The Post-it. The Eames chair. The iPhone. The Helvetica font. What do all these products have in common? Each one has influenced how we interact with our world. These revolutionary designs are among the many that illustrate the impact of product design engineering.
A Master of Science in Engineering can prepare students for a career in designing the next generation of consumer goods, software applications, and more.
What Does a Product Design Engineer Do?
To understand the role of a product design engineer, it’s important to understand product design. Product design begins with identifying a need and then imagining and constructing a product to fill that need. But it doesn’t stop there. Product design takes all aspects of the user experience into account. How does the product function, fit, or feel? Is it intuitive to use? Does it solve a problem? Is it elegant? Can it be manufactured at a realistic price point?
Product design grew out of a similar discipline: industrial design.
What Is Industrial Design?
Industrial design also asks, “What is the problem we’re trying to solve?” Industrial designers and product designers use many of the same prototyping tools and follow many of the same iterative design processes.
However, each of these disciplines is distinct. The key features of industrial design are as follows:
- Physical products. Industrial designers create and design physical products — cars, furniture, and the safety razor, to name a few examples.
- Mass manufacturing. The focus of industrial design is on mass manufacturing. Therefore, industrial designers must include mass production in their design specifications.
What Is Product Design?
Product designers not only develop and build physical products but also create digital products, such as software apps or games. Even in the digital realm, product design engineers focus on design aesthetics and functionality. The goal of product design is less about mass manufacturing and more about design and usability.
Product design engineers use a variety of tools in the design process.
- CAD software. Computer-aided design facilitates each step in the design process, from first iteration to final product.
- CAM software. Computer-aided manufacturing programs are essential for building prototypes and running manufacturing machinery.
- Modeling software. Product designers use wireframing apps, 3D modeling software, and similar applications to produce prototypes.
- Project management and project roadmaps. Meeting milestones and managing progress is crucial for designers.
- Data analytics and testing. User experience and product testing are essential to successful product design.
Product Design Engineer Skills and Education Requirements
A degree in engineering, design, software development, or a related field is the first step to become a product design engineer. A bachelor’s degree will provide the fundamentals. However, an advanced degree, such as a Master of Science in Engineering, will provide the in-depth technical and management background that is critical to the field.
Other skills can come from work experience. Product design engineers wear many hats, ranging from creative designer to project and team manager. Understanding how to work both as part of a team and as a team leader is critical to success.
The following are some of the technical skills that are necessary for career success as a product designer.
- CAD/CAM/blueprints. The ability to produce and read wireframes, specs, and blueprints is essential.
- Material science. Product designers must understand the materials they’re working with, whether that means concrete, metals, or fabric.
- Mechanical knowledge. Designers must understand the mechanics of a product and its component materials.
- Data analysis. Products go through many iterations of design, build, and test. Designers must compile and analyze the data from these iterations to ensure that a product works as planned.
Technical knowledge is just one aspect of great design. Companies also value soft skills.
- Creativity and idea development. Designers must be able to come up with many different solutions to a problem.
- Collaboration. Coming up with ideas is one thing. Designers must also collaborate with their team to build out the most promising concepts.
- Communication and presentation. Designers must be able to clearly communicate the design process to all stakeholders. They’ll have to report on progress and testing results, among other items.
Product Design Engineer Salary and Job Outlook
The median annual salary for product designers was approximately $86,500 as of May 2022, according to salary research firm Payscale. Compensation depends on factors such as education, years of experience, and location. For example, product designers just beginning their careers earned a median annual salary of approximately $74,000, Payscale reports, while midcareer designers (five to nine years of experience) earned around $97,000. Compensation also depends on specific product design skills. For instance, product design engineers with interaction design, information architecture, and wireframing among their skill sets could see a boost in compensation between 10% and 15%, according to Payscale.
Build a Great Career — Become a Product Design Engineer
Product design engineers know that great things grow from small seeds. If you want to apply your creative and technical background to build new products that people love to use, a product design engineer career may be for you. Explore the online Master of Science in Engineering program from the University of California, Riverside and find out how the degree can lay the foundation for a rewarding design career.