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What is the Difference between a Degree in Product Design and Industrial Design?

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The definition and differentiation of industrial design and product design are debated, confused and sometimes vary given the context in which they are used. People often use the terms interchangeably.

Product Design

The Strate School of Design in Paris, France, defines product design as the design process that is divided into many different phases, which include various forms of sketching and prototyping. The idea generally starts with a problem people may experience. It is the designer’s task to present a solution through the design or redesign of a particular product. It is about establishing a link between the user and the environment, using an object to address a need.

There are of numerous famous product design examples such as the Coca-Cola bottle, the iPod, or the Vespa. Aside from those, one can find many other innovative examples such as the Dyson Pure Cool Link, an air purifier. Product designers gave life to these products through sketching and drawing. They also use 3D modeling and computer-aided industrial design software during the creation process.

Industrial Design

Industrial Design is the professional practice of designing products used by millions of people around the world every day. Industrial designers not only focus on the appearance of a product, but also on how it functions. They consider the manufacturing process, as well as the value and experience it provides for users. Products evolved from their utilitarian persona to aesthetically appealing. From furniture to electronics, designers married function with appearance. This boosts sales, which boosts production, which increases the flow of revenue into the manufacturer. A win-win for all parties involved.

In the final stages of the design process, industrial designers will work with mechanical engineers, material scientists, manufacturers, and branding strategists to bring their ideas to life through production, fulfillment and marketing.

Education

You may find an undergraduate degree in product design within the school’s engineering department. This type of program teaches a design process that encourages creativity, craftsmanship, personal expression, and aesthetics. The coursework provides students with the skills necessary to carry projects from initial concept to the completion of working prototypes.

When a Bachelor of Science in Product Design program is associated with the Mechanical Engineering department, the core curriculum will adhere to applicable subjects. Examples are Mechanical Systems Design, Manufacturing Technology, Engineering Drawing, Mechanics of Materials, and Product Design Methods. Obviously, this program views product design as being a close relative of engineering. You need to understand the mechanics to create the product. However, not all products require an understanding of how it works.

An undergraduate degree in Industrial Design stresses design more than the manufacturing process. The coursework typically reinforces this emphasis. For this reason, some schools house their degree within their College of Architecture and Design. Because of the mutual and overlapping bonds of Architecture, Interior Architecture, and Industrial Design, the programs might share a common first-semester curriculum.

Here is a short list of courses in an industrial design Bachelor of Science program:

  • Design History
  • Computer Aided Industrial Design
  • Visual Communication
  • Industrial Design Studio
  • General Physics

Industrial design education prepares students to design systems and tangible artifacts including, consumer and recreational products, business and industrial products, medical and computer equipment, and transportation and environments. Both generalist and specialist, industrial designers tend to be part artist, part entrepreneur, and part engineer.

Commonalities

Both of these professions have one thing in common: design. However, the consensus among universities is to favor industrial design. If you Google bachelor’s degree in product design, industrial design will populate your choices. The few product design programs offered do share the commonality of including courses in design drawing, designer’s tools, design process, and computer-assisted design (CAD).

Therefore, despite subtle differences, the most important aspect of the curriculum appears to be coursework related to design. Examples are:

  • Design Fundamentals: Theory and practice in Industrial Design including an introduction to the process, methodology, ergonomics, research tools, and user research. The focus is on CAD and digital prototyping.
  • Sketch & Model: Study of visual representation techniques that empower designers of products, services, and systems through sketching, model making, computer-assisted drawing, rapid prototyping, and other methods.
  • 3D Modeling: This course introduces 3D modeling methods for solid and surface modeling in CAD software. Students create multi-component assembly drawings and explore product-rendering techniques.
  • Smart Product Design: This course introduces smart product design including the basics of sensor technologies, electronics, and programming required to produce working prototypes.

Employment

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not recognize the occupation of a product designer. The BLS does report the median salary for industrial designers at $65,970 (May 2017) with a Bachelor’s degree. Unfortunately, this is not a growth area of employment. The projected employment change through 2026 is 4%, which is below average. This represents a change in only 1,800 positions over ten years.

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