Careers and Job Ideas: Industrial Designers

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  • School Subjects: Art, Mathematics
  • Personal Skills: Artistic, Technical/scientific
  • Work Environment: Primarily indoors, Primarily one location
  • Minimum Education Level: Bachelor’s degree
  • Salary Range: $31,510 to $54,560 to $125,000
  • Certification or Licensing: None available
  • Outlook: About as fast as the average
  • DOT: 142
  • GOE: 01 04 02
  • NOC: 2252
  • O*NET-SOC: 27 1021 00


Industrial designers combine technical knowledge of materials, machines, and production with artistic talent to improve the appearance and function of machine-made products.There are approximately 49,000 industrial designers employed in the United States.


Although industrial design as a separate and unique profession did not develop in the United States until the 1920s, it has its origins in colonial America and the industrial revolution. When colonists were faced with having to make their own products rather than relying on imported goods, they learned to modify existing objects and create new ones. As the advent of the industrial revolution drew near, interest in machinery and industry increased.

One of the earliest examples of industrial design is found in Eli Whitney’s production of muskets In 1800, he promised to manufacture several thousand muskets for the government using the principles of standardization and interchangeable parts Designs and manufacturing processes for each musket part had to be created. This early example of industrial design involved not only designing an individual product but also the manufacturing processes and the production equipment.

The industrial revolution brought about the mass production of objects and increased machine manufacturing. As production capabilities grew, a group of entrepreneurs, inventors, and designers emerged. Together, these individuals determined products that could be mass-produced and figured out ways to manufacture them.

In the early 1900s, the number of products available to the public grew, as did the purchasing power of individuals. Manufacturers realized that in order to compete with imported goods and skilled craftspersons, they needed to offer a wide variety of products that were well designed and affordable. At that time, manufactured products were designed to be functional, utilitarian, and easily produced by machines. Little attention was paid to aesthetics. Product designs were copied from imported items, and there was little original design.

Consumers were growing increasingly dissatisfied with the products they were offered. They felt that machine-made goods were, in many cases, ugly and unattractive. Manufacturers did not initially respond to these complaints. For example, Henry Ford continued to manufacture only one style of car, the Model T, despite criticism that it looked like a tin can. Ford was unconcerned because he sold more cars than anyone else. When General Motors started selling its attractive Chevrolet in 1926, and it outsold the Ford, he finally recognized the importance of styling and design.

Advertising convincingly demonstrated the importance of design. Those products with artistic features sold better, and manufacturers realized that design did play an important role both in marketing and manufacturing. By 1927, manufacturers were hiring people solely to advise them on design features. Industrial design came to represent a new profession: The practice of using aesthetic design features to create manufactured goods that were economical, served a specific purpose, and satisfied the psychological needs of consumers. Most of the early industrial designers came from Europe until design schools were established in America.

Industrial design as a profession grew rapidly in the years from 1927 until World War II. Many of the early industrial designers established their own firms rather than working directly for a manufacturer. After the war, consumer goods proliferated, which helped the field continue to grow. Manufacturers paid more attention to style and design in an effort to make their products stand out in the marketplace. They began to hire in-house designers. Today, industrial designers play a significant role in both designing new products and determining which products may be successful in the marketplace.


Industrial designers are an integral part of the manufacturing process. They work on creating designs for new products and redesigning existing products. Before a product can be manufactured, a design must be created that specifies its form, function, and appearance. Industrial designers must pay attention to the purpose of the proposed product, anticipated use by consumers, economic factors affecting its design and manufacture, and material and safety requirements.

Industrial designers are usually part of a team that includes engineers, marketing specialists, production personnel, sales representatives, and sometimes, top manufacturing managers. Before the design process actually begins, market research or surveys may be conducted that analyze how well a product is performing, what its market share is, and how well competitors’ products are doing. Also, feasibility studies may be conducted to determine whether an existing design should be changed or a new product created to keep or gain market share.

Once a determination is made to create a new design, an industrial designer is assigned to the project. The designer reviews study results and meets with other design team members to develop a concept. The designer studies the features of the proposed product as well as the material requirements and manufacturing costs and requirements. Several designs are sketched and other team members are consulted.

Some designers still create sketches by hand, but most use design software that allows them to create sketches on a computer. Once a preliminary design is selected, designers work out all of the details. They calculate all of the measurements of each part of the design, identify specific components, select necessary materials, and choose colors and other visual elements. A detailed design is then submitted to engineers and other design team members for review.

In some cases, a model or prototype may be built; however, computer-aided design programs now allow engineers to test design features before this stage. Engineers test for performance, strength, durability, and other factors to ensure that a product actually per forms as planned and meets all safety and industrial standards. If any part of a product fails to meet test standards, the design is sent back to the industrial designer for revisions.

This process continues until the design passes all test stages. At this point, a model may be built of clay, foam, wood, or other materials to serve as a guide for production. In some cases, a prototype made of the actual materials and components will be built. The design, along with all computer data and any models and proto types, is turned over to the production department, which is then responsible for manufacturing it.

Industrial designers may also become involved in the marketing and advertising promotion of products. They may name the new product, design the product’s packaging, plan promotional campaigns or advertising strategies, and create artwork used for advertising.

Industrial designers may design the layout of franchised businesses, such as clothing stores or gas stations, so that they present a coordinated company image. This type of design can also include developing company symbols, trademarks, and logos.

Designers may work for a design firm or directly for a manufacturing company. They may freelance or set up their own consulting firms. Corporate designers may be part of a large team with designers at various locations. Computer networking allows several designers to work simultaneously on the same project. Using this approach, a designer creates one part of a design, for example, the electronic components, while another designer creates another part, such as the mechanical housing. A variation on the multi-designer approach schedules designers on different shifts to work on the same project.

Technology is changing the way industrial designers work. Computer-aided industrial design tools are revolutionizing the way products are designed and manufactured. These programs allow designers and engineers to test products during the design stage so that design flaws are identified before prototypes are built. Other programs allow product models to be tested online. Designs can be sent directly to machine tools that produce three-dimensional models. All of these advances decrease the time necessary to design a product, test it, and manufacture it.

Books to Read:

Ashby, Michael, and Kara Johnson. Materials and Design The Art and Science of Material Selection in Product Design. Oxford, U.K.: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2002.

Association of Women Industrial Designers. Goddess in the Details: Product De by Women. New York Association of Women Industrial Designers, 2006.

Fiell, Charlotte. Industrial Design A-Z. Los Angeles: Taschen Books, 2006.

Gorman, Carma, ed. The industrial Design Reader. New York: Allworth Press, 2003.

Industrial Designers Society of America. Design Secrets: Products: 50 Real-Life Product Design Projects. Gloucester, Mass.: Rockport Publishers, 2001.

Kirkham, Pat, ed. Women Designers in the USA, 1900-2000: Diversity and Divergence. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000.

Petroski, Henry. The Evolution of Useful Things. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

Williams, Pamela. How to Break Into Product Design. Cincinnati, Ohio: North Light Books, 1998.


High School

In high school, take as many art and computer classes as possible in addition to college preparatory classes in English, social studies, algebra, geometry, and science. Classes in mechanical drawing may be helpful, but drafting skills are being replaced by the ability to use computers to create graphics and manipulate objects. Science classes, such as physics and chemistry, are also becoming more important as industrial designers select materials and components for products and need to have a basic understanding of scientific principles. Shop classes, such as machine shop, metalworking, and woodworking, are also useful and provide training in using hand and machine tools.

Postsecondary Training

A bachelor’s degree in fine arts or industrial design is recommended, although some employers accept diplomas from art schools. Training is offered through art schools, art departments of colleges and universities, and technical colleges. Most bachelor’s degree programs require four or five years to complete. Some schools also offer a master’s degree, which requires two years of additional study. Often, art schools grant a diploma for three years of study in industrial design. Programs in industrial design are offered by approximately 45 schools accredited (or that are in the process of accreditation) by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design.

School programs vary; some emphasize engineering and technical work, while others emphasize art background. Certain basic courses are common to every school: two-dimensional design (color theory, spatial organization) and three-dimensional design (abstract sculpture, art structures). Students also have a great deal of studio practice; learning to make models of clay, plaster, wood, and other easily worked materials. Some schools even use metalworking machinery. Technically oriented schools generally require a course in basic engineering. Schools offering degree programs also require courses in English, history, science, and other basic subjects. Such courses as merchandising and business are important for anyone working in a field so closely connected with the consumer. Most schools also offer classes in computer-aided design and computer graphics. One of the most essential skills for success as an industrial designer is the ability to use design software.

Other Requirements

Industrial designers are creative, have artistic ability, and are able to work closely with others in a collaborative style. In general, designers do not crave fame or recognition because designing is a joint project involving the skills of many people. In most cases, industrial designers remain anonymous and behind the scenes. Successful designers can accept criticism and differences of opinion and be open to new ideas.


An excellent way to uncover an aptitude for design and to gain practical experience in using computers is to take a computer graphics course through an art school, high school continuing education program, technical school, or community college. Some community colleges allow high school students to enroll in classes if no comparable course is offered at the high school level. If no formal training is available, teach yourself how to use a popular graphics software package.

Summer or part-time employment in an industrial design office is a good way to learn more about the profession and what industrial designers do. Another option is to work in an advertising agency or for a market research firm. Although these companies most likely won’t have an industrial designer on staff, they will provide exposure to how to study consumer trends and plan marketing promotions.

Pursue hobbies such as sculpting, ceramics, jewelry making, woodworking, and sketching to develop creative and artistic abilities. Reading about industrial design can also be very beneficial. Publications such as Design News ( contain many interesting and informative articles that describe different design products and report on current trends. This magazine can be found at many public libraries. Read books on the history of industrial design to learn about interesting case studies on the development of specific products.


Approximately 49,000 industrial designers are employed in the United States. Industrial designers work in all areas of industry. Some specialize in consumer products, such as household appliances, home entertainment items, personal computers, clothing, jewelry, and car stereos. Others work in designing automobiles, electronic devices, airplanes, biomedical products, medical equipment, measuring instruments, or office equipment. Most designers specialize in a specific area of manufacturing and work on only a few types of products.


Most employers prefer to hire someone who has a degree or diploma from a college, art school, or technical school. Persons with engineering, architectural, or other scientific backgrounds also have a good chance at entry-level jobs, especially if they have artistic and creative talent. When interviewing for a job, a designer should be prepared to present a portfolio of work.

Job openings may be listed through a college career services office or in classified ads in newspapers or trade magazines. Qualified beginners may also apply directly to companies that hire industrial designers. Several directories listing industrial design firms can be found in most public libraries. In addition, lists of industrial design firms appear periodically in magazines such as Business Week and Engineering News-Record. Also, a new industrial designer can get a free copy of Getting An Industrial Design Job at the Web site of the Industrial Designers Society of America (


Entry-level industrial designers usually begin as assistants to other designers. They do routine work and hold little responsibility for design changes. With experience and the necessary qualifications, the designer may be promoted to a higher-ranking position with major responsibility for design. Experienced designers may be promoted to project managers or move into supervisory positions. Supervisory positions may include overseeing and coordinating the work of several designers, including freelancers and industrial designers at outside agencies. Some senior designers are given a free hand in designing products. With experience, established reputation, and financial backing, some industrial designers decide to open their own consulting firms.


According to the Industrial Designers Society of America, the aver age starting salary for industrial designers is $36,000. Designers with five years’ experience earn an average of $58,000 a year. Senior designers with 10 years’ experience earn $73,000. Industrial designers with 19 years or more of experience earn average salaries of $125,000. Managers who direct design departments in large companies earn substantially more. Owners or partners of consulting firms have fluctuating incomes, depending on their business for the year.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, industrial designers earned a median annual salary of $54,560 in 2006. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $31,510 annually, and the top 10 percent earned more than $92,970.


Industrial designers enjoy generally pleasant work conditions. In many companies, the atmosphere is relaxed and casual. Most designers spend a significant amount of time at either a computer workstation or drawing board. Most industrial designers work at least 40 hours a week, with overtime frequently required. There is a lot of pressure to speed up the design/development process and get products to market as soon as possible. For some designers, this can mean regularly working 10 to 20 hours or more of overtime a week. Working on weekends and into the evening can be required to run a special computer program or to work on a project with a tight deadline. Designers who freelance, or work for themselves, set their own hours but may work more than 40 hours a week in order to meet the needs of their clients.


Employment of industrial designers is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). This favorable outlook is based on the need to improve product quality and safety, to design new products for the global marketplace, and to design high-tech products in consumer electronics, medicine, and transportation. The DOL predicts that designers who combine business expertise with an educational background in engineering and computer-aided design will have the best employment prospects.

Despite the demand for industrial designers, many companies prefer to outsource a significant amount of their work. This is a growing trend within the industry that may make it more difficult for a beginning worker to find an entry-level job. In addition, this is a profession that is somewhat controlled by the economic climate. It thrives in times of prosperity and declines in periods of recession.


For information on opportunities for women in industrial design, contact

Association of Women Industrial Designers

Old Chelsea Station

PO Box 468

New York, NY 10011


For information on careers, educational programs, and a free copy of Getting an Industrial Design Job, contact:

Industrial Designers Society of America

45195 Business Court, Suite 250

Dulles, VA 20166-6717

Tel: 703-707-6000


For information on accredited design schools, contact:

National Association of Schools of Art and Design

11250 Roger Bacon Drive, Suite 21

Reston, VA 20190-5248

Tel: 703-437-0700

Email: .


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