Graduates in product design spend their time creating gizmos and gadgets for everyday use, writes Kate Hilpern

Everything that is not of the natural world is designed - from sweet wrappers to cups and from telephones to cars. Little wonder that product designers have such wide-ranging careers.

A product designer employs a range of creative design, craft and engineering skills and processes to design and shape products for a variety of applications. "One day, you could be working on a mobile phone for Nokia and the next day on a body shell for Jaguar," says Libby Brodhurst, chief executive of the Institution of Engineering Designers.

She believes there's never been a more exciting time to be a product designer in the UK. "Whilst the manufacturing base in the UK is eroding, the UK has a very good and strong history of designing, which is currently very much alive. Even Apple Mac's chief designer is British. The result is that product design is one of the fastest areas of education at the moment, and the Government is fully behind the industry in terms of promoting innovation."

At the University of Sussex, the majority of product designer graduates create gadgets and gizmos for everyday use. "They might be kitchen gadgets, hair curlers or specialist things like the devices that estate agents use to measure the size of rooms. The product designer gets involved in everything from the visual appearance of the product to its usability," says Peter Childs, professor of engineering design.

He provides two examples of recent final year projects. "Product designers usually work in teams and this year, one team produced a glass toaster and another produced a stretcher for use in the mountains of Nepal. They came up with the concepts and saw them through to production."

Childs looks for applicants to his course who are able to embrace the form and functionality of inventions with flair. "So it's the three 'fs' that I'm after," he says. "We also look for A-levels that are relevant - art, technology, maths and science are particularly useful, and we also require a strong GCSE in mathematics."

He believes that design is the hardest of all the academic subjects because it involves students attaining skills in so many different disciplines. "You need to know something about material science, something about maths, something about psychology, something about production processes, something about market research and something about commercial awareness. You have to borrow skills from all these disciplines and then master them to deliver a product that is acceptable to the user."

During a product design degree, you therefore have to be prepared to acquire a variety of challenging skills. "Once you're on the road to doing that, you need to be prepared to pour your life and soul into designing product after product."

But the rewards are enormous, he says. "People really get a kick out of generating the form of a product that does what you want it to."

The most sought after jobs - 70 per cent of which exist in the south east - are with design consultancies, where you'll work on a range of client projects. Design consultancies can be large or small, specialised, or more general in nature and may work on designs for products including industrial, scientific or medical equipment, consumer products and packaging, and children's toys.

Other employers include large, as well as small and medium sized, companies - usually industrial or domestic product manufacturers - where you'll work in-house. "For example, I've just had a student who went to work for a company that makes gadgets for recording the temperature on refrigeration trucks. Our student worked with them to re-design the product that records it and communicates it to the database. That's an example of a product that's needed to be easy to use, but also requires a complex set of functions," says Childs.

Other product designers might go to work for a medical company, working on scanners or devices for injecting drugs, or for an electronics company, he says. Meanwhile, some product designers work on their own as self-employed freelancers.

Mike Evatt, associate head of department of mechanical engineering and design at Coventry University, says his students have gone onto work for the likes of Dyson through to motor home companies or railway and car companies, as well as working for design consultancies or going it alone.

He cautions students who don't know exactly what area of product design that they want to go into not to apply for a very specialised degree or, for that matter, to specialise too much in their final year project. "I had one student who specialised in furniture design. Whenever he showed his portfolio to employers, they were put off because they didn't want a furniture designer. It was a shame because he was one of the most competent people on the course."

Ben Watson, a product designer at the design consultancy Seymour Powell, raves about his job. "I suppose I was drawn to it even as a child. I used to like both drawing and making things work in my Grandad's shed."

Having made his career decision at 16-years-old, he went to college to do a BTech national diploma in product design. "It gave me head start on everyone else at university, which was good," he says. "I think if you're not entirely sure that you want to go into product design, A-levels would be safer, but I knew what I wanted to do."

Having got a first class honours degree, he walked straight into a job at Seymour Powell. "That was six years ago and since then, I've worked on both transport and consumer products," he says. "For instance, I've been involved in the interiors of the Ford truck, Midland Mainline train and Bell helicopter. Then on the consumer side, I've worked on mobile phones and joysticks, among other things."

Only the exceptional survive in this industry, he admits. "So I would advise anyone wanting to go into product design to work really, really hard and try to stand out in some way."

John Palmer-Felgate, an industrial designer at product designers Cambridge Consultants, adds, "I think people often assume that you'll develop a couple of products a year that all your mates can go out and buy almost immediately. But it can take many years for your products to hit the marketplace and many don't even make it."

And Nathan Wrench, an industrial designer at the same company, agrees. "I worked on a beer tap that never made it into production. But when things do make it, it is very satisfying."


Nick Sandham is a junior product designer at product design consultancy, Seymour Powell

'When I'd done my A-levels, I did a one-year art foundation course, which was really useful. The careers advisers there suggested I did a degree in design for industry and I got a first. I graduated a year ago and came straight to Seymour Powell.

It's a very relaxed environment, but it pushes you as well. It's great to work in teams and the atmosphere is a lot of fun.

Seymour Powell is a well-founded consultancy that does lots of of design for transport - anything from helicopter interiors to motorbikes - and then there's the more product-based stuff like mobile phones and kettles and irons. There's also designing the packaging too. As a junior, you get involved in lots of different projects, which in turn provides a lot of different experience.

Being a producrt designer is one of those jobs where you learn a lot. But you need a natural flair to get into this industry in the first place, as well as a certain mindset around problem solving. I'm very glad I did maths at A-level.


Paul Hayton is a senior designer at the design and innovation company, Kinneir Dufort

My role is to help our clients develop new products and variants of existing products to a level at which they can be manufactured by suppliers. It's about taking them from the concept stage through to full production and manufacture.

The product range is big. A couple of examples of things I've got involved in designing are diabetes testing products and fish pumps for aquariums. Another example is packaging for some very large blue chip companies.

Some things actually revolutionise the market you're working in.

It's exciting and rewarding seeing people buying a kettle that you first sketched a picture of four years ago. I also like the fact that everyday is completely different.

Product design is one of those jobs that people are always really interested in. When you say what you do, people always want to know all about it.


Leigh Potter is a product development manager for Vtech, creator of electronic learning products

Having done a degree in 3D multidisciplinary design, I got a job at Vtech quite quickly and since joining in 2003, I have worked my way up in the company.

A good example of a product range I've been involved in designing is the Vtech Winnie the Pooh collection. That involves a range of children's laptops, play tables, play phones and electronic books.

The stages I'm involved in are concept, product design, art work and packaging. It means that every day is different and I work with a lot of different people. It is very exciting and it's amazing to go into a toy store and see my product being played with and enjoyed by children.

The hours can be long. But because my job is as much a hobby as a way of earning a living, I don't mind. You find you want to put the hours in.