If you’re someone that often spends time thinking about the form and function of the everyday object you use, you might love industrial design. Industrial design is a career built of creativity, ingenuity, and thoughtfulness. Sound like something you love? Let’s take a look.
We actually have several industrial designers on the Tuft + Paw team, so we're very familiar with this topic and we wanted to shed some light on the career. Here's what we're going to learn in this guide:
- What is industrial design, how it began, and why it's important
- Notable and famous industrial designers
- What does a career in industrial design look like
- Best industrial design schools
- How to build a proper industrial design portfolio
- Average salaries for industrial designers
What most people don’t realize is that almost every object you use day to day has been touched by a design team. From the car you drive to the latest kitchen gadget, most of your home objects have been meticulously designed with you, the user, in mind.
Industrial design as a career requires the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It requires out of the box thinking as well as a knowledge of functionality and engineering. Industrial design jobs tend to be full of this type of variety.
Industrial designers never have a dull moment in the field and there are always opportunities to learn and specialize. Designing a product takes teamwork, after all.
Let’s dig in a little deeper into the industrial design field and find out exactly what it is and if the career path is right for you.
What is Industrial Design?
Industrial design is the practice of creating products, from design to functionality, to be mass produced and used worldwide.
Not only do industrial designers create the look of the product, but they also assess how it functions for individual users and how the object should be manufactured. Ultimately, industrial designers see the creation of an object from conception to mockup to finished product. Industrial designers can also be referred to as product designers, or product engineers depending on their specialty.
Of course, between conception and production is a variety of different industrial design jobs, and many industrial designers will be working with a team of people to bring an object to life. Industrial design teams can be comprised of engineers, user experience (UX) designers, brand experts, graphic designers and manufacturers. The team works together to create and produce a product that fulfils the needs of a user.
How Industrial Design Began
There’s some debate about when industrial design started. Industrial design, as we think of it, probably started in the early 1900s. Before that, industrial mass production began in the late 1700s when factories began to spring up across Europe.
Before mass production, most products were hand-crafted by owners themselves, or outsourced to someone who specialized in the creation of an object, like carpenters and blacksmiths. When the industrial revolution hit in the mid-1800s, things changed in America.
In America, the immigration boom of the late-1800s called for a high demand of goods to be produced quickly and cheaply. At this point nobody was thinking about the design and functionality of the good, just that they needed to be made. It was only with the rise of consumption culture in the roaring 20s that allowed for “design” to take place.
Industrial designers started designing cars, trains, and electrical appliances. As artists became more interested in the relationship between technology and art more modernist designs of household appliances, furniture, and clothing began to take place.
Today, industrial designers create a wide range of products. From your favorite brand of shoes, to the notable look of your iPhone, industrial designers have conceptualized and created the objects you use every day.
Why Industrial Design is Important:
Industrial design is all about innovation. It’s about creating "The Next Big Thing" with skill, thought and understanding about what consumers need. Industrial designers are constantly pushing the envelope and driving trends with their design.
The importance of industrial design stretches across several disciplines. Industrial designers have influenced artists, architects, manufacturers, scientists and programmers. Because industrial designers work so closely with other disciplines, it’s only natural that an exchange of skills and knowledge has taken place. Industrial designers don’t just build, they create.
Because of this exchange of information, industrial design has become very important for four different ideas: sustainability, accessibility, functionality, and progress.
Products that maximize efficiency are becoming more important in green-thinking consumers. More companies are “going green” or adding green alternatives to their product lines. These alternatives are often created by industrial designers.
Industrial designers are paving the way for eco-friendly products. Industrial designers consider materials, efficiency, and durability for any given product. When creating products, industrial designers can recommend a recycled material and calculate the carbon footprint of a product.
Along with other team members, industrial designers are creating innovative designs that are eco-friendly, ensuring a better future for the planet.
It’s extremely important for products to be experienced by all, that’s why products must be designed to be functional and accessible for those with disabilities. Industrial designers often step into the shoes of another in order to understand a consumer’s needs.
When designing for accessibility, size, shape and the mobility of the user are all considered. Companies are now paying closer attention to accessibility to make sure their products can be used by all. Ensuring that disabled users have equal access to products is part of the job of an industrial designer.
It’s not only important for industrial designers to consider the look of an object, they must also consider the functionality. Today’s consumers want products that reach beyond their expectations. Industrial designers must think of innovative ways include bells and whistles that impress consumers.
A good example of how functionality has become increasingly important is the cell phone. Cell phones have evolved rapidly in the last decade. The functionality of a cell phone has changed from phone calls, to text messages, to social media. Industrial designers are part of the team that has made these changes.
Industrial designers consistently push the boundaries of form and function. They are quick thinkers, innovators and creatives. As new technology and new materials are developed, industrial designers must be the first to learn and innovate with them.
Technology is currently a front runner when it comes to design. Industrial designers are now programmers, web developers and graphic designers. New technology is being adopted by industrial designers to create the best products. As these new fields grow, industrial designers won’t be too far behind.
Notable Industrial Designers
Jonathan Ive is the Chief Design Officer at Apple. During his time at Apple he has designed products such as the iMac, iPod, iPhone and iPad. Using new tools, materials, and production processes, Ive has fundamentally changed the day to day lives of people world wide.
Before Apple, Ive designed everything from powertools to televisions. In 1992, Apple offered him a job to design the iMac. Ive has been with Apple ever since. Ive serves as a shining example of the collaboration between art and technology.
Lillian Moller Gilbreth
Known as “a genius in the art of living” Gilbreth created the modern kitchen as we know it. Using her degree in psychology, Gilbreth spent her early life as a consultant in efficiency for manufacturers and then later on used her passion for efficiency to help women.
Gilbreth was a natural problem solver and she recreated office equipment, household appliances and even hospitals. She was constantly creating new designs in order to make workers’ lives easier.
Her most well-known inventions include the step trash can, the shelves in the refrigerator doors, and improvements on the electric can opener and wash water hose for washing machines.
She worked for General Electric and improved the designs of sinks, stoves, and other kitchen fixtures.
Sir James Dyson is known for his innovative vacuum cleaner designs and fan designs. His most known inventions are the Dual Cyclone bagless vacuum and the bladeless fan.
Dyson began as an artist studying painting and later on switched to furniture and interior design. His passion led him to incorporating engineering with design, making objects that were useful, functional, and beautifully made.
Dyson has created the most efficient household items of his time. Dyson is passionate about minimizing energy usage, reducing harmful emissions, and creating opportunities for more diversity in design and engineering.
Breuer was a Hungarian born furniture designer. He was part of the Bauhaus school of design, which wished to marry functional design with fine art. Bauhaus was full of architects, artists, and furniture designers with a passion for fine arts.
Breuer’s most recognizable design is his Wassily chair. The entirety of its frame was created by bending tubular steel, creating a highly modern design. This aesthetic transferred to everyday household objects.
Anybody that knows Nintendo knows that it has a specific aesthetic that’s vastly different than other gaming systems. The man behind Nintendo’s design is Kenichiro Ashida.
Ashida created the innovative design of the Nintendo Wii and the Gamecube. Two of the most recognizable gaming consoles. He also pushed boundaries even further with the introduction of motion-control gaming.
From the consoles to the controllers, Ashida created a gaming aesthetic unlike any other.
Starck is a European industrial designer focusing on furniture and decoration. He created the industrial design company Ubik. Through industrial design, Starck sought to reduce the cost and improve the quality of mass produced goods.
Starck has designed everything from lighting coverings, to juice squeezers, to entire buildings. He is one of the most versatile industrial designers working today.
His focus is also on ecology and sustainability. Those two ideas drive his ideas forward and show the importance sustainability will have in the future of design.
Dieter Rams is the inventor of the 10 Principles of Good Design.
Chief design officer for Braun until his retirement, Rams designed record players, radios, and cameras, among other products. He is most known for his principles of design, which are used by design companies around the world. Rams believes in functionality, usefulness, and innovation in his designs.
His electronic gadgets made Braun a common household brand, commended for their aesthetic and user-friendly functions.
Belle Kogan is considered one of the first female industrial designers in the United States. She opened her own New York office in 1932 named Belle Kogan Associates.
Kogan is known for her houseware design, specifically with the Quaker Silver Company, who hired her to design pewter and silver objects. She was also one of the first designers to experiment with plastics.
Kogan believed the tastes of women were being largely ignored by manufacturers. She designed for women and reflected what American women desired in their products.
Zeisel’s designs include plates, bowls, butter dishes, candle holders, salt and pepper shakers among other designs. Zeisel’s designs are known for their incredible form. Her style tends to be rounded and smooth.
Lloyd Groff Copeman
Copeman created many of the household appliances and tools we use today. Sometimes known as a “forgotten inventor,” Copeman is one of the most important industrial designers.
Copeman invented the electric stove, rubber ice cube tray and the automatic electric toaster. His designs were functional and user friendly, greatly improving the lives of the average consumer.
His company Copeman Electric Stove Company set up base in Flint, Michigan. After recruiting stakeholders, Copeman was able to bring his ideas to life.
What is a Career in Industrial Design?
There are many different career tracks within industrial design. Some industrial designers become product designers, others work more in research and development. There’s much more flexibility in industrial design than in other fields. In industrial design, people come from several different degrees and may change tracks several times throughout their career. An industrial designer that starts out in product design may find themselves as an art director later on in life.
The important thing to remember is that there are no clear paths into industrial design. You’ll find that designers come from several different backgrounds including art, programming, architecture, and engineering. Unfortunately the biggest challenge is getting your name out there, which usually requires designing a successful product - so you should focus 100% of your early days on taking on projects that have potential to get your name out there. You only need one flagship product to start landing bigger projects - employers and clients want to see that you've done it before.
Industrial designers spend their work day researching, developing and working with other team members. This work is not for solo workers, as it takes several people to complete a project. Industrial designers may find themselves pitching ideas as well as giving presentations. They must have good communication skills as well as artistic skill.
Master’s degrees are common in the field of industrial design. Many designers major in engineering, art, or architecture before pursuing a degree in industrial design specifically. Industrial designers will also need a portfolio before applying for work.
How to Start Your Career in Industrial Design
As said before, there are several paths into industrial design. We’ll take a look at the steps taken in order to enter into the field of industrial design.
Best Industrial Design Schools:
In no order, here are 10 of the best industrial design schools in the country. Some offer both bachelor’s and master’s degrees, some only offer one. Some offer degrees specifically in industrial design, others might offer degrees in product design. Either program should put you on the path towards a career in industrial design.
“Drawing on its historic contribution to responsible, human-centered design, Industrial Design (or ID) teaches students to use critical thinking and the design process itself to bring new value to companies, communities and citizens. Professors with expertise in a wide range of areas guide students in researching user experiences to create well-conceived and executed objects, products and systems that make everyday tasks easier.”
“Our curriculum acknowledges that no product exists in isolation—it is always part of a larger system that includes people, communications, and the broader environment. Students develop a deep understanding of the ways products shape and inform human behavior, and learn to design products and their interactions within the context of human needs.”
“Our methodology, Strategic Innovation, takes a forward looking systems-level view and strives to balance the business, technological and human aspects of each design opportunity. This broadly applicable creative process produces empathetic solutions to essential human needs so that designers and enterprises can be resilient and grow.”
“At CCA you’ll gain a greater awareness of how the practice of industrial design affects the physical, social, economic, and political worlds… You’ll connect with firms that work on projects that enhance education, health care, renewable energy, and sustainability. Inside our creative and interdisciplinary environment, we have all types of designers and encourage a wide range of aesthetic styles.”
“The mission of the Industrial Design Department at Pratt is to educate students to be able take their place in the world and influence it positively, joining a group of intelligent, powerful, and insightful people who can move society in a more creative and responsible direction. We are united in the rigorous pursuit of creativity and translating ideas into form, in a studio environment that promotes individual and group learning.”
“Industrial designers shape our world, from games and gadgets, to bicycles and boats, to highchairs and helmets. As a student at SCAD, you'll get hands-on experience bringing your ideas to reality, carrying on our great tradition of developing world-class designers.”
“Industrial design involves the integration of form and function as products are designed and created by combining materials, process, computer-aided design, and human factors. Blending technical instruction with studio assignments, studies also include package, exhibit, and furniture design. Aesthetic sensitivity, technical competence, and analytical thought are developed and applied to meet the challenge of designing products for human needs.”
“The ID course of undergraduate study is an intensive program emphasizing the development of form that is derived from patterns of use, requirements for function, constraints imposed by industrial manufacturing and aesthetics driven by social context.”
“The Product Design program at Drexel University prepares students to become intelligent designers through extensive learning in an applied studio setting where skill development and design thinking take place. We offer a 4 year Bachelor of Science degree in Product Design specializing in a multidisciplinary design approach focused on product development and commercialization. We also encourage collaboration through entrepreneurship, sustainability and innovation in product development.”
“The practice of industrial design at The Ohio State University includes applying a sophisticated level of design thinking and design research approaches to the planning and development of design ideas for objects, services and systems that support human needs. These may include consumer appliances, tools, business machines, furniture, medical equipment, architectural products and transportation devices, to name a few.”
Industrial Design Portfolios:
Besides a degree in design, industrial designers will also need a great portfolio for applications (here are some good examples). An industrial design portfolio should highlight the designer’s best projects and showcase a number of hard skills such as research, sketching, and final product photos. Let’s look at five tips for a great industrial design portfolio:
1. Quality Not Quantity
Don’t stuff as many projects as possible into your portfolio. The truth is, there are probably a few projects that aren’t your best back in the early days of your design career. That’s fine! Leave off the so-so projects and save room for your best work.
2. Show Projects
Interviewers want to see completed projects from start to finish, not just snippets. If you have projects that you helped see through, showcase those in your portfolios. Describe your role in the project and give context to your design.
3. Tell a Story
Your portfolio should tell a story about who you are as a designer. It should highlight your strengths and your desired career in design. Be sure to layer your portfolio with the hard skills needed for industrial design, but also the skills most important for the type of career you want in industrial design.
4. Show Your Process
The great thing about showing projects is you can the chance to show your process. Companies love to see potential candidates’ design processes. It helps them understand how you’ll work with the current team and also how you think and problem solve on your own.
5. Choose Great Images
The visual aspect of your design portfolio is the most important part. Choose beautiful, professional images of your designs. Avoid using screenshots or any other poor quality photos. If you can show the 3D model of a final design, do so.
Industrial Design Salaries
Industrial designers earn a median salary of 56k per year. Lower salaries are closer to 39k, with the higher average being 85k. Of course, salaries also depend on location, skills, and career level. Below we’ll look closer at how your salary may change by skill level.
Job Growth in Industrial Design
The field of industrial design is predicted to grow 4-5% in the next decade. This is slightly lower than the average growth rate in the United States. There are currently close to 40k industrial design jobs. That means an average of 2,000 jobs are predicted to be added in the next decade.
Industrial designers are people who are always ready to tackle the next big problem and they aren’t afraid to innovate and push boundaries with their designs. If your passion is in creative and useful design, then industrial design might be the perfect career for you. Ready to join the ranks of the greats? The time to start is now.
Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments. Make sure to check out our guide on becoming an interior designer if you're still looking for ideas.