Commercial or Industrial Designer
Combine knowledge of art, business, and engineering to design everyday products including vehicles, appliances, furniture, toys, and housewares.
Commercial and industrial designers combine the fields of art, business, and engineering to design the products people use every day. In fact, these designers are responsible for the style, function, quality, and safety of almost every manufactured good. Usually designers specialize in one particular product category, such as automobiles and other transportation vehicles, appliances, technology goods, medical equipment, furniture, toys, tools and construction equipment, or housewares.
The first steps in developing a new design, or altering an existing one, are to determine the requirements of the client, the purpose of the product, and the tastes of customers or users. When creating a new design, designers often begin by researching the product user or the context in which the product will be used. They ascertain desired product characteristics, such as size, shape, weight, color, materials used, cost, ease of use, fit, and safety. To gather this information, designers meet with clients, conduct market research, read design and consumer publications, attend trade shows, and visit potential users, suppliers and manufacturers.
Next, designers prepare conceptual sketches or diagrams—by hand or with the aid of a computer—to illustrate their vision of the product. After conducting research and consulting with a creative director or other members of the product development team, designers then create detailed sketches or renderings using computer-aided design (CAD) tools. Computer models make it easier to adjust designs and to experiment with a greater number of alternatives, speeding and improving the design process. Industrial designers who work for manufacturing firms also use computer-aided industrial design (CAID) tools to create designs and machine-readable instructions that can direct automated production tools to build the designed product to exact specifications.
Designers present the designs and prototypes to their client or managers and incorporate any changes and suggestions. Designers often work with engineers, accountants, and cost estimators to determine if a product can be made safer, easier to assemble or use, or cheaper to manufacture. Before a product is completed and manufactured, designers may participate in usability and safety tests, watching consumers use prototypes and then making adjustments based on those observations.
Increasingly, designers are working with corporate strategy staff to ensure that their designs fit into the company's business plan and strategic vision. They work with marketing staff to develop plans to best market new product designs to consumers. They work to design products that accurately reflect the company's image and values. And although designers have always tried to identify and design products that fit consumers' needs, more designers are now focused on creating that product before a competitor does. More of today's designers must also focus on creating innovative products as well as considering the style and technical aspects of the product.
Work environment. Designers employed by manufacturing establishments, large corporations, or design firms generally work regular hours in well-lighted and comfortable settings. Designers in smaller design consulting firms, or those who freelance, may work under a contract to do specific tasks or designs. They frequently adjust their workday to suit their clients' schedules and deadlines, meeting with the clients evenings or weekends when necessary. Consultants and self-employed designers tend to work longer hours and in smaller, more congested, environments. Additional hours may be required to meet deadlines.
Designers may work in their own offices or studios or in clients' homes or offices. They also may travel to other locations, such as testing facilities, design centers, clients' exhibit sites, users' homes or workplaces, and manufacturing facilities. With the increased speed and sophistication of computers and advanced communications networks, designers may form international design teams and serve a more geographically dispersed clientele.
Training, Qualifications, and Advancement
A bachelor's degree is required for most entry-level commercial and industrial design positions. Experience through internships and a good portfolio of work are also important for jobseekers to have.
Education and training. A bachelor's degree in industrial design, architecture, or engineering is required for most entry-level commercial and industrial design jobs. Coursework includes principles of design, sketching, computer-aided design, industrial materials and processes, manufacturing methods, and some classes in engineering, physical science, mathematics, psychology, and anthropology. Many programs also include internships at design or manufacturing firms.
Because of the growing emphasis on strategic design and how products fit into a firm's overall business plan, an increasing number of designers are pursuing a master's degree in business administration to gain business skills.
The National Association of Schools of Art and Design accredits approximately 300 postsecondary colleges, universities, and private institutes with programs in art and design. About 40 of these schools award a bachelor’s degree in industrial design. Many schools require the successful completion of 1 year of basic art and design courses before entry into a bachelor's degree program. Applicants also may be required to submit sketches and other examples of their artistic ability.
Other qualifications. Creativity and technical knowledge are crucial in this occupation. People in this field must have a strong sense of the esthetic—an eye for color and detail and a sense of balance and proportion. Employers expect new designers to know computer-aided design software, but despite the advancement of this software, sketching ability remains important. Designers must also understand the technical aspects of how products function. The deciding factor in getting a job often is a good portfolio—examples of a person's best work.
Designers must be imaginative and persistent and must be able to communicate their ideas visually, verbally, and in writing. Because tastes and styles can change quickly, designers need to be well read, open to new ideas and influences, and quick to react to changing trends. Problem-solving skills and the ability to work independently and under pressure also are important traits. People in this field need self-discipline to start projects on their own, to budget their time, and to meet deadlines and production schedules.
As strategic design becomes more important, employers will seek designers with project management skills and knowledge of accounting, marketing, quality assurance, purchasing, and strategic planning. Good business sense and sales ability are important, especially for those who freelance or run their own business.
Advancement. Beginning commercial and industrial designers usually receive on-the-job training and normally need a few years of training before they can advance to higher level positions. Experienced designers in large firms may advance to chief designer, design department head, or other supervisory positions. Some designers leave the occupation to become teachers in design schools or in colleges and universities. Many faculty members continue to consult privately or operate small design studios to complement their classroom activities. Some experienced designers open their own design firms.
Commercial and industrial designers held about 44,300 jobs in 2008. About 30 percent of designers were employed by manufacturing firms, 9 percent worked in architectural, engineering and related services and another 8 percent worked for specialized design services firms.
Employment is expected to grow about as fast as the average. Keen competition for jobs is expected; those with strong backgrounds in engineering and computer-aided design and business knowledge will have the best prospects.
Employment change. Employment of commercial and industrial designers is expected to grow 9 percent between 2008 and 2018, as fast as the average for all occupations. Employment growth will arise from an increase in consumer and business demand for new or upgraded products. The continued emphasis on the quality and safety of products, the increasing demand for new products that are easy and comfortable to use, and the development of high-technology products in consumer electronics, medicine, transportation, and other fields will increase the demand for commercial and industrial designers.
However, some companies use design firms overseas, especially for the design of high-technology products. These overseas design firms are located closer to their suppliers, which reduces the time it takes to design and sell a product—an important consideration when technology is changing quickly. This offshoring of design work could continue to slow employment growth of U.S. commercial and industrial designers.
Despite the increase in design work performed overseas, most design jobs, particularly jobs not related to high-technology product design, will still remain in the U.S. Design is essential to a firm's success, and firms will want to retain control over the design process.
Job prospects. Competition for jobs will be keen because many talented individuals are attracted to the design field. The best job opportunities will be in specialized design firms which are used by manufacturers to design products or parts of products. Increasingly, manufacturers have been outsourcing design work to these design services firms to cut costs and to find the most qualified design talent, creating more opportunities in these firms.
As the demand for design work becomes more consumer-driven, designers who can closely monitor, and react to, changing customer demands—and who can work with marking and strategic planning staffs to come up with new products—will also improve their job prospects.
Employment of designers can be affected by fluctuations in the economy. For example, during periods of economic downturns, companies may cut research and development spending, including new product development.
Median annual wage-and-salary wages for commercial and industrial designers were $57,350 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $41,550 and $76,700. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $31,400, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $97,770. Median annual wages of salaried commercial and industrial designers in the largest industries that employed them in May 2008 were:
|Management of companies and enterprises||$63,940|
|Architectural, engineering, and related services||61,450|
|Specialized design services||59,150|
|Other miscellaneous manufacturing||50,990|
For More Information
For general career information on commercial and industrial design, contact:
- Industrial Designers Society of America, 45195 Business Court, Suite 250, Dulles, VA 20166. Internet: http://www.idsa.org
For general information about art and design and a list of accredited college-level programs, contact:
- National Association of Schools of Art and Design, 11250 Roger Bacon Dr., Suite 21, Reston, VA 20190. Internet: http://nasad.arts-accredit.org