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Ten years ago, a product designer was widely understood as someone with the competency to design, prototype, build, and manufacture products. Today, the meaning of the role has expanded to include digital products (apps, websites, software). Consequentially, the job search is a challenge for designers of non-digital products.

Some designers use the words physical, hardware, tactile, analog, and tactile. However, the titles "physical product designer" or "hardware designer" lack the finesse of "product designer". Some physical product designers have also attempted to use "industrial designer" which happens to be a different design discipline.

I would love to hear what people think. Perhaps there's a better way to formulate the title. Maybe a new word needs to be invented. It would greatly benefit people like me to stake claim to a title that helps distinguish ourselves from digital product designers.

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    The difficulty has been compounded by the fact that banks are now calling their saving & loan plans "products". – Weather Vane Aug 7 '20 at 13:54
  • How about “tangible product designer”? – pbasdf Aug 7 '20 at 14:14
  • I agree with tangible. A "product" has a huge range of meanings; just from being introduced to certain industries will vastly expand what you think of when you hear "product," and there's so many industries that it's virtually impossible to know about all of them. If you want to specify that this designer will be creating a physical model of something, tangible conveys the correct meaning. – Tyler N Aug 7 '20 at 15:18
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    @pbasdf As soon as I read tangible product designer, I immediately thought to myself, "A product designer you can touch?" In order to avoid that ambiguity, this clearly needs hyphenation: tangible-product designer. (Note that tangible product design doesn't have the same level of ambiguity or necessity for hyphenation.) – Jason Bassford Aug 7 '20 at 16:22
  • @JasonBassford I thought about clarifying in my comment, but didn’t think of the hyphen solution. – pbasdf Aug 7 '20 at 16:28
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If I were to contrast digital with something, I would contrast it with material:

[Merriam-Webster]
1 a(1) : relating to, derived from, or consisting of matter
especially : PHYSICAL
           // the material world
1 a(2) : BODILY
           // material needs
1 b(1) : of or relating to matter rather than form
           // material cause
           // the material aspect of being

To me, although closely related, material seems like a broader term than just physical. Not only does it describe the composition of something, but also describes how it might be applied and interacted with in practice.

As such, you would have these contrasting terms:

  • digital-product manager
  • material-product manager

Note that I have used hyphens in both in order to avoid any ambiguity. (A computer-generated image of a product manager could be described as digital, for instance.)


A comment under the question suggested tangible.

I like that word, but one sense of tangible is not just physical, but observable:

[Merriam-Webster]
2 : capable of being precisely identified or realized by the mind
// her grief was tangible

Obviously, grief itself is not physical; however, by this sense, it is tangible. The same could be said of something like software.

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