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Product Designer

Product designers are involved in developing new products and improving existing ones - everything from mobile phones and microwaves to motorbikes and machinery. As well as designing the items we use in everyday life, they also work on specialist products, such as medical, electronic and industrial equipment.

Product designers use a combination of design skills, knowledge of engineering and materials, and an understanding of commercial factors to design how products work and look, and to ensure they can be produced profitably.

Responsibilities vary, but are likely to involve:

  • meeting clients or colleagues to discuss the design brief
  • researching similar products and market and consumer trends
  • helping choose suitable materials, such as textiles, metals and plastics
  • developing ideas and making sketches by hand or computer.

Product designers usually work normal office hours, but may have to work extra hours as deadlines approach. Freelance and contract work are common.

The work environment is usually a clean, bright studio, office or workshop.

Junior product designers in their first post may earn between around £14,000 and £20,000 a year, while senior product designers and account directors can earn up to £65,000 a year, potentially more.

A product designer should have:

  • a creative approach to problem solving
  • an eye for shape and colour
  • understanding of different materials and production methods
  • technical, practical and scientific knowledge
  • the ability to research what customers look for in a product
  • the ability to use drawings, 3D models and computer designs
  • an interest in how things look and work.

Product designers work in a huge range of different manufacturing sectors. New entrants may face strong competition for their first job, but demand for experienced designers with a thorough understanding of technology is high.

Most product designers have a degree, foundation degree or Higher National Certificate/Diploma (HNC/D). Students can take engineering-based product design courses that focus more on the technological aspects of design or art-based product design courses.

The Diplomas in manufacturing and product design, creative and media or engineering or BTEC qualifications in art and design or 3D design could all be useful starting points.

Product designers working in consultancies or in-house design teams may progress to senior designer or creative director roles. With experience, it may be possible to move into project management, marketing or business development, which involves client account management, and then possibly to director or partner level.

What is the work like?

Product designers are involved in developing new products and improving existing ones - everything from mobile phones and microwaves to motorbikes and machinery. As well as designing the items we use in everyday life, they also work on specialist products, such as medical, electronic and industrial equipment.

Product designers use a combination of design skills, knowledge of engineering and materials, and an understanding of commercial factors to design how products work and look and to ensure they can be produced profitably.

During the design phase, they consider:

  • who will buy the product and how they will use it
  • how to make the product easy and safe to use
  • how to make the product visually attractive to the target audience
  • what materials to use
  • how to make the product reliable
  • how to make the product cost effective and environmentally friendly to produce.

Responsibilities vary, but are likely to involve:

  • meeting clients or colleagues to discuss the design brief
  • researching similar products and market and consumer trends
  • helping to choose suitable materials, such as textiles, metals and plastics
  • developing ideas and making sketches by hand or computer
  • using specialist computer design packages to produce detailed drawings for shortlisted ideas
  • ordering or making samples or working models
  • testing the design
  • modifying designs based on feedback from colleagues and clients.

At all stages, product designers need to retain control over budgets and make sure deadlines are met. They work closely with engineers, model makers and sales and marketing staff. As well as designing products, they may also get involved in meetings, client presentations and pitches for new business.

Hours and environment

Product designers usually work normal office hours, but may have to work extra hours as deadlines approach. Freelance and contract work are common. Part-time opportunities may be available, too.

The work environment is usually a clean, bright studio, office or workshop. Some workshops may be located near the production area (where items are made), so designers can liaise with those involved in the manufacturing process.

Freelance designers or those working for design companies may visit clients at their own sites, so a driving licence can be useful. Those working for companies that design products for foreign markets may travel overseas.

Salary and other benefits

These figures are only a guide, as actual rates of pay vary depending on the employer and where people live.

  • Junior product designers in their first post may earn between around £14,000 and £20,000 a year.
  • More experienced product designers may earn around £20,000 to £40,000 a year.
  • Senior product designers and account directors can earn up to £65,000 a year, potentially more.

Freelance designers charge a daily rate or a price for the whole project.

Skills and personal qualities

A product designer should have:

  • a creative approach to problem solving
  • an eye for shape and colour
  • understanding of different materials and production methods
  • technical, practical and scientific knowledge
  • the ability to research what customers look for in a product
  • the ability to use drawings, 3D models and computer designs to express creative ideas
  • planning and project management skills, including preparing and managing budgets and managing time effectively
  • excellent communication skills
  • the ability to produce clear, concise written reports
  • a teamworking attitude for sharing ideas with colleagues.

Interests

It is important to be interested in:

  • how people choose and use products
  • how things look and work.

Getting in

Product designers work in a huge range of different manufacturing sectors. Employers include manufacturing companies, where product designers work in in-house design teams and design consultancies, which offer product design to different clients. Self-employment and contract work are quite common after designers have built up experience and a portfolio of work.

While there are opportunities throughout the UK, design consultancies tend to be concentrated in London and the south-east. There are also opportunities to work overseas.

New entrants may face strong competition for their first job, but demand for experienced designers with a thorough understanding of technology is high. There is a growing need for multiskilled designers.

Job vacancies may be advertised in magazines such Design Week, by design bodies such as British Design Innovation, and in specialist industrial or manufacturing publications. Specialist recruitment agencies in the design and engineering sectors also advertise jobs.

Entry routes

Most product designers have a degree, foundation degree or Higher National Certificate/Diploma (HNC/D), usually in product design. Many other general design and engineering courses offer a product design element.

Students can take engineering-based product design courses that focus more on the technological aspects of design or art-based product design courses. At some universities, it is possible to start a general product design degree before choosing between the two. Also look at Design Engineer on this site for information on the engineering route into this type of work.

Applicants for degree courses usually need a portfolio of design work, plus at least two A levels and five GCSEs (A*-C), or equivalent qualifications. Students taking the art and design route usually complete a one-year general art foundation course before starting their degree to help develop their portfolio. This may not be necessary for applicants with a vocational qualification in art and design. It is important to check entry requirements with individual universities and colleges.

Degrees are usually three or four years full time. Some colleges offer sandwich courses with an extra year on work placement.

Admissions tutors may relax entry requirements for candidates with a strong portfolio of work, and/or practical work experience in areas such as engineering or architecture.

  • For BTEC HND courses, applicants need one A level and three or four GCSEs (A*-C), or equivalent qualifications.
  • Foundation degrees - requirements vary, but tend to be three GCSEs (A*-C) and one A level, or equivalent.
  • There are also postgraduate courses in specialist areas of product design, which could provide a route in for people with degrees in other design disciplines.

BTEC certificates, awards and diplomas in art and design and 3D design, and the Diplomas in manufacturing and product design, creative and media or engineering could be useful starting points.

Training

Once in a job, new entrants are usually trained on-the-job under the guidance of an experienced colleague. They may also attend short courses on topics such as computer-aided design (CAD).

The Design Business Association, British Design Innovation and the Centre for Sustainable Design offer relevant courses.

Getting on

Product designers working in consultancies or in-house design teams may progress to senior designer or creative director roles. It may be possible to move into project management, marketing or business development, which involves client account management, and then possibly to director or partner level.

Taking a postgraduate qualification in project management or a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) may help people aiming at management jobs.

Once experienced, product designers can work on a freelance or contract basis.

Further information

British Design Innovation, 9 Pavilion Parade, Brighton BN2 1RA. 01273 621378. Website: www.britishdesigninnovation.org

The Centre for Sustainable Design, University for the Creative Arts, Falkner Road, Farnham GU9 7DS. 01252 892772. Website: www.cfsd.org.uk

Chartered Society of Designers (CSD), 1 Cedar Court, Royal Oak Yard, Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3GA. 020 7357 8088. Website: www.csd.org.uk

The Design Business Association, 35-39 Old Street, London EC1V 9HX. 020 7251 9229. Website: www.dba.org.uk

Design Council, 34 Bow Street, London WC2E 7DL. 020 7420 5200. Website: www.designcouncil.org.uk

The Institution of Engineering Designers (IED), Courtleigh, Westbury Leigh Westbury BA13 3TA. 01373 82280. Website: www.ied.org.uk

 Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v1.0.

 

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