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
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  • Good November 29, 2018
    Reviewed by 'John Alex'
    Great blog post thanks for sharing it. Report this review as inappropriate)

  • Reviews November 29, 2018
    Reviewed by 'Clark Smith'
    Very Interesting !! I appreciate your blog its a interesting and it attract other peoples to read this blog. Report this review as inappropriate)

  • An engineer's viewpoint...here's another August 30, 2017
    Reviewed by 'Tony Stark'
    Ok, let's get the ubiquitous CV out of the way first: design engineer for far too long, company director, CAD expert and instructor, top grade degree from top university, patents, awards, customers included Automotive OEMs and leading product design consultancies, someone took a nice photo of me once. Currently taking a sabbatical from work to study a PhD, because those letters will look nice on my business card eventually.
    In my experience you can always tell how creative a role is by how offended someone gets when you try to describe their profession in any simple terms (and I have many close friends and colleagues working in industrial design that would agree). Design engineers are less creative and therefore much more boring people. You wouldn’t want them at a dinner party, but they’d care less about getting an invite (and I have many close friends and colleagues working in engineering design that don’t get out much).
    So, my simple definition: an industrial designer will produce a design, for a design engineer to ensure will work.
    An engineer can design a product that will always work, but maybe no-one will ever want. Industrial designers will always design stuff that looks great and everyone wants, but you’re never sure if it will work. For that reason it’s best to have both. Try to be someone who thinks they’re good at both, and most top design consultancies will assume you’re not the best at either…and they’d be right
    How much involvement each role will have is completely dependent on the product, the company or companies responsible for the design, and the industry. Each role will have specific talents that the other doesn’t either fully appreciate, or sometimes even know about (see above article), but they are both critical to successful projects.
    Industrial designers are attention whores, engineers are just jealous they're not as pretty.
    For a more detailed description look them up in Wikipedia, don’t pay too much attention to what either an industrial designer or a design engineer will tell you, because they generally have only got half the facts, and an overinflated opinion of themselves

      19 of 20 found this review helpful.
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  • Still a bit of a misunderstanding May 01, 2017
    Reviewed by 'Product Design Space'
    Your article is insightful. However, it is quite inaccurate to define a whole industry with your singular experience. Not all Industrial Designers are created equal. Many companies now hire industrial designers to be key strategists, design researchers, ethnographers, and business systems strategists. Their job is not to make anything look "pretty" or as you mention "dress it up." It is to do formulate the requirements of products, systems, and services from a human-centered POV. This comes before any engineering takes place.
    As mentioned above in another review, it is somewhat offensive to the industry to say that an industrial designer's job is to just an "applied art" and "dress it up."
    You may want to investigate companies such as BCGDV, Microsoft Inclusive Design, IDEO, Frog Design, Tesla, Smart Design, RCA, RISD, ArtCenter, Standford D-School, etc. They all convey a different definition and role for the Industrial Designer.

      21 of 22 found this review helpful.
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  • So both go hand in hand March 24, 2017
    Reviewed by 'Lavender Trails'
    I found that both r incomplete without each other....still from customer's point of view they seem to contradict this fact.....but all I can say is an industrial designer needs to know the work of the other as well to make the design work but necessarily need not interfere in an engineer's work.

      One person of 3 found this review helpful.

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