What a Hardware Design Company is, Explained: The Two Types of Product Design

What exactly is a hardware design company? Is it the same as a product design firm or an industrial design studio? Do they only do electrical engineering? We get these questions a lot when we tell people what we do so we figured it was time to demystify all of the terms and help you understand what a hardware design company does.

Types of design companies

Companies that offer creative services tend to name themselves following a pattern. It usually starts with their area of expertise, for example “design”, and ends with some variant of the word “company”. For example “marketing” + “agency” or “architecture” + “firm”.  In the first part of this post we will focus on the area of expertise, and in the second we’ll differentiate some of the words used to define the type of company.

The two main types of product design

There are two main types of design expertise that apply to the design of products for people. Granted, design can be applied to many other domains like the aforementioned examples of architecture and marketing, but those are beyond the scope of our discussion about product design. Let’s start by visualizing these two categories as either aspects of digital design (things you can’t touch, like code that runs on a chip) or physical design (the chips, their enclosures, and other things you can touch).

There are two main types of product design: digital and physical
The two main types of product design: physical and digital

The items inside this diagram aren’t necessarily alike - some of them are disciplines or skills, some are activities, and some are merely principals or ways of doing things. An individual person could be good at one of these things or may be described by several.

Physical Design

Physical design companies rarely use the word “physical” to describe what they do. Because what they do came first chronologically they’re used to not having to distinguish. Most of them call themselves either an “industrial design” firm or studio, meaning they focus on the look, feel, and interaction of physical products, or a “product design” firm or studio, meaning they design entire products including the look, feel, interaction, and engineering.

Ovyl is a hardware design company because we have an equal focus on all three major aspects of physical product design

Ovyl is a hardware design company because we have an equal focus on all three major aspects of physical product design: industrial design, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and software. To us, that’s what a hardware design company is because many hardware and software products are intertwined. So Ovyl Studio develops software including apps and websites, but with a specific focus on developing apps and websites that work with or enable hardware products.

Digital Design

Digital design is something you cannot touch. You can only describe it or interact with it on a screen because it exists as bits in a computer. That said, digital design is remarkably powerful because it is relatively unbound by physical requirements. Sure storage size, processing power, and other factors are limited by hardware, but generally if you have a computer, you can create software to solve a vast array of human’s problems. And smart software engineers are continuously making those requirements less and less of a concern for the average developer.

Companies which offer services in this area alone often call themselves software development companies, custom software firms, digital agencies, or more specifically, app development companies.

Cross Over Areas

The term “product design” used to refer more to industrial design, but since software has so greatly proliferated in our world, it more often refers to digital products. We prefer not to use this name because it seems to more often mean software these days. In reality, it can refer to either, so you’re best off using context clues to discern the difference, much to all industrial designer’s chagrin.

The same goes for prototyping, which no doubt started with physical goods thousands of years ago, but now is more heavily influenced by software. In fact, designers of physical goods have learned much from prototyping methods that were developed for software, and there is now a fruitful feedback loop between the two. The same goes for design and user research, which has developed almost in parallel between the two domains.

Lastly, I put firmware engineering in between, because although it is digital (you cannot touch it and it exists only on a computer), it takes a great deal of physical understanding of how chips work in order to write good firmware.

How design companies choose names

What do the names firm, agency, studio, and lab all have in common? They all typically refer to service companies, meaning you can hire them to do work for you, but that’s where the similarities end. Designers tend to make careful decisions, so you can bet that the name choices mattered to them. This next bit is pretty subjective, but here’s my take on the matter. Firm tends to be a little more engineering heavy whereas agencies are a bit more marketing/creative heavy (agency was originally synonymous with “ad agency”). While a “studio” is pretty similar to an agency, to me it infers that the company has more niche expertise and and a unique viewpoint, while “lab” refers to an even more creative or even experimental kind of company.

The hardware design company

Ovyl Studio is a hardware design company with a niche focus on creating high end, high tech devices and related software applications. We went with studio because if felt like a name that represented a collective of like-minded folks working in a niche area to produce work that the studio would put it’s name on. We’re intentionally very empathetic to our clients desires while carefully using our influence to guide the creative direction of a project. We take pride in every project and don’t ship anything that isn’t up to our creative standard, which we’re always raising. If you’re looking for a hardware design company, then I hope you’ll consider us in your search. We look forward to talking with you about your project!

Jan 12, 2022
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