Degree or Disagree?
May 16, 2009 6:20 PM   Subscribe

(How) Should I pursue a career in industrial design?

Over the past year, I've become increasingly interested in my own personal time (day job is completely unrelated) to designing original, improving exisiting and gernerally making products more beautiful and useful. I am smitten and stoked on industrial design. I have a couple products I am taking to market very soon, on a very small production run. The entire process is exciting, but i have no formal training in any of it.

My background: I have a completely unrelated, BS degree in a social sciences field and a medium ammount of student debt associated with that. I've got a day-job that is not relevant to product design, and is also rather dead-end-ish when it comes to pay (has some nice perks though). I have fair amount of experience working in graphic design (mostly print) and branding. I did quite a bit of freelance work in both areas over the last 3 years.

I've been looking at going back to school specifically for a degree in industrial design. There seem to be a severe lack of proper industrial or product design programs in Portland, OR (the only one that exists is with the Art Institute, and through the roof expensive, and is a brand new program with only 1 graduate...worrisome), and relocation isn't really possible right now.

I was exploring the idea of hodge-podging experience together by taking a combination of machinist and other practical fabrication classes, together with some drawing, sculpture other design/aesthetic oriented classes at my local state university, and community colleges. Is this a good idea, a bad idea, a travesty waiting to happen?

I'm mostly just exploring my options right now for furthering this interest into a career, because its something i may be quite happy at...

From anyone who works directly with, or as an industrial designer, how did you get your start? Was a degree in your field necessary? Did it make it markedly easier to get a job? Would there be any alternative degrees i should look at that would have enough crossover?

If you're an industrial designer, or work closely with them, i'd love to pick your brain over a couple emails or if you're local to PDX, a cup of coffee or a beer on me.

If you'd like to post anything off-list here, contact me at meta.meta.anon.anon AT

(this is posted anonymously because i recently found out my current employer reads mefi, and they have no idea I'm looking to leave or return to school anytime soon)
posted by anonymous to Education (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You might check with the IDSA as a resource, especially regarding career advice.

The only Industrial Designer I've known was a fairly brilliant dude and he got his degree at Auburn. He has spent most of his career in the UI field working for various and sundry software companies. The field has fascinated me ever since I met him, in large part because it seems so interdisciplinary: part engineer, part craftsman, part artist, and so on.
posted by jquinby at 6:52 PM on May 16, 2009

...and I poked around the IDSA website and came across this guide to getting a job in the field.
posted by jquinby at 6:54 PM on May 16, 2009

I have a graduate degree in ID from Pratt that I don't really use in my current job. I would say that drawing and 3-D skills are crucial as are color, model-making (computer generated and real-life) and maybe some engineering/human factors/production materials. With the exception of the drawing skills, most of these might be better picked up by doing a 2-3 day a week internship(probably unpaid--consider it school,) at a good design studio that does product design. Can't think of what there is in portland but look on core77 for companies and through IDSA. For the drawing skills take a few classes and draw, draw, draw as much as you can, but definitely every day, from life and all your ideas.
posted by beckish at 7:06 PM on May 16, 2009

also to better answer your question--I don't think a degree is as useful as a mind-blowing portfolio and good name-brand experience in getting a job in the field.
I think the internship might be helpful as there was a huge gulf for me between school for ID (which was really, really fun and expensive) and real-life ID jobs (which I found really, really boring).
posted by beckish at 7:10 PM on May 16, 2009

I am not an industrial designer, but I used to be a prototype model maker and spent a couple of years working with industrial designers for some well-known consumer products companies. My sense was in line with beckish's experience; however cool and fun it is to design new objects, an industrial design job is like almost any other job in that you're stuck working within all sorts of uncomfortable constraints, many of them seemingly stupid and unnecessary.

Engineering wants you to change your design to make use of existing tooling. Marketing thinks it looks too much like a competitor's product, or does market-testing and concludes that the option you like least is the one that's easiest to sell. The company's lawyers want changes to make it impossible to choke on the thing.

While the products I worked on were largely sculptural, with few electronics or moving parts, I did talk with a designer that worked for a major appliance company. Since their products are so much more complicated, the design process is broken down categorically and handled piecemeal by specialists. The woman I talked to spent all of her time designing control interfaces. I'm not sure how many sets of washing machine dials I could work on without poking my eyes out.

My best advice is to talk to as many designers as you can about the realities of their daily work. You may decide that you're better off doing what you're doing now, staying small and keeping the freedom take risks and make simple things you feel good about.

Feel free to mefi mail me if you want to chat.
posted by jon1270 at 1:11 AM on May 17, 2009

If I were you I might try to go as far as I can on my own. Learn as much about the skills you need to get hired and get a job, and then learn things like CAD and 3d modeling on your own. You'd probably save a lot of money.
posted by delmoi at 2:52 AM on May 17, 2009

There was a guy where I used to work who came aboard right out of school as an industrial designer. He was supposed to give the different things we built a corporate identity or look of similarity, and make them easier to use This came off very well. Since he sat pretty close to me I got to see a lot of what he did.

1. There were lots of standardization items: colors, finishes, the look of the company logo. It isn't as easy as you might think to pick these colors since they had to look correct and work right when they were paint over metal, paint over plastic, body-colored plastic and on marketing brochures.

2. He spent hours every week, starting at the very beginning of projects, working with engineering groups to decide the shape and details of the product. He'd come up with questions like "if it gets dusty can the user still see these indicators from the ground?"

3. He had an excellent sense of color and shape, and could freehand-draw things well. A drawing of his with a couple patches of color would look somehow compelling.

His degree is from Western Washington University, in industrial design.
posted by jet_silver at 7:29 AM on May 17, 2009

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