The Difference Between Industrial Design And Design Engineering

There is a huge misunderstanding between the overlapping functions in which these two processes—industrial design and design engineering—operate. The following definitions are from Wikipedia:

Industrial Design (ID) is an applied art whereby the aesthetics and usability of products may be improved. Design aspects specified by the industrial designer may include the overall shape of the object, the location of details with respect to one another, colors, texture, sounds, and aspects concerning the use of the product ergonomics.

Design Engineering (DE) is a discipline that creates and transforms ideas and concepts into a product definition that satisfies customer requirements.

The definitions of these two categories of design have a fundamental difference between them: ID is an applied art, whereas DE is a discipline. This means that industrial designers more often have more liberal control than design engineers to design everything that they or their customers like. This is due to the fact that design engineers have only one choice: make it work.

However, since the functions of each are often unclear, customers can easily be confused as to which one they need. Although, misunderstanding which one they need is almost inevitable because of a series of factors:
1. Each industrial designer or design engineer has greed to get the job, so they do not make it clear to the customer what their function is.
2. The customer looks for a “one stop shop”, so they want to accomplish everything in one shot, whereas they may need both an industrial designer and design engineer.
3. Designers believe to be something they are not. Some industrial designers believe to be design engineers as well, only to end up creating a product that is not functional or suitable for manufacturability. Whereas, some design engineers believe to be industrial designers as well, only to end up creating an ugly product that requires a three-armed person to use it.

It is both the industrial designers and design engineers’ job to educate customers. If we compare them with doctors, doctors have done a much better job in educating their customers (patients) about their specialization. You never have a cosmetic surgery doctor performing brain surgery (or vice versa) due to the differences in specializations (and liability). It is very clear on what one can and cannot do. Unfortunately, it is not as clear what one can and cannot do in ID and DE. Therefore, it is a big mess.

When I started in the plastics injection molding industry 26 years ago, I was fortunate to be taught then the difference between ID and DE. And so, as a design engineer, I have always been careful not to step into the ID area. My job is to design a working product and send that to an industrial designer to dress it up.

Having worked with different customers of different backgrounds, I realized that industrial designers and design engineers very rarely recommend that their customers see the other (unlike doctors do). This is a matter of pride and business. There is a fear that the customer will think one is incompetent or that the customer will finish the project with the other one, although unbeknown to the customer the other one is not the expert in both.

I consistently receive product designs from industrial designers, in which case 99% the parts are not ready for manufacturing. They most often times need a draft angle added in order to eject the part from the mold or a wall thickness increased to accommodate the material specification. Somebody has to spend the time to redesign the part, and that has to be paid for by the customer. Often times, the customer does not understand the need to redesign and the sequence of events to validate. This situation creates confusion, frustration, and mistakes.

When a customer pays for a design, they expect the design to be ready for manufacturing. However, many times customers find themselves paying more and waiting longer for product redesign so that it is suitable for manufacturing. Therefore, know the difference between industrial design and design engineering, and ensure you know which one you are dealing with.


Agjah Libohova
Director of Research & Development
Autronic Plastics inc.
29 New York Ave
Westbury, NY, 11590
Ph: 516-333-7577
Fax: 516-333-7695
E-mail: Email Contact
Website: www.apisolution.com

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  • Not exactly. May 23, 2016
    Reviewed by 'Igloo Girl'
    As an Industrial Designer, who did a four year bachelor course nearly 20 years ago, it is my opinion that the above explanation isn't correct.
    Firstly, an Industrial Designer is qualified to work as a Design Engineer. A Design Engineer may also work as an Industrial Designer. Both courses are so remarkably similar that Universities don't commonly offer both, but only offer one or the other. The handful of Universities that offer both, do so for marketing reasons and/or to provide a shorter degree course option (eg; one will be three years and the other four years). This is similar to the medical field (using the above analogy). Where degrees with different names imply different courses, but are actually all the same when you get down to the details - medical science, nursing, physio, sports medicine. Many of those courses share nearly identical units, they might adjust the order the classes are completed, but in the end they're more similar than different. Offering lots of courses boosts University intake and makes students feel catered too. Different 'degrees' might cost different amounts, even though the course is the same.
    If an Industrial Designer lacks the skills to design for manufacture (designing with correct tolerances, gradients, materials and so on) then they are simply not very good at their job. The purpose of the degree/job is to design for manufacture. If they can't do that, well, they should receive further training on the job.
    This issue has occurred because many Art School based design courses neglect the technical aspects of the Industrial Design course. Many of them focus on the aesthetics of products. These universities usually have excellent creative programs and can produce interesting looking designs. Is this the future of Industrial Design? All style, but no technical knowledge?
    I learned at a technical University (I won't name it) where we were taught the relevant engineering of manufacturing processes by engineers and workshop technicians. We had engineering exams and every single design was critiqued and graded by a team including an engineer.
    However, many aspects of designing for manufacture are best learned on the job. You don't truly understand mistakes until you make them.

      6 of 8 found this review helpful.
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  • Sample Size December 09, 2015
    Reviewed by 'Masumaido Sekuzu'
    The notion that a person can excel in only one thing is narrow-minded. Sure, many people have specialties, but there exist people still who have more than one major skill or area of expertise.
    It is understandable the frustration with those who claim to do more than they can deliver, but the way that emotion is conveyed should not be as to hold others back from their highest potentials by marking all as being in one single, limiting category or the other as this article does.
    As to advice for the customer, request samples from the people with whom you would like to work, then make a decision based on the work those people have produced.

      3 of 6 found this review helpful.
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  • There is quite a difference...in my opinion. March 15, 2015
    Reviewed by 'Ivanhoe Chaput'
    As Agjah and others point out, it's not merely draft angles that may be missing. Without making a book out of his article, there are many aspects to designing plastic injection molded parts such as thinning out ribs, sharp corners where you don't want sink marks and radii where added strength is needed. There may be places that require ejector pins and maybe a boss needs to be added or adding a slide for a required snap. There are material issues such as using a high percentage of glass for strength that may require a change in shape for fill or flow. There are gating types such as fan gates, overlap gates and film gates that need to be positioned for both function and cosmetics. And on and on. I've been a design engineer all my career, but I also have an artistic flair. In my business of 34 years, I've used industrial design firms and have often had to re-shape features for one reason or another. A DE firm such as mine will sometimes hire an ID firm, but I've never seen it the other way around. I can only assume that when one doesn't know, one doesn't ask. Yes, I agree, it's a recipe for disaster.

      6 of 7 found this review helpful.
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  • The Jack of all Trades November 25, 2013
    Reviewed by 'Isa L'
    I am curious what would the last reviewer (and anyone else that agree with him) think if the Stanford offers courses of study for brain and plastic surgeons combined.
    People, nobody, nobody is "Jack of all Trades"!!!!
    Universities want your money and they claim to train you in both this specialties but you know deep in your heart that your skills are limited in one direction only. Maybe there is a "Da Vinci" among us but we all know he/she is an exception.

      5 of 8 found this review helpful.
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  • Whence Product Design? November 18, 2013
    Reviewed by 'Dexter Francis'
    It may be time to update this article, as many schools, such as Stanford, have been offering courses of study which attempt to bridge the gap between the art of Industrial and science of Engineering Design. Particularly in this day when CAD Drafter/Detailing is called "Design" and Engineering Analysis (Thermal/Structural) must blend with User Experience, it's not possible to settle for traditional Mechanical/Electrical/Software boundaries.

      2 of 7 found this review helpful.
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