creative technologist at BBC Bitesize.

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