Product Designer

The Job and What's Involved

Almost everything we use in our day-to-day lives, from chairs and cutlery to clocks and computers, has been designed by a product designer. They also work on specialist products like medical, electronics or telecommunications equipment.

Product designers use their design skills and technical knowledge to improve the way that existing products work and look, and/or produce them at a lower cost. They may also be involved in designing entirely new products.

In the course of their work, product designers must 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 can vary, but are likely to involve:

  • Meeting clients or colleagues to discuss the design brief.
  • Working closely with engineers, model makers, sales and marketing staff and other skilled people.
  • Understanding technology, production methods and materials (such as textiles, metals and plastics).
  • Working within budgets.
  • Working to deadlines.
  • Researching similar products and developing ideas.
  • Making sketches of ideas by hand or computer, and developing the most effective ideas into detailed drawings using specialist computer software.
  • Ordering samples or working models of designs.
  • Producing reports and presenting their ideas to colleagues and clients at various stages of the design process.
  • Modifying their ideas according to the feedback they receive at these sessions.
  • Overseeing the testing of the chosen design.
  • Making presentations to potential clients in order to win new contracts.

Some product designers are involved in researching markets and consumer trends.

Product designers usually work around 37 hours a week from Monday to Friday, although additional hours may be required as deadlines approach. Freelance and contract work are common, and there may be some opportunities to work part time.

The work environment is usually a clean, bright studio, office or workshop. Product designers may also spend some time in the factories where the items are made; these may be noisy, dusty or dirty.

Freelance designers, or those working for design companies, may visit clients at their own sites, so a driving licence could be useful.

Individuals working for companies that design products for foreign markets may have the opportunity for overseas travel.

Starting salaries may be around £17,000 to £20,000 a year.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

Product designers work in a huge range of different manufacturing sectors and there are opportunities throughout the UK. There are also opportunities to work overseas, for example for Far Eastern companies designing products for western markets. Employers include manufacturing companies and design consultancies that offer product design to a number of different clients. Freelance and contract work are also possible.

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

Vacancies are advertised on the websites of professional bodies for designers, such as the Chartered Society of Designers (CSD), by specialist recruitment agencies, and in specialist publications.

Education and Training

New entrants usually need a degree or an HNC/HND in product design.

Courses are offered by universities and colleges throughout the UK. Degrees usually last three or four years full time. Some institutions offer sandwich courses during which students spend an additional year on work placement.

Some courses focus on specific aspects of product design, such as engineering product design or medical product design. Applicants should check prospectuses carefully to make sure that course content matches their own interests. Graduates from other art and design courses may be able to move into product design if they can produce a strong portfolio demonstrating their interest in this area of work.

The minimum entry requirements for a degree are usually two A levels/three H grades and five GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3), or the equivalent.

Entry to an HNC/HND course usually requires a minimum of one A level/two or three H grades in art and design subjects, or equivalent qualifications.

Postgraduate qualifications are available in specialised areas of product design and related subjects. Normal entry requirements are a good first degree in product design, or another relevant subject such as engineering, and a portfolio of work.

Employers expect to see a strong portfolio of design work.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Training opportunities for new entrants may combine on-the-job training under the guidance of an experienced colleague with short courses on topics like the use of new software packages.

Professional bodies, such as the CSD and the Design Business Association, offer training and professional development. Freelance designers must pay for their own training and development.

Factors such as environmental concerns and the introduction of new materials and technology mean that it is essential for product designers to keep their skills and knowledge up to date. The CSD offers a structured Continuing Professional Development programme. Members who achieve 100 CPD points in a calendar year receive a Professional Practice Certificate which is valid for the following full year.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A product designer should:

  • Be creative and have an eye for shape and colour.
  • Understand different materials and production methods.
  • Have technical, practical and scientific knowledge and ability.
  • Understand what customers look for in a product.
  • Be able to use drawings, 3D models and computer designs to express creative ideas.
  • Have strong IT skills.
  • Be good at planning and organising.
  • Be able to work out costings and budgets.
  • Be good at explaining ideas to people with varying levels of technical knowledge.
  • Have listening and questioning skills for discussing design briefs and understanding feedback from colleagues.
  • Be persuasive and able to 'sell' their ideas to others.
  • Be able to produce clear, concise written reports.
  • Work well in a team.
  • Be accurate and pay attention to detail.
  • Be able to work within deadlines and budgets.

Your Long Term Prospects

Product designers working in consultancies or in-house design teams may be able to progress to senior designer or team leader roles. Experienced designers may also move into project management.

Self-employed designers progress by building their businesses and expanding their list of clients.

Get Further Information

The Chartered Society of Designers (CSD),
1 Cedar Court, Royal Oak Yard,
Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3GA
Tel: 020 7357 8088

The Design and Technology Association,
16 Wellesbourne House, Walton Road,
Wellesbourne, Warwickshire CV35 9JB
Tel: 01789 470007

The Design Business Association,
35-39 Old Street, London EC1V 9HX
Tel: 020 7251 9229

Design Council, 34 Bow Street,
London WC2E 7DL
Tel: 020 7420 5200

The Institution of Engineering Designers,
Courtleigh, Westbury Leigh,
Westbury, Wiltshire BA13 3TA
Tel: 01373 822801

The Sorrell Foundation,
Somerset House, Strand,
London WC2R 1LA
Tel: 020 7845 5860

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