There may be a good reason that so many innovative hardware projects pop up on Kickstarter: 30 percent of industrial designers in the United States are self employed — right around the same number of artists in general that work for themselves. In a report on the state of the industrial design industry, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) points out that $9.2 million was pledged to Kickstarter in 2011 in support of design projects. "Many designers innovate products outside a formal business establishment," writes the NEA. "Funding platforms such as Kickstarter have enabled entrepreneurial designers to obtain capital to explore conceptual ideas and realize new inventions."
Michigan has four of the biggest areas for industrial designers
Industrial designers are reported to be the most common type of working artists, coming in at nearly 40 percent of the total. According to the report, there are estimated to be over 40,000 industrial designers inside of the US today, but they're far from being evenly distributed from state to state. Michigan, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Pennsylvania are the top five states for industrial design — though all but one of the biggest metropolitan areas for design is located in Michigan, which has the highest density of workers in the profession largely due to the auto industry.
The report also points out that awarded US design patents, which protect the visual characteristics of a design, are at an all-time high. It notes that patents are "not necessarily a perfect measure of product innovation," but it says that they provide a concrete sense of what's happening. Last year, about seven design patents were awarded for every 100,000 people in the US — up from just one per 100,000 during the early 1900s. Much of those are headed to companies, with big names like Microsoft, Nike, Samsung, and Sony being up near the top. But regardless of owner, the NEA points out that new designs all work toward the same end. "Ultimately design is a tool to inspire innovation and influence systems change," writes the NEA. "Industrial designers are creative professionals who are doing just that."