A product designer is neither artist nor engineer but a unique hybrid, says Peter Kaye

A few years ago, there was a revolution in America. Apple Macintosh moved away from their more run-of-the-mill computers and began to sell a remarkable series of adventurous, visually exciting products, including the iMac and, more recently, the iPod. Macintosh products became objects of desire. The iPod has become so successful that it outsells all of its rivals put together and has totally changed the way we buy, archive and listen to music.

So what made the difference? Answer: Jonathan Ive, a British designer.

A product designer is neither an artist nor an engineer but a unique hybrid of the two. A designer's job is to create a product that looks good, works well and can be manufactured effectively for a realistic price. More than this, a designer has to create a product with personality that will appeal to consumers. This is precisely what Jonathan Ive achieved at Apple.

Designers are lively, creative people, concerned about the appearance of products and how people relate to them. They need to be interested in technology, able to draw, think three dimensionally and use computers.

Most product designers either work within a large company, or they work for a design consultancy. Design consultancies are usually small companies that specialise in designing products for manufacturers.

An A-level in product design at school or college covers many of the things that a professional designer would do, but often stops short of the visual creativity that is essential to the job. University and college degrees in product design are usually taught through a series of visually creative design projects, supported by lectures and tutorials to provide essential knowledge and skills.

Many degree courses prefer students to do a one-year art and design foundation course between A-levels and Higher Education. This foundation course can be a valuable preparation for a degree, enabling you to develop your creativity and clarify the direction you want to take.

If you're thinking of applying to study product design, useful A-level subjects might include some combination of art, design, maths, physics, business studies, or psychology. If you're not doing product design at A-level it isn't necessarily a problem - so long as you can demonstrate visual creativity in some way. An untypical combination of say art, maths and a science subject is often good because it shows a mixture of visual creativity and technical awareness.

'I had the freedom to choose my projects'

Kathryn Johnston, 22, recently graduated from Sheffield Hallam University with a degree in product design. At school, she studied AS-levels in maths and art and A-levels in product design, biology and general studies

"Design was more fun than my other A-levels, so I knew I wanted to do something creative, but I was still slightly unsure. I decided to do an art and design foundation course, which let me experiment with design, photography, art and sculpture. It helped me to decide on the right course for me.

I got a place on the product design degree at Hallam. The first two years were quite structured, but later on I had the freedom to choose my own projects. I am interested in sustainability and I decided to do a project on gardening in schools, which involved gaining knowledge from teachers and a wide range of other sources to become a mini-expert on the subject. I also chose some computer options. I learned new software and designed a multimedia package for visitors to the Sheffield Wildlife Trust.

I'm still very interested in sustainable issues and I definitely want to do creative design work in that area in the future."

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