Which path to go for product design/usability/human factors?
October 2, 2008 1:16 AM   Subscribe

I'm a jack-of-all-trades type of guy interested in getting into product design/usability/human factors. I'm somewhat convinced getting a degree in industrial engineering is a good start. Any other paths to consider before I commit to that?

Hi MeFites, I'm a relatively new member, yet another person in their mid-20s looking for some career guidance. Well, at least I have a good idea of where I want to be -- something related to product design/usability/human factors -- but I'm not 100% positive as to which path is the best for me to get there -- and the problem is, I have no relevant experience and many undeveloped skills/lack of knowledge, so I think I'll need a new degree.

I'm interested in many aspects of this field, such as the product hardware design, software design, and research involved in product development. Ideally I could utilize one of my strengths (versatility) and not need to specialize in a specific area. However I do recognize the possibility that specialization may be necessary to get a good job, but I want to hold on to the hope that this isn't true for every job out there in this field.

One side issue is that I already have a B.A. degree (in Asian Studies), so I'll have a tough time with finances (little financial aid); I'm in the process of figuring out how to deal with that. (Any advice and/or links to relevant scholarships would be helpful.) However, in the past, I have never felt the sense of clarity that I do now in terms of what I want to do in the future. I want to be prepared and qualified, and I want to do an excellent job in this field.

There are several ways to go, with certain routes having certain emphases and possibly less versatility:
-B.S. in Industrial Engineering
This is the option I am learning toward. I believe that it offers the most flexibility in choosing which area to pursue. Also gives a technical understanding to design that other fields lack. Unfortunately getting a second degree in this would probably require 3-4 years of schooling. (One side benefit to this path is that engineers will be in demand in the near future.)
-B.S./B.A. in Industrial Design
I'm torn about this option. It would take less time to complete than an industrial engineering degree but I don't feel "artsy" enough to do it. Even though I don't consider myself to be good at basic arts (drawing/painting/etc.), I have a pretty good eye for what looks good, and can draw decently with a computer and a tablet with trial and error (thanks Undo button :). Photography and videos is something that I've done fairly well with in the past as well. Does that qualify enough for a degree in this?
-B.A. in Graphic Design
Similar "artsy" issues as the Industrial Design degree, but moreso. Another way that can get into the field, but has little emphasis on anything technical. In the end, a portfolio lands you a job, so paying up cash for a degree in this seems unnecessary. I can just teach myself some graphics tools via book/cheaper classes.
-B.S. in Computer Science
Many CS majors (esp. with HCI emphasis) have the chance to get into some of my desired fields, but I feel this narrows me down specifically to software-related fields. Depending on the program, CS tends to be less on the practical side and more on theory. Instead of a degree, I can teach myself commonly used programming languages through books or cheap classes.
-B.S. in Cognitive Psychology
I feel that this limits me to research-oriented areas. However, this may be the cheapest option (in terms of both time and money).
-Network Like Crazy; Land Entry-Level Job
Hard with my current degree that is completely unrelated and a lack of professional-level skills. Possible, but seems to be a big risk because there is no guarantee when and if I can get a job, especially with the current state of the economy.

After that, I can do one or a combination of:
- A Human Factors/Ergonomics graduate degree
- An Industrial Engineering/Product Design graduate degree
- A Human Factors International certificate
- Networking, networking, networking
- Any other possibilities?

My current plan:
- B.S. in Industrial Engineering, if time permits, minor(s) in Industrial Design/Cognitive Psychology. During that time I will learn some common programming languages and the skills to use some common graphics/CAD tools. Also networking/internships during this time. Biggest problem here is figuring out the financial aspect.
- M.S./M.A. in Human Factors/Ergonomics OR a M.S. in Industrial Engineering/Product Design plus an HFI certificate. Of course, networking/internships/programming and graphic tool skill development during this time.

Now, I hope you can help me decide which way to go! I really like my current plan, but I hope that you guys can expose any flaws in my thinking and/or recommend any other possibilities. My plan seems too perfect and perhaps too idealistic. Feel free to rip it apart (with rationale, of course)!

Thanks a lot, and I hope to contribute useful info to MeFi in the future!
posted by NeoLeo to Education (12 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Don't become and industrial engineer. Many of my high school friends studied industrial engineering, and they spend their days managing stock in giant warehouses, optimizing manufacturing processes, running computer simulations, etc...

I got a degree in Graphic Design and took as many industrial design classes as I could. It is exactly what you are looking for. You do not need to be artsy, you can leave that to your classmates, and you can concentrate on the ergonomics, the mechanics, etc...

I switched majors 3 times, and ended up working in another field entirely. I guided my decisions by what I read online and what colleges tell students. My advice to anyone in your situation is to go and talk to people who graduated from the programs you are interested in. Ask them about their day to day job.
posted by dirty lies at 4:15 AM on October 2, 2008

I don't have a degree in any of these fields, but I've worked with people who have most of them. I used to be a prototype model maker, and my biggest account was with a major faucet and bathroom accessory company. I worked most directly with the industrial designers, who were in charge of the (surprise) design of the products. They established the shape and functionality of the products. The engineers only got involved downstream of the design phase. Their role was to figure out how to make the product physically possible, and to make it cheaper by finding ways to incorporate existing components and minimize the need for new tooling. There was certainly a feedback loop (Designers: "We want it to look like this."; Engineers: "No, you have to make it fatter here to accomodate valve# XJ-12.") but the engineers were pretty thoroughly isolated from the human-factor design issues you're interested in.

As a non-artsy type you wouldn't get a job creating highly sculptural stuff like faucets and soap dishes, but industrial design is a big field. I once met, for example, a young woman who worked for Whirlpool ,whose job was to design controls for appliances -- a primarily psychological specialization.

I'd suggest you get in touch with a local chapter of the IDSA and attend one of their functions. Some conversations there will shed a lot of light for you.
posted by jon1270 at 4:23 AM on October 2, 2008

Best answer: Great questions, and good anwsers. Being a Mechanical Designer myself i can speak about this. Like dirty lies said; do not become an Industrial engineer unless you enjoy process engineering like what is seen in large factory's. I cannot stress this enough: the differences between Industrial Design and Industrial Engineering are like night and day. Yes, Industrial Design is artsy, but it can be learned. Considering the 3d modeling tools we use today, its more about CAD skills than art skills. Jons advice about contacting the IDSA is a great start.
posted by Wezzlee at 5:31 AM on October 2, 2008

Something like the Interdisciplinary Programs in Design and Innovation (PDI) at RPI might be worth looking into.
posted by stefnet at 6:39 AM on October 2, 2008

I have a BS in Engineering Psychology and MS in Human Factors Engineering from Tufts University. I graduated over 10 years ago and got a great education. The advisers have changed since I was there though, but I would imagine it's still a good program.

I'm currently a voice user interface designer.

BTW, you can check out the HFES' list of undergrad and grad programs here:


I would suggest doing some "informational interviews" with people doing work in different fields that you are interested in. You can learn more about what they do and the types of education and experience that it took them to get there.

The great thing about Human Factors is that it's so versatile. You'll learn a great set of skills that could be applied to consumer product design, web design, GUI design, medical devices, speech recognition, etc.

posted by reddot at 8:49 AM on October 2, 2008

Response by poster: --dirty lies: This brings up another question that I thought I had figured out: "Which kind of engineering involves product design/usability most?" I was undecided between Industrial Engineering vs. Mechanical Engineering. It seems the best answer can be Industrial Engineering, depending on the school, as IndEng can be interpreted to be many things (see 3rd paragraph). It seems that your friends might have been involved in the more traditional meaning(s). Though, I'm not 100% sure. I'll definitely look into asking graduates about programs I'm interested in. Thanks!
--jon1270: Thanks for clarifying the difference between engineers and designers a bit. I was envisioning myself to be a product designer with human factors knowledge and some engineering know-how to reduce the mentioned "feedback loop". I was thinking of taking care of engineering knowledge during my undergrad years (and thus, also have something to fall back on as an alternate career possibility) and then focusing on product design/human factors during graduate school. Perhaps it might be good to major in IndDesign instead and take some side engineering classes? Or maybe just expecting myself to be a designer with engineering knowledge is overkill? I'm planning to network at IDSA as soon as possible, yet unfortunately I can't at the moment (currently working abroad).
--Wezzlee: I initially thought the same about industrial engineering, though it seems that recently it has encompassed other fields. Maybe not as much as I thought? (See my reply to dirty lies.) Good to know that industrial design isn't as artsy as I thought it would be.
--stefnet: Thanks for the link.
posted by NeoLeo at 10:12 AM on October 2, 2008

NeoLeo, I will repeat myself: "I guided my decisions by what I read online and what colleges tell students". Those were bad decisions. Try to talk to people who graduated from the programs you are looking at, find out what they are actually doing for a living.
posted by dirty lies at 2:54 PM on October 2, 2008

Best answer: Just to reiterate that I very much doubt industrial engineering is what you are looking for. In the UK at least, it tends to involve more logistics, supply chain management and factory related issues. I do not know an industrial engineering graduate who works on the design side. Might be different in the US.

If you were in the UK, I would recommend product design (PDE) or possibly mechanical engineering. Product design involves much more of the usability, ergonomics and in-depth design factors that you like. Mechanical engineering involves much more calculations and science. Hence mechanical engineering is seen as a 'stronger' degree in that it is broader and there is probably a wider range of jobs you could do afterwards (several of my mech eng friends had no trouble working in product design, for example). PDE has more of the design aspects you mention, so you will probably enjoy it more.

Again, I'm from the UK so I'd be grateful if anyone could add to this. NeoLeo are you doing this new course in South Korea? Hmm I see that KAIST doesn't seem to have anything called Product Design. Maybe they call it something else.
posted by theyexpectresults at 9:05 PM on October 2, 2008

Response by poster: --Todd: Thanks for the pointers
--dirty lies: Will look into getting advice from alumni, thanks
--theyexpectresults: Okay, another vote against industrial engineering. Maybe I'll switch to mechanical (besides, that is what Stanford's Product Design program designates as a preferred degree). Haven't found many product design programs out where I'm from (California), but I'll look into it. Planning to return to America from South Korea, though I'm considering options at schools abroad if the financial aspect of it is okay (that means, being able to find a part-time job that can pay for most of my costs).
posted by NeoLeo at 11:15 PM on October 2, 2008

Response by poster: I'd like to add some more info and another question. Thanks to the replies here, I've found that industrial design doesn't have to be artsy, but it can be. Apparently, there are some conflicts about this even in the industrial design community, that many designers nowadays are overly focused on aesthetic rather than function.

So my question then, is: "What schools are focused moreso on the functional element of design rather than the artistic element?"

I'll be asking the Core77 forum as well shortly. I just can't help shake the feeling that many of the top industrial design schools expect people to be art-oriented. I'm primarily interested in issues like functionality, sustainability, efficiency, profitability, usability, etc. in product design rather than the artistic side. I believe that I already have some very innovative ideas to more easily integrate technology into our everyday lives that are very practical and easy to implement. I don't want a lack of sketching/art skills to get in my way.
posted by NeoLeo at 1:25 AM on October 3, 2008

Response by poster: Answering my own question for the sake of other people interested (didn't even know people favorited this topic until a few minutes ago).

Though just keep in mind this is based on internet research which is exactly what dirty lies (the MeFite user who replied above) warns against. Unfortunately it's been a little hard to contact people directly who work in this field in America because I'm working abroad in Asia right now.

So anyhow:
(1) It seems schools that are focused on the artistic side are the private industrial design schools, most of which require an art portfolio for admission.
(2) It seems that public universities (such as the University of Cincinnati, San Jose State University, Cal State Long Beach) do not have artistic skill requirements (there is no need for a portfolio) so are more open to those who are not as "artistic".
(3) Keep in mind that these observations are not conclusive.

A link to some well-regarded design schools:
- BusinessWeek's Top 60 Design Schools of 2007: remember this is from a business perspective, and also may have left out notable schools in Australia/New Zealand
- Core77's students n schools forum: a great industrial design website with a forum for school discussion, including topics about top ID schools
posted by NeoLeo at 11:23 PM on October 6, 2008

Response by poster: Okay, so after more research, I've concluded there are several routes to go:

--Product Design: Mechanical Engineering/Industrial Design
--Human Factors (work efficiency/ergonomics/supply line efficiency/work safety): Industrial Engineering, Human Factors
--Human Factors (usability of products): Cognitive Psychology, Human Factors
--Human Factors (usability of software/web design): study some psychology (includes Cognitive Psychology majors), study programming (including Computer Science majors), study web/graphic design (includes Graphic Design majors); Human Factors and/or Human Computer Interaction (aka HCI)

Been doing tons of research in schools for the past few days. It's been hard to find schools in California which are willing to take second baccalaureate students because many schools are impacted!

I'm now deciding between these potential routes...
posted by NeoLeo at 11:35 PM on October 14, 2008

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