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A Day in the Life of a Product Designer

“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.

Paying Your Dues

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.

Present and Future

With the demonstrated effectiveness of advertising in the twentieth century, manufacturers looked to gain an advantage over each other by providing more attractive, identifiable product design. Producers who lacked these aesthetic skills hired professional consultants to redesign their products. These redesigns proved so effective that many design people were hired in-house. Product designers are involved at every stage of product development today, and the future of product design looks stable. Jobs should increase at the same rate as jobs in all other manufacturing occupations. The market for consumer products is healthy and the rate of growth is steady. With the dawn of an increasingly global economy, product designers for overseas companies who want to sell their products in the United States may be in high demand.

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

As “assistants” during the early years, product designers normally undergo a training program in which they are rotated to various positions within the company. They gain valuable experience in finance, production, development, marketing, and sales. Responsibilities are limited and although many are itching to begin designing, most merely assist the design department in the production of already-designed products. Salaries are average; hours are low.

FIVE YEARS OUT

Five-year survivors find their hours have jumped tremendously, and so have their responsibilities. Many are in the midst of actual designing and mock-up production and use their knowledge of materials pricing, cost estimating, and consumer taste. Satisfaction skyrockets during these middle years and many find work obligations can extend into off-hours and weekend time; a few on our surveys noted that other interests “suffered” during this period.

TEN YEARS OUT

Veterans of product design are faced with the same challenges as graphic designers and commercial artists at this stage of their careers: To renew their visions and keep themselves relevant to the industry they represent. Mobility is a feature of the ten-year product designer, as many switch jobs searching for the spark to keep their work fresh. Salaries increase and satisfaction evens out. A number of very successful designers become independent consultants to industries, providing analyses of product lines or cost-structure estimates for start-up companies.