Product Design and Industrial Design are terms often used interchangeably and so, in order to understand the difference between the two, the first logical step would be to understand their definition. However, when it comes to these two areas of design, it’s not that simple. Whilst some would argue they have the same meaning; others would provide stark definitions of the two that directly contradict one another. As such, in this piece we’ll be exploring what’s involved in both Product Design and Industrial Design to ascertain what differentiates these processes.

Industrial Design

Industrial Design is defined as ‘the art or process of designing manufactured products’ which has subsequently led to the mass production of all manner of identical products from cars to clothing.

However, it was the industrial revolution, pioneered by industrial designers and engineers which created the industrial product design industry we know today. Without this transition to new manufacturing processes throughout Europe and the US which streamlined and optimised mass production, we would not have the same standard of living we see today. In recent years, Industrial Design has become more concerned with bringing artistic form and functionality, along with craft design and ergonomics, together in order to mass-produce goods globally.

Industrial designers are both engineers and contemporary artists, taking inspiration from each to create lower cost, aesthetically pleasing products that appeal to everyday consumers. They take a product which serves a particular purpose and need and increase its beauty and functionality. It is industrial designers which continuously create the products we see regularly improved and re-released to consumers.

Product Design

Product Design is often seen as the successor of Industrial Design, however, to complicate their distinction further, there is no consensually accepted definition of Product Design. In order to accurately reflect the vastness of the topic, two interdependent definitions are used; one being a noun which defines product design in reference to the product and other that defines the product design process in relation to this product.

Product Design (noun): The set of properties of a product that consists of the aesthetic properties and the function together with the holistic properties of the integrated form and function.

Product Design (process): The set of strategic and tactical activities from the initial idea to commercialisation, used to create a product design. Product designers work to conceptualise and evaluate ideas, moving them into physical products and inventions. It is the role of the product designers to combine, the arts, sciences and new technology to create products consumers can use. This ever-evolving role is aided by digital tools which allow designers to communicate, visualise, analyse and 3D model objects to create physical ideas in new and innovative ways never before seen.

There is a lot of overlap between industrial and product design which is where the confusion lies. However, product design encompasses all things relating to a product and tend to work more on everyday products whereas industrial designers tend to work on more specialised products such as cars, computers etc. In recent years, product design has become a rather broad term inclusive of software, consultancy services and physical product design. Product designers now are often more involved in the creation of products which have no material outcome such as computer software.

Ultimately, when distinguishing between industrial design and product design you will always encounter problems. Both areas of design share the same goal, aiming to create a new product or refine an existing one. With new technology and societal advancements, the definitions of each of these words continue to broaden each day making it increasingly difficult to successfully define them as separate entities.