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Digital Design Vs. Industrial Design: Understanding The Differences

We live in a world in which we’re inundated by digital, graphic design, to the extent that there are even popular memes about the industry. “Graphic design is my passion,” reads the garish line of red Papyrus text accompanied by clipart of a frog, in an image even the least experienced individual can understand as an aesthetic disaster. It’s a seemingly niche joke for the internet generation, but what many don’t realize is that, even for young professionals raised on evolving digital design norms, industrial design standards may remain beyond reach.


What’s the difference between graphic and industrial design? While the two share some underlying principles surrounding issues like clarity, there are also many ways in which the fields diverge, forcing creative professionals to think outside the box if they hope to move between fields.

Graphic Design: The Social Communication Angle

Most designers today focus their eyes on careers in graphic design, working to elevate social media content, support advertising campaigns, or work in other fields that rely on visual appeal. As such, they learn design principles such as minimizing the use of text, creating compelling but readable images that convey a succinct message. Industrial design, on the other hand, has markedly different goals.

Industrial Design: Creative Functionality

Both graphic and industrial designers need to be creative thinkers in order to solve the problems presented by assignments in their particular fields. In industrial design settings, however, designers are often constrained by regulations and technical requirements. Industrial designers need to be well-versed in these parameters and able to manage the different norms across design tasks. For traditional graphic designers, though they deal with tasks with varying parameters, those rules tend to be more creatively generative than those that structure industrial design.

Designer Wisdom

One of the major factors shaping how both graphic and industrial designers work is client demand: what is the task and the associated parameters, and how can the designer interpret and refine that information for the best result? However, depending on your specialty, you’ll likely have very different types of interactions with clients.

Industrial designers typically work with manufacturers and engineers who are trying to fulfill a functional need. As such, their work is to help guide manufacturers to the right material and tooling options, develop prototypes, and produce a functional, easy to use end product. Graphic designers, on the other hand, often work with other creative professionals, such as web designers, which presents different difficulties, as there are some overlapping skills and a lot of room for interpretation in any given task.

Form And Function: Emphasizing UX

In all design tasks, user experience (UX) is a dominant concern, but because the end goals are so different, how UX functions varies widely as well. For example, a graphic designer’s goal may be to create a social media ad that is eye-catching, easily communicates what is being promoted, and properly directs the viewer while being memorable – it should contribute to brand recognition.

Unlike in graphic design, for industrial designers, branding is often a minor element. Instead, technical issues like operations, safety concerns, and maintenance information tend to dominate a task, and in many cases, a huge amount of information needs to be communicated in a small space. That informs the designer’s options in terms of making all of that content accessible.

Though graphic and industrial design certainly have some of the same principles and underpinnings, their ultimate goals are quite distinct, and thus demand different skills. At the heart of it all, though, are the peculiarities of aesthetics and the rules that help us process information in different settings because at the end of the day, it’s all about communication.