When the new iPhone by Apple hit stores earlier this month, it provoked levels of hysteria usually reserved for teen-market boy bands. At £270 it's not exactly cheap and, while the technology's impressive, it's hardly palpitation-inducing. So why the fuss?
According to Dr Andrea Siodmok of the British Design Council, it's all down to the company's product designers. "They have the capacity to lift things into the sublime," she says. "Design can do two things: it can add value and improve the experience. The difference is as subtle as vaulting or texture. With Apple it starts right from the packaging, making people passionate about the product."
More technically-involved than graphic designers but more artistic than engineers, product designers are responsible for bringing functional, client-driven briefs to life. With each new project, they are presented with a problem; their job is to visualise the solution, whether that means tweaking existing technology or inventing something entirely new.
This, says Daniel Clucas of London-based firm Acumen Design Associates, requires consistent creativity. "We have to visualise the future on a daily basis. We're here to imagine things that don't already exist."
As well as being creative, designers need to be practical: with each design they are required to assess what their client needs and respond with thorough research. "You always have to keep the client in mind," says Clucas. "Without research it's very easy to design stuff that's cool but not at all appropriate."
They have to wrap up their solution in an aesthetically-appealing package. Consequently, he says: "You need a good understanding of all the technical aspects, but creativity is paramount every time. Increasingly product design crosses over with graphic design as more decorative aspects are included."
With its dual demands of technical and artistic expertise, product design requires a highly trained workforce. Clucas says: "Designers take products right through from conception to birth. It makes a university course pretty much essential, and many start off with an art or design foundation as well. You need to study the basics of ergonomics, and be able to understand user needs, manufacturing, and various computer programs, too,"
Christopher Lamb was already enrolled at Coventry University to study architecture when he opted to change courses after seeing the range of skills that design students learn.
"When I saw how much creativity product design provided, I knew I had to change," says Lamb. Three years after making the switch, he is sure it was the right choice. "I'll never regret the change. You can work on anything as a designer, so I could still go into architecture," he says.
But, he warns, it's not a course to be taken lightly. "I'd have to work on a project from the research aspect, all the way through to the idea presentation. I would work between 16 and 18 hours each day. If you want to do well, it has to take up all your time."
On top of their coursework, would-be designers should expect to put in plenty of effort outside the classroom. "A lot of my training has been through industrial placements," says Lamb. "You have to develop yourself to become successful. Since leaving university, I've spent time working on my portfolio to get it to a standard that I am happy and confident with."
But while the training may be gruelling, there are many opportunities for graduates. Lamb now counts a Hong Kong-based consultant, a Lego-maker and an aeroplane specialist among his former peers.
Since qualifying this year, he's been looking for a consultancy post, but if that doesn't work out he has ample alternatives. "With a design degree I could do 3D modelling, graphic design, marketing, research, and more," he says.
Graduates can also be confident that they are entering a growing market. "It's an exciting time," says Siodmok. "There's a pool of designers leading corporations and the UK has some of the best in the world. Britain is a great place to be doing design right now."
How to work in the business
* Although there are no standard requirements for practising designers, it is a highly competitive industry so a university course is highly recommended.
* For information on university design courses visit www.ucas.com orwww.learndirect.co.uk. For graduate training, visit www.internationalgraduate.net.
* The Chartered Society of Designers offers advice and opportunities for continuing professional development and can be contacted on www.csd.org.uk/index.jsp.
* The British Design Council offers both training and careers advice, as well as networking opportunities. For more information visit www.designcouncil.org.uk.