The terms product design and industrial design are often used interchangeably. Industrial designers, emerging during the Industrial Revolution beginning the mid-1700s, sought to generate new ideas within an industry. At a later time, product designers shifted the emphasis within industrial design away from how to make a product towards including questions about why to make it and for whom.
Product design covers all the work from the initial idea of a product all the way through to the point where the customers have the product in their hands. An industrial design may be a part of product design or it may be product design all on its own. Industrial design, however, generally applies only to industrial products. Thus, while a fashion designer or a software developer uses product design to develop their concepts, industrial design is used only when the final product has to be built or produced as an marketable entity. Where product design focuses on study or professional activity that involves the more technical roles involved in new product development, mostly using scientific methods, engineering design seems to be a more appropriate designation.
Victor Papanek, writing in the early 1970s proposed that,
“There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them. And possibly only one profession is phonier. Advertising design, in persuading people to buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, in order to impress others who don’t care, is probably the phoniest field in existence today. Industrial design, by concocting the tawdry idiocies hawked by advertisers, comes a close second.”
Since that time, product design has addressed many of the concerns which Papanek expressed. Critical product design, for example, focuses on maintenance, repair and upgradability of products to foster new modes of ownership that transgress fashion and trends and to contribute to the future design of more sustainable products.
Even so, one should be very aware, however, of the paradoxes inherent in practising design in the 21st century, as outlined by Rodgers, Inella and Bremner (2017). For example, they argue that, “Design’s Devotion to Sustainability is Unsustainable”.
Papanek, V (1973) Design for the real world: human ecology and social change. Toronto, CA: Bantam Books.
Rodgers, P. A., Innella, G. and Bremner, C. (2017) ‘Paradoxes in design thinking’. The Design Journal, 20(sup1), pp. S4444–S4458. doi: 10.1080/14606925.2017.1352941.