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Product development designer

Looking at the role, responsibilities, qualifications and career challenges of the product development designer.

Product development designers (sometimes called private-label designers) are the creators of the product line for a manufacturer or a retailer.

For example, in addition to its own brand, Fossil manufactures a collection of watches under a number of brands such as Michele, Relic, Skagen, Zodiac, Adidas, Burberry, Diesel, DKNY, Emporio Armani, Armani Exchange, Karl Lagerfeld, Kate Spade New York, Marc Jacobs, Tory Burch, and Michael Kors. Fossil has product development designers working on these collections each season. From a retail perspective, MMG at Macy’s has design teams working on each of its company-branded lines, from I.N.C. to Hotel Collection. They are trend forecasters in their own right by determining what their customers will be ready for next. They go through the design process with each new season.

The design process refers to the conception of a style, including its inspiration or theme, color palette, fabric selection, form, and fit. Product development designers must be adept at synthesizing a variety of fashion influences while acknowledging marketability and fulfilling customer wants and needs. An important designer trait is the art of compromise. These designers must balance the desired fashion look of a product and the highest possible quality standards with a price tag that is acceptable to the target customer.

After determining the style, color, fabric, and trend concepts, designers begin sketching individual styles, usually with a particular form, or silhouette, in mind that epitomizes the fashion trends for the upcoming season. They may repeat versions of this silhouette throughout the line. Some styles may be completely original, but sometimes designers will adapt a style from an actual garment found on a shopping expedition or in a magazine. Most lines include at least a few carryovers, and updated bestsellers from a previous season. The designers will be careful to include important basics and to balance each group with the help of the merchandiser. Many companies ask for estimated costs from factories before samples are made, so that styles can either be dropped or adjusted when the line is still in sketch form. Oversampling is quite expensive, so the merchandiser will generally try to keep it under control. When a complete group of styles is finalized, all of the sketches are placed on a line sheet so the group may be seen at a glance.

Typical tasks of the designer may include the following:

  • shopping the retail market, sometimes with merchandisers or a member of the sourcing staff, for design ideas and knowledge of the competition; buying samples
  • shopping the fabric, yarn, and trim markets
  • attending trend forecasting meetings
  • developing color palettes, groups of colors, and colorways, combinations or pairings of colors
  • determining the styling direction of the line and creating concept boards or storyboards
  • shopping the print market and buying print paintings for textile development
  • developing styles through sketching garments by hand or on a computer
  • recoloring garments or prints
  • designing embroideries, screen prints, and appliqués
  • writing specification sheets
  • corresponding with factories or in-house sample departments regarding drapes, patterns, and garment construction
  • attending fit meetings.

These tasks vary, often depending on the size of the company for which the designer works. Some of the larger companies may assign some of these tasks, such as writing specifications or developing color palettes, to more specialized personnel, such as technical designers or colorists.

Table showing monthly activities for product development by season. (Take a closer look)


Designers on product development teams are likely to have the following qualifications:


A bachelor’s degree in fashion design, product development, fashion merchandising, or a related field is a minimum requirement.


Employment as an assistant designer or technical designer is an excellent stepping-stone to the position of designer. These entry-level positions provide knowledge of fabrics, construction, and fit. Additionally, the designer needs prior experience in PC software, such as spreadsheets, imagery, and word processing. Many employers require designers to have CAD experience.

Personal characteristics

Successful designers have excellent organizational skills and pay attention to detail. They can create an image of the final product, either on a drawing pad or on the computer. Because much business is conducted in Asian countries, foreign language skills in languages such as Mandarin and Japanese are a plus.

Career challenges

The successful designer must know the retailer’s customer well because knowing the customer’s likes and dislikes minimizes the designer’s fashion risks. Designers must be able to multitask with the best, often working on two or more collections at one time.

Working with color, silhouettes or forms, fabric, and trend themes, they are challenged to create collections. It may be difficult to find new sources of inspiration and to find a common theme to weave among the items in a collection. In addition, product development designers must balance aesthetics with price, a decision that sometimes compromises their vision of the initial design concept. They must constantly remember the customer for whom they are designing, rather than incorporating their personal tastes.

In the next step, you will learn more about the role and responsibilities of the colorist.

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Careers in Fashion: Design, Development, and Promotion

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