industrial design for a mechanical engineer?
October 28, 2012 8:44 PM   Subscribe

Advice for a mechanical engineering student who might want to pursue a career in industrial design?

(On preview: my GOSH this is longer than it needs to be. Questions are bulleted at the bottom if you don't want to go through paragraphs of me talking about myself.)

So, I'm currently in year three of a five-year mechanical engineering program, with a specialization in mechatronics/control systems. My field of study is not really one I picked for the best of reasons (engineering: I didn't know what I wanted to do out of high school and my brother chose engineering and I thought, what the hell, I'm pretty good at math, I'll do it; mechatronics: everyone else in the robotics team I'm part of was in it so I went ahead and ticked the box). The parts of my program that I have enjoyed the most so far have been CADing and machining -- I don't have a special aptitude for it but I like working at it and practicing.

For design projects I always end up being the one doing the poster/visuals in photoshop or making the snazzy powerpoint presentation, things my classmates hate but I consider a nice break from staring at McMaster trying to select the correct screw. In my spare time I like to do vaguely arty/crafty things: for instance, I've designed my own jewellery and had it 3D printed, customized my sneakers with fabric paint, and this past weekend I have d├ęcoupaged ALL THE THINGS. Despite my hobbies I've never really considered anything creative as a career, due to a) my family drilling it into my head that I need to have a PRACTICAL and STABLE career and b) being told throughout my childhood that I wasn't "good at art".

A few months ago we had a guest speaker, who taught industrial design at a local (fairly well-known) art/design school, come in to talk to us about the "human side" of design: ergonomics, usability, aesthetics, etc., which I found fascinating. It was like the intersection of Things I Like and Things I Am Good At. I talked with him briefly after his lecture and he gave me some advice (start building a portfolio, work on your freehand sketching, maybe do a graduate degree in design.) I filed it away in the back of my head and didn't really start thinking about it again until recently -- I have to write an excrucatingly boring report about my potential career paths, and the more I flip through websites and articles and job listings the more it starts to feel like something attainable. So, my questions are:
  • What are some things I have to think about if I am seriously considering this?
  • How can I make the most of my final two years in mechanical engineering?
  • Browsing through job listings I saw quite a few for internships at design firms. Generally speaking are these paid or unpaid? In engineering, all the co-ops and internships are paid; I know that in other fields this is not the case. With my financial situation the way it is I wouldn't be able to do full-time unpaid internships.
  • What are the boring/tedious/offputting parts of industrial design that I am currently missing because of my "grass is greener" situation?
  • Any other advice you would like to give me? I am in Canada, if that matters at all.
posted by btfreek to Education (5 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I graduated Mech Eng. at McGill a few years ago and have been working as a software consultant after a few proper engineering jobs, so I can try to give you a bit of insight:
  • Industrial design unfortunately falls into the same pattern as architecture, in that there isn't a lot of demand, the demand that there is isn't very interested in your creativity, and without making a name for yourself you're not going to go far. So I would follow the speaker's advice except for the "graduate degree in design", which will be a waste of time and interest no one (probably not even you!). Also, make sure you align your expectations: it takes years, luck, connections and the portfolio to match before you the guy/girl in charge of designing the next iPod.
  • Your final two years are the easiest because you've already gotten "the beat". After a while, all engineering classes end up feeling the same, so it gets easy to get As. That being said, you should focus your free time on student projects (FSAE, any robotics, space elevator, etc). Those are extremely design-heavy and that's really where you can start building your portfolio. I was involved with FSAE, and I can assure you that there are an infinite number of opportunities for developing your industrial design chops, from making a pretty and light aluminum upright to getting an elegant body that doesn't require a 5-axis CNC machine to manufacture (harder than it looks). Also, and this is important, the people in these projects tend to get better and more interesting jobs than those who aren't, so you can feed off the connections you make to move up in the world.
  • Design, advertising and web development are the ghettos of our industry and they make a living of destroying the souls of bright-eyed young people. Then again, you may get lucky. But never accept a job that doesn't pay a living wage. Look at what your classmates taking office jobs are making: if you're making less than 90% of their salary, change jobs.
  • Like all engineering jobs, very little of it is glamorous, and until you've "proven yourself", you will be given absolutely nothing important to do. This is the bane of all young engineers.
One thing to consider is that the absolute hotbed of industrial design now lies in entrepreneurship and kickstarter projects. The Pebble watch is an excellent example of a design completely independently developed by a small team. If you're set on making a name for yourself quickly, working on and getting the funding for something like that may be just the ticket.

Good luck!
posted by Mons Veneris at 1:19 AM on October 29, 2012

I'm an artistically-minded engineer and the above advice is outstanding.

Either way, it sounds like you are planning to stick with and finish the engineering degree, which is good to hear.
posted by intermod at 7:30 PM on October 29, 2012

I am an industrial designer (and still bright-eyed, soul intact).

There are jobs! Industrial design is not the ghetto of any industry. It has a higher starting salary than other design careers, like graphic design. If you are good, you will get a job. If you are bad, maybe not. If you're willing to go corporate, the money is usually a bit better. Industrial design is a totally stable career choice if you do a LOT of internships, get real-world experience, and make good connections. Will you be rich? No. Famous? Unlikely. But most industrial designers know this and we don't care. We're designers because we love and live and breathe the work.

Things you have to seriously think about:
Serious thing #1: Most grad programs are pretty poo at turning out skilled industrial designers. There's a big learning curve and, as an undergrads, people usually suck for the first two or three years until their skills and eye and understanding mature and accumulate. I do know some excellent design researchers who only did grad-level industrial design, though. If you are super serious, consider transferring as an undergrad.

Serious thing #2: The lecture you saw. The things that were discussed are fascinating and important, but there is certainly the less glamorous side of things: profit, marketing, low-cost manufacturing, brand...every designer has to work on sellout projects. Are you cool with maybe designing shampoo bottles or diaper packaging?

Serious thing #3: An engineering background may bring you down. You already know some CAD things and how-stuff-works things. You may even know some Photoshop things. This does not necessarily give you a good foundation. Let's use Photoshop as an easy example. If you pursue design, you need to reset yourself and be very open to learning. Most design programs take this approach anyway by having students do Bauhaus projects. Your attitude should be "I know how to use some tools in this program" instead of "I can design posters in Photoshop."

In my experience, they are usually paid unless you are in the UK or EU. If they're not going to pay you in the states, it's probably not a place you want to work anyway. I don't know about Canada. Coroflot is a good place to look for internships.

Boring/tedious/off putting things:
Oh, there are so many, but no job is perfect. Manufacturability and profitability will always affect your work. Working with clients and brand teams can be frustrating. Working with engineers is frustrating in a different way. Deadlines are tight and hours are long. You can't fall in love with anything you design, 'cause it's gonna change 40 times before it hits the shelf. That said, I still love what I do.

You might also consider grad programs in related fields like human factors, or trying to get an engineering job at a design firm or within a multidisciplinary design team.
posted by before and after at 7:55 PM on October 29, 2012

I am Industrial Designer with dulled eyes and lacking a soul.

Finish your Mech Eng. Then do a Masters in ID. Best of both worlds.
Internships are unpaid and very competitive.
People seem to think ID is all about making new mobile phones (in my world), it's more about trying to save money during MF and material selection without losing the aesthetic.
Get and internship / masters from outside Canada.

Good luck. We're all counting on you.
posted by gonzo_ID at 11:27 AM on October 30, 2012

Thanks everyone for the answers! It's given me a bit more to chew on. Meanwhile, I am definitely planning on finishing my mech degree and am involved with our student Robocup team, I'll be trying to do more design-related stuff there as well. I appreciate y'all taking the time to share your thoughts with me.
posted by btfreek at 9:23 PM on October 31, 2012

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