Why You Need to Know the Difference Between Design and Product Development

“Can I just hire a designer?” or “Do I really need a product developer?” 

As a small business consultant and an adjunct professor, I’m often asked to explain the difference between the role of a designer and a product developer.  Whether the venture is a start-up or a large multi-national brand, these positions can vary greatly but are pivotal to a company’s growth.

In a very broad sense of the roles:

Designers create concepts and product developers execute the designs. Both should have a clear understanding of teamwork and communication.

They understand the evolution of the customer and demonstrate the taste level of the brand through their designs. Through a trained eye and technical skill, they envision and craft an idea into CAD or sketch form.

Their responsibilities are multi-faceted and can include any (or all) of the following:

→Shopping the competitive landscape
→Attending trade shows
→Traveling for inspiration
→Creating designs
→Presenting the collection to various audiences.

They have to be able to think creatively under limited time constraints. The role could also include technical sketches, which involve measurements and detailed specifications. Though being a designer has it’s perceived glamorous perks, it can also be tedious and time consuming because all parts of the role have to be managed simultaneously and continuously, based around the calendar seasons. In order for a designer to create, they need the time to work productively and for this reason, an experienced product development partner is worth their weight in gold.


It’s Fashion Week in NYC. Design receives a white shoe from Italy 14 hours before the runway show. It no longer matches the redesigned collection. Product development steps in to find a source to dye the shoe to match the “looks” in time for the 8pm show. Close call!
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Product developers are able to clearly translate design’s aesthetic intent while having a technical understanding of the manufacturing process.

They are multi-taskers who are charged with taking the design concept from a CAD or sketch and executing it into a tangible product. This can include any (or all) of the following:

→Factory sourcing
→Initial costing
→Technical sample execution
→Tracking sample status and daily factory communication.
This could also include maintaining quality control standards and traveling to factories to work with artisans while creating and adhering to a production timeline. A skilled product developer is able to think creatively and technically while problem solving and still maintaining a high level of detail-oriented communication skills.

Based on the size of a company, certain parts of these roles may have to be interchangeable. As a general rule, the smaller the brand, the more responsibility falls under each member of the team. Therefore design may also be the product developer and vice versa.

However, sometimes there is an assumption that excelling in one particular area (i.e. design) qualifies you to excel in another (i.e. product development.) The truth is that not all talented designers are talented product developers and vice versa. Many of the skills of a designer and product developer are different but complementary.

Some of my greatest working relationships are with designers and I’ve found that the most successful design and product developer collaborations are focused around these three concepts:

  1. A clear understanding and ability to anticipate the needs of one another while still focusing on what their innate talents and skill-sets are.

  2. Flexibility to multi-task in ways that efficiently and respectfully work within the confines of each other’s role.

  3. A mutual foundation of trust based on both partners honoring the same goal of executing a high level of design and quality. This creates an overall sense of partnership instead of blame.

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In order for a creative brand to thrive, it’s important that a designer be allowed to design, create and innovate. The efficiencies and technical knowledge of a product developer are pivotal to the design process. Having a balance of design’s creativity and product development’s pragmatism allows for flexibility and growth in the ever-changing landscape of a creative business.