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Stop Calling Digital Designers Product Designers

If you’re a designer or work with designers, I’ve no doubt you’re aware of the many niches within the field of design. Many are familiar with graphic design, architecture and fashion. However, some job titles when shared receive more head scratching and replies of “What’s that?”.

For example: (in no particular order)

  • industrial design
  • digital design
  • product design
  • concept design
  • experience design
  • 3D design
  • CAD design
  • communications design
  • technical design

Most designers have a basic understanding of design principals and can more or less speak the same language and tend to be fairly flexible when it comes to creative problem-solving. However, the reason each niche exists has to do with competition and tools.

Competition

As businesses mature and industries age, fewer and fewer breakthroughs occur and fewer stones are left unturned. Progression happens through evolutions and continual refinements of existing products or services. As the cost of technology decreases and the quality of our tools increase, our expectations and standards also raise. With markets becoming saturated with competing products and services, the desire to achieve excellence in every aspect of a business has never been so high. In order to create premium products and services, the most talented and driven employees must be hired and inspired to achieve greatness as individuals and as a team. Instead of hiring a generic designer and tasking him or her with web design, graphic design, marketing and product design as needed, businesses choose to hire specialized designers who are responsible for each design role within the business. In other words, would you rather have an Olympic track team comprised of general athletes, or a team of dedicated sprinters, shot-putters and pole-vaulters?

The first major reason niche designers are needed is because the high standards of today’s companies require teams of highly-skilled individuals to create the best products and services possible.  

Tools

The second major reason niche titles exist revolves around the tools used by designers. May teachers can get away with using the Microsoft Office Suite, which consists of mainly Word, Excel and Powerpoint. Therefore, the argument can be made that most primary, secondary and many post-secondary school teachers need only set of tools to do their work. In contrast, there is no all-encompassing software that allows all types of designers to do their work. Yes, Adobe makes a wonderful suite of products, much more expansive than The Microsoft Office Suite. Though many designers are expected to know their way around Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign, most designers rely on specialized software that has a very steep learning curve. 

For instance, web designers often need to know one or more coding or scripting languages to allow web applications to function properly. Industrial designers are expected to know 3D CAD packages that enable manufacture of products such as SolidWorks, Alias, Rhino, Fusion360, ProEngineering and more. Concept designers often need to be able to create digital paintings as well as be able to model and render using programs such as 3DS MAX, MAYA, Cinema 4D, Zbrush, MODO and others. Some 3D designers specialize in visualization and focus on a combination of rendering and animating and use programs such as KeyShot, Octane, Maxwell, MODO, Nuke and more.

Just like the duties and skills of a designer are seldom concretely defined, the tools a designer uses are partially personal preference and partially defined by the employer or client’s required outcome. The issue, is that each of these specialized softwares mentioned above can take a person years to become proficient in. It is unrealistic for a designer to become a professional-level user of many specialized software packages early in his or her career.

The second major reason niche designers are needed is because of the steep learning curve and time-consuming aspect of learning highly-specialized design software.

Clarity

Now that we understand why these niche designers are needed and the purpose behind so many highly-specialized titles given to designers, the point of clarity must be addressed. Often times a designer’s role is defined and well-understood within a business. From my experience, the issue of definition arises between those within and outside of a business.

The specific instance that lead me to write this article happens to revolve around the careless use of the title Product Design. My goal here is not to argue semantics, but to lobby for greater clarity and care when using the title Product Design. For all intents and purposes, product designers assume responsibility in both the function and aesthetics of physical products.

With digital devices and programs such as apps and web-based applications we are spending more and more time every day using some form of computer and some form of application or program. Many tech companies have taken liberties in calling these apps or programs ‘products’. Each company may have its own reason for this, but it seems like a conscious decision to call computer programs products or digital products in order to humanize the technology. Psychology tells us that as people, we like to relate to things that are familiar and human (as opposed to alien and inanimate). In addition, the term product seems to have a greater degree of tangibility to it. And when it comes to parting with our hard-earned cash, we’d rather receive something tangible. 

The Issue

Where all this leads is a harsh reality that can lead a traditionally-trained industrial designer such as myself to question whether or not he’s living in some post-apocalyptic world in which no thought is given to the careless use of the term product design and the action of such can go completely unpunished leaving those seeking design work reeling in frustration at the complete misuse of the term product design.

I hereby, on behalf of all the industrial designers and product designers in the world would like to make a motion that companies who wish to employ designers for their digital products use titles more accurate (and thus more descriptive) than Product Designer.

Some alternatives to consider: App Design, Digital Design, User Interface Design, User Experience Design, Program Design, Digital Product Design, The Dude, Zeus Almighty.

Just please, for the love of all things design, stop using the term Product Design for anything other than Physical Product Design.