It’s easy to get completely caught up in the technical details of the latest software and hardware. There’s always a new development, a better piece of equipment, or an innovative way of using technology to focus on in the specific language of megahertz, data points or gigabytes per second. But there’s another side of design engineering that deals with less precise vocabulary like the look, feel and even emotional attachment people have to products. The design side of design engineering is more difficult to quantify, but often just as important as the technical aspects.
The National Endowment for the Arts recently attempted to define and quantify industrial design in Valuing the Art of Industrial Design, which it calls a “profile of the sector and its importance to manufacturing, technology, and innovation.” The report, which spans such topics as industrial designers as inventors and entrepreneurs, hiring industrial designers as service providers, and how “design thinking” is being applied to all manner of problems inside and outside of traditional engineering environments, is the first such attempt to analyze federal data and draw industrial design industry conclusions from it.
Industrial Design, by the Numbers
While the report is quick to point out the challenges it faced in defining and quantifying industrial design, it does establish parameters and then apply numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. According to the report:
- There are more than 40,000 industrial designers in the United States, 30% of whom are self-employed.
- Most salaried industrial designers — 11,730 of them — work in the manufacturing sector, with 7,570 working for what the report calls the “professional services sector,” which includes specialized design firms, architectural or engineering firms, consulting firms, and research and development.
- However, industrial designer employment in the professional services sector is projected to leap by 29% when measured from 2010 to 2020.
- The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Office of Employment Projections expects the number of employed industrial designers in the U.S. to reach 45,100 by 2020.
- There are 1,579 industrial design businesses in the U.S.
- In 2007, the most recent year for which such data is available, industrial design firms earned more than $1.5 billion in total revenue. About 94% of that came from sales of product design, model design and fabrication.
- The four largest industrial design firms generate 11% of the industry’s total revenue; the 20 largest, 32%.
- The number of U.S.-awarded design patents per 100,000 population is at an all-time high: seven per 100,000 in 2012, compared with one per 100,000 at the turn of the 20th century.
- In 2011, $9.2 million was pledged on the crowd-funding site Kickstarter to support design projects, and 319 successful projects were funded.
- California and Michigan, as hubs of the auto and aerospace industries, each employ more than 3,000 industrial designers.
Drawing Data Conclusions
The numbers are interesting, especially in light of the fact that this is the first time they’ve all been brought together to define industrial designers. But what do they mean?
They show how important the design side of design engineering is to innovation. Design patents are at a record high and, as the report points out, “approximately 40% of inventors named on design patents were also named on utility patents.” Utility patents are those that are designed to protect how a product works, as opposed to how it looks. That percentage shows how critical the creative process behind designing the look and feel of a product is to invention.
That fact isn’t lost on engineering firms, as the projected 29% leap in industrial designer employment in the professional services sector shows. While manufacturing declines are expected to reduce the numbers of industrial designers in that sector, it is still expected to employ the largest share of them by 2020.
Not all industrial designers being trimmed from manufacturing will move into professional services. With 30% of them already self-employed, the $9.2 million in design funding on Kickstarter could serve as this era’s “there’s gold in them there hills” rallying cry.
Executives would do well to make the most of industrial design by keeping design engineers fully engaged in multiple aspects of the business, even if their company’s products will never get a close-up in a slick advertising campaign. Design thinking — how design engineers creatively approach and solve problems — can make a positive impact on every stage of manufacturing.
Jamie Gooch is the managing editor of Desktop Engineering. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.