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How to Transition from Graphic Design to Product Design

Graphic design and product design have many similarities, especially when it comes to their shared interest in communicating through aesthetics. However, graphic design involves information displayed through some visual medium, whether print or digital. Product design concentrates on the aesthetics of a three-dimensional product, although it can also include many aspects of systems and user design.

Even when graphic design is used for print formats, it has its own aims separate from those of product design. A look at the theoretical tools of both pursuits should be instructive in telling them apart more definitively. Product design necessarily has more of a focus on tactility and the way the shape of a product can hinder or promote its use. Graphic design theory can seem more abstract, dealing with ideas like color theory, balance, negative space, typography, proximity, visual hierarchy, and so on.

Both schools of design seek to understand how the customer is made curious about a product, enticed to use it, and finally how they use it. They also have a conception of space, although when graphic designers think of it they’re almost always in a virtual space while product designers are imagining real physical space although they might start designing in a digital realm.

This shared conception of space is just one of the many ways that a background in graphic design makes for an ideal product designer. A few other key skills that will help in the transition are a familiarity with communicating business goals in aesthetic terms, understanding and targeting specific emotions in the design process, and a strong knowledge of visual cues and communication.

To make the leap from graphic design to product design, it will be necessary to learn some hands-on tools. For many people looking to make this career change, they find that a one-year program at a college or design school is helpful. Others manage to round out their education in other ways.

The most important tools product designers use that designers likely won’t have familiarity with are things like 3D modeling, manufacturing processes, materials, and model making. Any prospective product designer who has already learned about sketching will have a huge advantage because hand renderings are still quite popular and even their digital counterparts are closely linked to physical sketching.

There are many reasons why people seek to switch from graphic design to product design, not the least of which is the likelihood of a bigger paycheck. Fortunately, there are many theoretical aims that both types of design share. However, there are certainly some things that will be necessary to make the change and some information it will be helpful to know beforehand.

Graphic designers who are interested in moving to product design can read this article to find out what graphic design has in common with product design, what’s different, and how a background in graphic design leaves them fairly well-prepared. We’ve also included a brief look at product design in 2020 and included some product design tips to make the transition easier.

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Graphic Design Vs. Product Design: Differences & Similarities

Both graphic design and product design are centered around turning the goals of a business into a final product that will translate those goals to the user. They are increasingly mutually concerned with user experience, although neither one completely encapsulates what we refer to as UX or UI design.

The tools of product and graphic design vary greatly but there are some parallels. For example, where a graphic designer might be using programs from the Adobe Suite like InDesign, Photoshop, or Illustrator, product designers have programs like SolidWorks and AutoCAD.

However, product designers have some areas of expertise that graphic designers just don’t have to consider in their line of work. One great example is safety. Although there might be some content considerations that graphic designers have to make in order to, for example, make a kid-friendly product, the degree to which product designers have to design a product that won’t injure the use is much more involved.

This is only one of the many aspects of product design’s greater focus on materials. It’s a suitable illustrative example of the central difference between graphic and product design, though.

How Graphic Design Prepares You for Product Design

Given this categorical divide, are graphic designers doomed to go back to the start, completely redoing their entire education before they can become product designers?

Not quite. In fact, many product design teams are elated to have someone with graphic design experience around. Erstwhile graphic designers have plenty of experience studying, discussing, and including the users’ emotions into their designs. Too often, people who have learned the engineering needed to design products think formally and mathematically, forgetting that emotion is one of the best ways to get users engaged with a product.

Another great benefit is familiarity with speaking about visual principles. There are plenty of other designers who also work regularly with layouts and other visual tools, but graphic designers have a uniquely iterative version of that experience. They’re much more likely to have gone through hundreds or thousands of different layouts for a given design and therefore are much more likely to notice when a design just isn’t working visually.

What You Need to Know to Be a Product Designer

Product design is not a very specific title. The job comes in all shapes and sizes, depending on the size of the company, the budget, the product, and many other factors. However, there are a few things that are universally used to do the job. If you want to move from graphic design to product design, here are a few things you should know:

  • Sketching & Drawing

Graphic design has some limited drawing and lots of manipulation of lines and shapes, but product design has tons and tons of sketching and other types of drawing. No matter how much you expect, it’s going to be more. The best way to prepare for this is to start practicing as soon as possible. Even if it’s just taking notes, start doing everything by hand to get used to having a pen in-hand.

Some key tasks of product design like rendering require a deft hand at drawing and sketching. Although rendering is also done with digital tools, a significant part of the industry still does hand renderings. Depending on the industry you’re in, you may also have to render on vellum, which will require knowledge not only of sketching by hand but also of coloring things in by hand.

  • Physical Models

Making a prototype with clay or other construction materials is also still very much a part of product design. There may be digital renderings, but in order to study the structure of a product and how its construction will play out, you’ll have to build the first prototype by hand. In order to accomplish this task, you’ll have to understand how the materials work.

The more modern variety of handmade 3D models are CNC-constructed models from digital files. So it is possible to keep everything digital, but don’t count on that being easier than working with your hands. You’ll still have to familiarize yourself with new programs like SolidWorks.

  • UX Design

While experience as a UX designer isn’t a prerequisite, it will save lots of time later on to begin learning about wireframes and other deliverables that UX designers use in their process. Product design is the precursor to UX/UI design. The people who designed and built objects and tools were the first people to begin to think about what the user would like out of that product and how they could make it better with those desires in mind.

It probably won’t be necessary to have a wealth of UX design experience or a portfolio full of case studies, but it might be helpful to attempt a product redesign on your own just so you have something that demonstrates your thought process for potential interviewers.

Product Design Tips for Aspiring Designers

Anyone looking to make the jump from graphic design to product design or looking to move into product design from any field will benefit from these product design tips. Product design in 2020 is in many ways much different than what came before it, not only because the technology has changed but also because design thinking itself has changed as well.

1- Read About Design Thinking

New design thinking books are coming out every year. It’s critical to stay up to date on the latest trends and strategies in design thinking if you want to make the best and most effective product possible. There are many books that discuss product design explicitly and some that talk about design or just creativity more generally. Read a wide variety to get the broadest sense of what people in your industry are thinking. It can also help to keep the creative juices flowing.

2- Bring Graphic Design Expertise

If you already know how to make iterative attempts at designs and brainstorm tons of ideas about how to make a certain design work, then you can bring that to your product design work and make a huge impact on the quality of the ideas produced. It will also be incredibly helpful to illustrate ideas to managers and other stakeholders who don’t have creative roles in the company. Rather than just picking out shortfalls of a design, they can instead pick out what works best in each design.

3- Function Over Flash

The most clever designs manage to make every aspect of the design more useful than an alternative. Rather than just trying to make things look good or flow well as you might do as a graphic designer, you will have to focus on making every part of the final design link directly to the overall utility of the product. For instance, rather than simply adding an aesthetic flourish to the side of a fishing reel, why not make it work as a hook keeper too?

4- Find the Right Pain Points

Just like UX designers build personas to make sure they’re designing for the people who will actually use the product, product designers ought to take care to make sure that they are addressing problems that people actually have. This can be difficult these days since the push for innovation has led many companies to fix things that aren’t broken, but it will save tons of time and make the design more effective in the end if you make sure you’re addressing problems that people are experiencing and not just things you can imagine some people might be having.

Product Design in 2020

Beyond the continuing trend to digital and the increasing presence of remote work, product design in 2020 has seen a few major changes. They’re more shifts in the tide than they are groundbreaking new inventions, but they should be considered nonetheless.

One thing that’s new this year is the growth of wearable tech. Lots of that comes from health industries that want to offer people a more convenient way to monitor their heart rate, step count, or blood sugar levels. People want this tech to be conveniently-sized and they especially like for it to blend in with their everyday outfits unless it can be made into a fashion accessory itself.

Environmental awareness is also a big new trend. More people than ever are interested in products that are sourced locally and don’t require tons of fossil fuels to create. Having a product made of recycled material will give you a leg up in the marketing game. For that matter, making a reusable or recyclable product will also get attention from potential buyers.

Another trend in product design in 2020 is content creation. People are always hungry for good content but the savviest businesses are learning how to include that kind of desirable information in their product or their websites. Content writers who know how to help blend their craft into product design are creating a much better user experience than in years prior.

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Hand rendering is still very popular with product designers.

Should Graphic Designers Go Back To School?

One of the most common product design tips for graphic designers who want to switch professions is to find a short course to enroll in to learn the tools of the new trade. While it’s not automatically true that such a course would be useless, it’s also not absolutely necessary for everyone.

Plenty of people are taking advantage of the trend toward remote work and learning about product design through seminars and other networking groups. Even if you do decide to go back to school, you should look into such options to make sure you’re learning as much as possible before heading to your new job as a product designer.

The new materials and the focus on drawing and making prototypes by hand is what drives most graphic designers to get some additional schooling before they transfer to jobs as product designers. If you have no prior experience working with your hands, it will probably be very helpful to learn something in a course centered on such methods. Even if you have, the additional practice won’t hurt.

Overall, if you have the time and there’s a quality course conveniently located, then getting some additional product design skills from a short course isn’t a bad idea. It will help your resume and give you some more knowledge about what you need to know to be a good product designer. The best practice is to take whatever educational resource you can so that you stay on the cutting edge of design thinking.


In conclusion, the transition from product to graphic design is a multifaceted journey that demands careful consideration and strategic planning. By leveraging insights from current design trends, understanding the creative process, receiving career advice, gaining industry insights, and implementing portfolio tips, designers can navigate this shift successfully.

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