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Industrial Designers Key in Driving Product Creation, Not Just Aesthetics: Report


A report from the National Endowment for the Arts sheds light on the industrial design industry.

The Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) Macintosh; the Virgin Galactic Space Plane; the AK-47 Kalashnikov-series assault rifle; the floppy disk: When CNN asked the world's best industrial designers to choose the most iconic industrial designs created over the past century, these were some of the answers they gave. These are products that have shaped our politics, our culture, and how we live our day-to-day lives, and they each underscore the influence industrial designers have in today's world.

Now, a research report from the the National Endowment for the Arts titled "Valuing the Art of Industrial Design: A Profile of a Sector and Its Importance to Manufacturing, Technology, and Innovation" sheds new light on this influential profession in the United States. It is the first time, claims the report, that anyone has taken federal data on industrial design and looked at it from an analytical perspective.

Source: Wikipedia
One of the report's biggest takeaways? Industrial designers don't just make the objects surrounding us look pretty -- they're inventing them, too. Analyzing US patents awarded between 1975 and 2010, the report shows 40% of people named on design patents were also named on utility patents (roughly 55,000 out of 136,000). Over the same period, only 2% of of the 2.5 million people named on utility patents ("inventors") were also named on design patents.

From the report: "These data demonstrate that designers are not only crafting new or improved visual ornamental designs for products -- they are simultaneously inventing the new and useful products and processes themselves."

Design firms drive a $1.5 billion industry in the United States, with the number of industrial design patents currently at a 25-year high. It's an industry dominated by few firms. Four companies -- Continuum (West Newton, Massachusetts), IDEO (Palo Alto, California), Frog Designs (San Francisco, California), and Lunar Design (Palo Alto, California) -- generate 11% of the industry's total revenues, with the 50 largest firms generating 45% of the total pie. In comparison, the 50 largest firms in the professional services sector as a whole (which includes industrial design) generate only 18% of total revenue.

Employment for industrial designers in the professional services sector is expected to grow 29% over the next several years. This sector includes specialized design firms; engineering and architecture firms; management, scientific, and technical consulting firms; and scientific research and development firms.

In the US, the top-10 companies listed by number of industrial design patents awarded are Microsoft Corporation (NASDAQ:MSFT), The Procter & Gamble Company (NYSE:PG), Nike Inc (NYSE:NKE), The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company (NASDAQ:GT), Stanley Black & Decker, Inc. (NYSE:SWK), Wolverine World Wide, Inc. (NYSE:WWW), Kohler Co., Apple, 3M Co (NYSE:MMM), and the Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F).

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