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Clarified: Product design vs industrial design

Is it a bird, is it a plane? Is it an app, is it a huge piece of complicated machinery because it has industrial in the title? I am totally sympathetic with anyone, who is a bit baffled by the title of my profession. It’s a line-of-work that bridges many areas of product development, so it can have a different meaning for different people.

The root of this confusion is a little difficult to dissect though, so let’s take a look historically.

In times past, the definition of a product designer and industrial designer were more or less equal. A pretty clear definition (given for I.D.) by Indeed goes like this:

"Industrial design is an applied art that focuses on the process of developing a product for manufacture. Industrial designers often focus on many aspects of a future product, including how it functions, what it looks like and what manufacturing processes it requires. The process of industrial design is often collaborative, and industrial designers may work with other professionals such as graphic designers, artists, marketers and manufacturers. The end goal of this process is to create a product that responds to customer needs".

Why the confusion?

It is common for people to assume that ‘industrial designers’ develop things like coal mining equipment, or nuclear energy facilities - as in components for the heavy industrial sector. And who can blame them? The main discrepancy is due to the advent of technology though, as digital software is now referred to as products. ‘Product designer’ has become an official title for anyone who exclusively creates digital assets. With the astronomical popularity of these, I am commonly misconstrued as someone who builds apps. My noble title is being hijacked by folks who just create digital stuff. I’m not resentful. Honest!

It's important to ‘role’ with the times though, so read on to find out how I adapt.

Why not just ‘Designer’?

It’s a bit like going to a bar and asking for ‘the’ beer. What beer? A light pilsner or a double stout? This refers to the category and not the product. Similarly, the watered-down term ‘designer’ can seemingly refer to anyone that applies creativity to their job. Whether that be an Automotive Designer at Ferrari or a Chihuahua Bedding Designer on Etsy.

Okay, but who do you identify as?

As with genders, it’s not so easy for some people to distinguish. I mainly gravitate towards ‘product designer’ as that is the titled profession I studied. However, I use ‘industrial designer’ too for a couple of reasons:


I have noticed that different global regions use different terms to address this profession. In the UK for example, ‘product designer’ is most common, but across the pond (US) - ‘industrial designer’ comes across as the dominant term. I work with startups and creators from around the world, so addressing different markets with familiarity is important.


Competing in our online world is a tough battle. Just being visible to a broad sample of your audience is one of the hardest things to maintain. I am certainly no expert in web ranking, but I use both designer titles interchangeably, in the hope of improving my SEO ranking. That is, to appear in search results that are made for each keyword. I’m not totally sure whether this approach has been beneficial though.

Job market

One of the most evident uses of this fluid terminology can be seen in the job market. In times past when I have been looking for job openings, it has been a painful filtering process! The majority of jobs listed as ‘product designer’ are undoubtedly within the digital space. One useful filtering tip – the salaries!

Another common theme among the majority of tech firms, is the similarity in name and branding. I would wage that 80% utilise a common word, and drop one of the vowels; Servr, Xceller8, Orang. You get the idea.

Occasionally, you will find a wise recruiter that has differentiated their offering:

Desirable segregation

Throughout my online presence, the use of carefully-chosen keywords help to separate me from the digital counterpart. Some examples include:

- Product Design Engineer

- Hardware

- Mechanical

- Physical product

- Consumer devices

- Medical devices

Then there are the activities that I perform, which are more specific to physical product design:

- Concept sketching

- CAD design

- Modelmaking

- 3D printing

- Manufacturing etc.

A heathy dose of these keywords is beneficial for creating that separation.


There isn’t one right answer for referring to this profession. If you use ‘Product designer’ you are convoluted with digital types, however if you exclusively use ‘Industrial designer’ you are excluding a large slice of the potential pie.

Ultimately, both professions must coexist in this universe despite our inherent differences. Whether you are looking to hire a designer or you’re promoting yourself as a freelance designer, it’s sensible to use both terms to allow more chance of catching the right audience.

Do you have any tips on how to differentiate? Let me know in the comments!


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