Artistic + intellectual pursuits. Social justice. Actress. Model. Musician. Eugene // Portland.
6 min. read
Updated October 29, 2023
Are you interested in designing your own products? Many people become entrepreneurs because they have a great product idea that inspires them to pursue this path. However, not having a background in design or an understanding of the principles related to designing products is often a problem.
Luckily, in our amazing age of online resources—many of which are free—this isn’t the struggle it used to be. We’ve compiled a list of some great options and tools, so that you can learn as much as possible about product design. And, because money is often an obstacle, I focused on low-cost or free resources for this list. Many of them are also open source, so you can get a first-hand look at how they work and make modifications to the code, all completely free of charge.
Jon Kolko’s book is a great place to start exploring design, as he goes through the product design process from start to finish in a way that readers can emulate and implement themselves. The main point of the book is get readers to think with empathy about who they’re designing for. Empathy is the key to making a customer’s experience with a product the best that it can be.
How would you like to create your own oven or tractor? What about a 3D printer? Do you know how they work? Open Source Ecology is a project that’s putting together open source blueprints of what it considers to be the “50 most important machines it takes for modern life to exist” and making them available to the public for free. They also offer paid immersion courses and workshops to help people learn more about the design and function of the machinery most of us use every day.
Did you know: Webopedia defines open source as: “A program in which the source code is available to the general public for use and/or modification from its original design free of charge.”
Oh, how much there is to know! The internet is pretty much bursting with online tutorial videos and classes on this subject, from free options like Alison’s course, “Understanding Product Design” to classic courses you can find on Lynda (Lynda.com does offer a 10-day free trial but is a paid subscription afterwards).
After you’ve done your studying, you’ll probably be itching to try some of these things out for yourself. Computer-aided design software—or CAD, as it’s often referred to—and 3D printers (so you can actually make an object, typically out of a plastic resin) are a good place to start experimenting.
3D printers can be pretty expensive – this thousand dollar printer called the Cube certainly is – but there are companies who wish to make 3D printing technology more accessible to everyone. To that end, you can check out Peachy Printer, a crowdfunded project that seeks to build 3D printers with accompanying software that should cost about $100 each (it’s currently still in preorder).
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For the DIY lover or the truly ambitious, you can also build your own, using a site called RepRap, which will tell you everything you need to know.
CAD (or CAM, short for computer aided manufacturing) software, is software that allows you to create the actual schematics and computer models for products. Similar to 3D printers, a top of the line example of CAD software is Fusion 360, a CAD software that is paid on a subscription basis for around $1200 a year.
On the lower end of the pricing scale, there’s FreeCAD, which is just what it sounds like: free and open source computer-aided design software. With a 4.6 out of 5 star rating and over 20 thousand downloads on Sourceforge (a site that highlights free and open source software), it’s a solid bet.
Blender is a free and open source 3D animation software, meaning that you can (should you need or desire to) go from modeling to creating full videos, useful in the development particularly of digital products like video games. Tufts University even offers a free online course about 3D design using Blender.
I’ve always found that practical applications help me learn more. Here are some amazing things currently being done in the world of product design, almost all of them open source, many of which you could use to create products of your own:
Arduino is an amazing little device that enables people to create interactive projects going beyond what a typical computer does. Here’s what they have to say about their own product:
“Arduino can be used to develop interactive objects, taking inputs from a variety of switches or sensors, and controlling a variety of lights, motors, and other physical outputs. Arduino projects can be stand-alone, or they can communicate with software running on your computer (e.g. Flash, Processing, MaxMSP.) The boards can be assembled by hand or purchased preassembled; the open-source IDE can be downloaded for free.”
Both sites are great to peruse, whether you’re interested in making furniture or whether you’re simply looking for design and idea inspiration.
Wikihouse wants people to have access to design tools that give the know-how to build their own sustainable housing. It’s a lofty goal but a great idea and a fascinating website.
People love to photograph the day-to-day objects that inspire them and that they feel are innovative or beautiful. A great place to look for inspiration and ideas is Pinterest. Searching Pinterest for “Product Design” or “Industrial Design” pulls up a multitude of amazing examples of lamps, food packaging, home electronics, and more.
The world of product design is rich and varied, and you can learn about so many different subjects under its umbrella. It’s a great outlet for someone who has overlapping interests in technology, entrepreneurship, and creative design.
If all of this information has got your creative juices flowing, why not get started now?