Three ways industrial designers are like UX designers

And three ways they’re different

Earlier this year, I wrote the post below as a sidebar for The UX Careers Handbook. Meant to help an early career industrial designer decide whether UX is a path worth exploring, I share it now in advance of my upcoming talk to the students of Auburn University’s School of Industrial and Graphic Design.

AU and Irish students working in studio (Sligo,Ireland), 2008” by Christopher Arnold, used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
As more products emerge that are balanced combinations of physical and digital, designers who can work across these two disciplines will emerge as leaders in their field.

With a history going back to the Industrial Revolution, industrial design has always been a pragmatic discipline focused on creating usable products. It emerged as a modernization of the craftsman approach that had produced the tools and furnishings people used in the pre-Industrial Age. When mass manufacturing caught on, it gave rise to a new type of design discipline — focused initially on the problems of manufacturability and safety. This evolved into the industrial design discipline we have today, addressing every aspect of the design of manufactured products.

Industrial designers have a long history working the same issues that UX professionals wrestle with today, and many of the methods employed in the design of physical products informed and inspired methods in the field of UX and its focus on the digital world.

If you are an industrial designer interested in expanding your purview into UX, be assured that many of the skills and approaches you use are directly applicable to the field. You have one foot in the domain already. But recognize that how you apply those skills—the product that you apply those skills to, and the form that your output will take—will all need to change. You can do it, but you will have to pick up some new skills to be effective in this emerging discipline.

Overlaps between UX and industrial design

There are a number of distinct overlaps between your practice as an industrial designer and that of a UX practitioner. In the interest of time and your attention, let’s focus on three. This not a comprehensive list, but simply an overview of ways the practices of the two fields complement each other.

  1. Problem solving 
    Design thinking — the application of design’s problem solving methodologies to new arenas of business — was popularized by the iconic industrial design firm, IDEO (1). As a successful industrial designer, you have likely employed design as a problem-solving methodology. The objects being designed may be different, but the process through which the team proceeds is really quite similar to UX design.
  2. A focus on use
    As with UX professionals, industrial designers are trained to design for use, and both groups share the same approach to uncovering user needs: primary research. Generative research methods like ethnography, participatory methods like co-design, and even evaluative methods like usability testing are examples of ways that both industrial designers and UX practitioners ply their trade.
  3. A product orientation
    Finally, industrial designers bring a product oriented mindset to a problem. That is to say, they seek to design something that will have lasting commercial value for both the consumer and the business who provides it. It is that exchange of value that justifies putting a product into the market and the expense related to keeping it there. Successful UX designers also maintain the belief that only through a clear exchange of value can you create sustainable engagement with a customer.

Challenges to making the transition

There are also a variety of key differences between these two fields, which may reflect challenges for industrial designers who want to do UX work.

  1. Physical vs. digital
    The most obvious difference between the two disciplines is that industrial design addresses physical products and UX primarily focuses on digital products and customer interactions associated with those products. As an industrial designer, whether you work on furniture and housewares, or electronics and other complex “machines,” you likely need a talent for creating three dimensional forms, from renderings to computer models to physical prototypes. On the other hand, to do equivalent work in UX design, you will need to apply your skills in two dimensions, focusing on sketching, wire-framing, and clickable prototypes.
  2. Many vs. one
    Another key difference between industrial design and UX is that industrial designers typically work on products that will be produced en masse. As an industrial designer, you also likely need to think through the entire product development process, from raw material to manufacture and use, all the way to end of (product) life. UX designers, on the other hand, usually have a different product lifecycle to adapt to, that of a product roadmap. With sometimes only one instance of a product, a web site for example, the concern shifts to how a singular product experience will evolve over time, when new features will be introduced, and how those features will be integrated to create a cohesive whole.
  3. Different specialized skills
    As an industrial designer, you may take on challenges requiring additional skill sets. For example, you may focus on aesthetics and styling only; or alternatively, you may engage in engineering design and design for manufacture; or perhaps, you may concern yourself with issues of usage and ergonomics, like a human factors specialist. Each of these specialties requires additional sets of skills. Similarly, UX professionals often have additional specialty skills. There are those who may focus on strategic issues of a product experience and others who may spend time on screen flows, user interface design and prototyping. As an industrial designer in UX, you may need to obtain some of these additional highly specific UX skills, depending on where your focus lies.

UX and industrial design synergies

There have long been physical products with digital components. Unfortunately, common practice is to design each aspect in isolation, only bringing the digital and physical together at a few points during the process. When a company as successful as Apple puts both design processes under the same umbrella (2), it signals the commercial importance of the partnership of the two design disciplines, industrial design and UX. The overlap of these disciplines will only increase. As more products emerge that are balanced combinations of physical and digital, designers who can work across these two disciplines will emerge as leaders in their field.

  1. David Kelley, a Stanford Professor and founder of IDEO, was instrumental popularizing the term “design thinking” and applying it outside an academic setting. via: Wikipedia
  2. Human Interface Design, including software design, recently came under the organizational leadership of Apple’s long time industrial design head, Jony Ive. via: 9 to 5 Mac

Originally published in The UX Careers Handbook in June 2016. See more online at