“If you can spend hours walking down the drugstore aisle critiquing everybody’s products, you were born to be a product designer,” wrote one respondent. Who would argue with that? Product designers have agonized over the shape, size, and material content of every tube of toothpaste, every bottle of conditioner, and every bar of soap produced in the United States today. A product designer combines a talent for design with an understanding of the production and marketing of consumer goods. Over two thirds of all product designers work for consumer goods manufacturing concerns, which produce most drugstore and food items. These designers play a critical role in differentiating their products from those of other, directly competitive companies. “So much of what you buy is influenced by how it looks on a shelf,” as one advertising executive told us, “that companies cannot afford anymore to not have product designers on staff.” These consumer product designers also work to give their companies the edge by keeping production costs low; production costs translate directly into consumer costs for the product, and a designer who can reduce a per-item cost even a tiny bit can give an employer a competitive advantage at the supermarket or drugstore.
A product designer spends around 30 percent of his day meeting with executives, researchers, production managers, and advertising people, either on the telephone or in person. It’s important that the prospective designer be able to work as part of this team, which means understanding that his personal preferences may not be chosen. Besides the time spent actually working on designs, the remainder of his time is spent working with graphic designers and cost estimators in order to coordinate the production of potential product lines. Because of the collaborative nature of the process, this job requires strong interpersonal skills; over half the surveys we received cited “the ability to listen” as extremely important to success.
While aesthetic skills are obviously critical to product designers, business savvy is just as important. Successful product designers are equally comfortable producing three-dimensional models of their designs and providing cost estimates to production executives. Every design accommodates specific cost limitations, and those who can’t keep to those limitations, as one package designer put it, “find themselves designing packages at home. Unemployed.” This forces the product designer to be creative with materials, production methods, and forms. Many cite this pressured creativity as one of the most exciting parts of the job. At the same time, this is a profession in which over 70 percent of what the designer designs will never be produced for either cost, preference, or advertising reasons, so product designers should be thick-skinned enough to be able to watch their work discarded on a daily basis. Those whose designs prove financially successful can expect to have more influence over the process as time goes on.
Product designers face specific academic requirements that allow them entry to the field but certainly do not guarantee them success. No specific licensing requirements exist for product designers; applicants should concentrate on developing a portfolio of designs, an awareness of cost specifications, and a demonstrated ability to work with a team. Most product designers have a bachelor’s degree in a related field, such as graphic design, and coursework should include manufacturing principles, psychology, sociology, finance, materials use, and organizational behavior. But beyond academics, the more a prospective product designer can become familiar with the production process, the more likely she is to be successful in the field. An aspiring product designer should also be well-versed in current packaging trends in the industry she intends to enter. For example, if she wants to design products for the music industry, she should be aware that while the plastic two-hinge case is the industry standard now, many companies are choosing to replace it with a cardboard foldout case favored by recycling-minded consumers.
Product designers often become graphic designers, commercial artists, cost estimators, and product manufacturing executives-all careers they come into contact with as product design specialists.