In general, employers and schools will use the terms Industrial Design and Product Design interchangeably. To make matters worse, many Engineering positions will refer to ‘Designers’, and most software will use ‘Product Designers’ to develop their software products (but would not hire an Industrial Designer). Linguistically, things are a mess. Initially, the term Industrial Designer came out of the Industrial Revolution, to position them into new ideas about the industry. Later, the term Product Designer got them away from how to make it and allowed them to focus on why to make it and for whom
Usually, when comparing two related things, it would be the most natural course to simply look up the definitions between those things and compare that way. When it comes to product design and industrial design, it’s not so easy.
Product design means different things to different people, and the entire process can be different from product to product. Essentially, product design is all the work that comes between the initial idea of a product to the point where the customers have the product in their hands (or sometimes even further than that.)
An industrial design can be a part of product design. It can be product design all on its own. But industrial design generally applies only to industrial products so, while a fashion designer or software developer uses product design to develop their concepts, and industrial designer only when the final product is meant to build or produce something of its own.
The industry is the reason why people in the developed world have the standard of living they do today. Before manufacturing, everything was a unique
handmade object. Then came the creation of mass production, which allowed a group of people, often aided by machinery, to create large quantities of identical objects, from clothing to cars.
Of course, none of this could have happened without engineers to streamline and optimize the mass production process — industrial designers were the force behind the Industrial Revolution. More than just engineers, these designers were also artists, who found ways not only to make a great many items cheaply but to make these items aesthetically pleasing so people would want to buy them.
Industrial designers take a useful product that serves a need and makes it even more helpful or more beautiful. They are the ones who create new models of a car or improve the ergonomics of a chair or computer keyboard. They keep all our modern conveniences fresh and new, making them even more convenient as time goes on.
Product design encompasses everything that is a product, including those things covered by industrial design. While it helps for an industrial designer to be an engineer in their field, there’s no such requirement for, say, a clothing designer or someone who develops food products or flatware. Today, product designers are also involved in the creation of products that have no tangible output, namely digital products like software.
The confusion between product design and industrial design tends to come in the places they overlap. Someone working to build or modify an aeroplane is engaging in product design, and probably in industrial design, as well. Often, there isn’t a distinction between the two.
Product designers generally work to produce many of the dairy products we use every day. Still, those specific items like cars, computers, and many of the appliances we enjoy, often had the hand of an industrial designer in there, at least for part of the process.
Honestly, the distinctions don’t make a lot of difference, because both types of design have the same goal — to create or refine a product. The words used: ‘product’, ‘industrial’, and ‘design’, are all such broad terms in and of themselves, that pinning them to easy definitions is difficult.
Product design is just about as it sounds — design of a product meant to be sold to consumers, whatever that product might be. It’s how we get new things or new versions of things we already use. Industrial design is the same thing, but it more pertains to things that have a functional value, especially things that require industrialization to produce, such as vehicles, buildings, and so forth. Items developed through industrial design are not necessarily designed for the sole benefit of the user — their design goals may make things easier for the manufacturer, as well.
Industrial design and Product design, using one term instead of the other certainly leads to confusion for some. The field of product design and industrial design do overlap and sometimes the distinction between the two isn’t so clear.