Design or Engineering?
April 23, 2016 8:56 AM   Subscribe

Should I go for a degree in Industrial Design or Mechanical Engineering?

Hello, I am having trouble deciding what degree to work towards. I currently live in San Diego, and the closest school that offers a B.S. in Industrial Design is Long Beach. In SD, however, there are many options for schools offering a B.S. in mechanical engineering.

A little about me: I am very artistic and creative, I love designing new products and love looking at current products and think about how to make them better. It is very easy for me to visualize how something will be put together and what makes them work. I have NO CLUE how cars work or how electrical systems work.

My dream would be to work for different companies like GoPro or startups designing products and also creating my own products or furniture on the side which I can sell to companies. I have looked at jobs available in my area and it seems like they always say they are looking for a Mechanical Engineer or an Industrial Designer. Are these degrees interchangeable? Will I be fine with the engineering degree if I want to design? Will my chances at attaining jobs be higher if I have a Mechanical Engineering degree over a design degree? My girlfriend mentioned that having a design degree may limit me to a few jobs while the engineering degree will allow me to do both.

Thanks for your help!
posted by lain to Education (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
They're not interchangeable... In real life there's a lot of crossover, and it's more nuanced than this, but generally the Industrial Designer is responsible for the overall concept of the product, the creative/visual/experience and usability aspects. The Mechanical Engineer is responsible for the technical aspects: detailed design of the mechanisms, designing for strength and environmental factors (standing up to heat, etc), making sure it can be manufactured using available techniques, etc.

From your description, it sounds like you'd enjoy Industrial Design more, though I think your girlfriend is probably right that an ME with good creative skills would make a compelling ID. I'm not in the field anymore, but my understanding is that Industrial Design is highly competitive (most creative fields are), so finding jobs will be easier for engineers.
posted by duoshao at 9:28 AM on April 23, 2016

My feeling would be a Mech Eng degree would provide a good base line for quite a few different careers, and then a Masters would enable the design skills if you still wanted to specialise in that direction, or another M level course would enable you to go in different directions from the M.E. base.

However, if you can develop some certainty that you want design then take the specialist programme and save the later time and money.
posted by biffa at 9:33 AM on April 23, 2016

It sounds like you want to do design. If that's your passion, and you think you could be great at it, go do it!

You can switch majors if you don't like it, or get an MS in ME afterward if you end up in a tough job market.
posted by jeffamaphone at 9:40 AM on April 23, 2016

Based on your description of what you enjoy, I think you'd enjoy the Industrial Design subject matter a whole lot more (and hence probably do better at your degree). Mechanical Engineering is a whole lot of Physics, Chemistry, Calculus, Mechanics, Heat Transfer (not kidding, several semesters), and Fluid Dynamics (several semesters). You have to learn in detail how an internal combustion engine works (Carnot cycle) and how to calculate the lift of any given airplane wing. Stuff like that. For a "special project" we had to design a theoretical bearing so that some gigantinormous rocks could rotate. Zzzz. They didn't let us actually build anything. My degree coursework was VERY VERY dry and honestly, boring.

Here's a litmus test: Do you like learning things such as how different types of brake pads for your car work, and why some work better? If so, Mechanical Engineering is for you. (Not that it's all mundane stuff like brake pads, but its that sort of thinking. Dry left brained stuff heavily focused on math.)
posted by bluesky78987 at 10:16 AM on April 23, 2016

I have a ME degree. I don't think you should get one. Most of the curriculum will not be relevant to what you want to do, and I actually don't think it's a good baseline for getting there.
posted by snickerdoodle at 11:27 AM on April 23, 2016

As an engineer (mechanical, aeronautical, systems, depends on the day) I will say that the work you would do as an ME will depend heavily on the industry and company you work for. You could be writing requirements, doing detailed analysis, mechanical design, testing... It's a very broad field. In my industry (defense/aviation), mechanical engineers are rarely involved in conceptual or top level design. In fact, the people that do that kind of work come from a diverse set of engineering background but also have decades of experience behind them and will frequently become program or project managers for that product.

For household goods and consumer products, my impression is that industrial design is to mechanical engineering as architecture is to structural or civil engineering.
posted by backseatpilot at 11:34 AM on April 23, 2016

I think you sound more suited to the Industrial Design degree, but having gone to school with a great ID department and several friends who graduated with it... you will have a hard time finding work as "An Industrial Designer" as a career after. There are just not a lot of opportunities out there. Most grads I know ended up doing interaction design as their career, with some doing furniture or soft goods design as freelancers or business owners.
posted by thirdletter at 12:22 PM on April 23, 2016

How do you feel about math, 'cause that is a big part of a MechE degree. You use it to prove your designs, then build them.

Also, as bluesky notes above, some programs can give you very little time to actually make stuff. I was lucky, my school *focused* on that (minds & hands), and I had a selection of courses (5 at least, plus lab classes where we had to build from kits), plus a couple jobs on campus where I got to build stuff. Mr. chiefthe (also MechE) wasn't so lucky and never got to build anything as part of his course work. His school was focused on the intellectual more then the experiential side of engineering.

I had a few classmates that went into industrial design after their BS degree, generally with design houses. I wanted to go down that route at first, but ended up focusing on the how stuff is made, as the coming up with new product ideas part is super stressful and way more political than you could ever imagine (as I found out in my first job). I focus now on manufacturing, design decision making and ideation techniques.

I also know some straight-up industrial designers. They were very talented artists. In my first job, the engineers worked with them: they came up with the ideas and the engineers validated them. But, again, politics was in the way a lot of the time and, rarely, neither the designers nor the engineers got to make anything they really wanted to in the end.

If you like math and physics, I'd suggest finding a really hands-on MechE program that has a strong design and product development track and take some art classes on the side. If you don't like math/physics, look for an ID program that has a good product design and development track, or work to get that knowledge out of the program that you find, as the best ID folks I know are very strong in that area and those are the types of things that will help you get into design houses like IDEO etc.
posted by chiefthe at 1:19 PM on April 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Thank you all for your answers. I now have a better understanding of what to expect during and after my classes. I think I'm leaning towards working hard for an engineering degree while honing my skills of design. Thanks again!
posted by lain at 1:55 PM on April 24, 2016

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