Average Salaries for an Industrial Designer

Industrial design has the vast majority of its employees in the private sector, which rewards talent, experience, and success. Once in the job market, some individuals become stilted, neglecting to improve their social skills or change in the ways that will bring success.

If we were discussing teaching salaries, then this fact would not matter as much. In industrial designs, individuals who have lots of talent easily make 50% more than those who do not, five years into the working environment. And this discrepancy only widens as designers open their own, private studios where they become entrepreneurs, further increasing the potential.

For this reason, many of the figures presented in this resource are described in more detail than the mere facts and figures you may be able to find elsewhere, such as the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. At each point in one’s career, there are factors to consider in planning what you can expect to make, and there are certain skills that will increase your value to employers.

Industrial design is structured to reward talent with responsibility. As one’s skills are demonstrated in the workplace, opportunities to take leadership present themselves. If you have charisma and cultivate your communication skills, then you will be able to start shooting for senior positions with five years of experience. If you do not feel that management is the right direction, then specialization allows one’s talents to be rewarded without the focus on leadership.

Even at the entry level, design studios are looking for people who have leadership potential. Communication skills are important, both verbal and on the sketchpad. Employers look for vision but also for the ability to listen to guidelines and integrate orders with their creative process.

Education is also a decisive factor in the earning potential of graduates of industrial design schools. Those with a bachelor’s do not make as much, on average, as those with their MFA. In fact, with a little bit of experience at design firms, during the summers of their tenure in school, MFA graduates can move past the entry level while in school. In addition, it is also easier for them to make better salaries later in their careers.

That is not to say that a bachelor’s degree will hold you back, but you will need to work harder to distinguish yourself in the workplace to make it up to the higher-paying positions.

Entry Level
The average salary of entry-level industrial designers in the U.S. is slightly under $47,000, but this figure does not tell the whole story. There are a few factors to consider if you are trying to calculate paying back student loans or comparing the field to other options.

It is important to remember that entry-level positions are a mixed bag, so averages can be deceiving. Internships, for instance, are sometimes thrown in, which can pull down the average a bit. It is equally important to weigh the kind of education one has received and also considering previous work experience in order to fully appraise one’s true market value.

Starting with education, there are two main levels of education that will qualify an individual for entry-level positions in design. The first of these is a bachelor’s degree, and the second is an MFA from industrial design schools. (There are a growing number of associate’s degree programs that say they will qualify an individual to join industrial design at an entry level; however, these are too new to gauge.) The majority of design firms will require a bachelor’s degree, and since the majority of professionals have achieved this level of education only, that $47,000 will be slightly high for them. For someone with an MFA and some previous experience with a design firm, $47,000 will be on the low side of what they can expect.

Experience, natural skills, prestige of education, and talent will also have something to say about that figure. These are difficult to estimate, especially in relation to some heady national average. However, there are some things you can do to boost your application that will make a higher salary more likely.

The easiest and most effective tactic to learn is negotiation. Many creative people believe that their work speaks for itself, but it does not. You need to speak for it. Even with a killer portfolio, a diffident graduate will be offered less money than someone with less talent and more confidence. It may not seem fair, but your prospective employer is only human. No matter how upstanding, fair, and unbiased, that individual will still be affected by confidence. When you walk into an interview and when you are offered a position, try to remember that interviews go two ways. Just as the employer is trying to figure out if you will be a good employee, you should be estimating whether the employer will give you what you need and want.

Experienced Industrial Designer

If you have been an active employee in the workplace for five years or more, then you count as an experienced designer, and it’s time to start thinking about a higher paycheck. Often, professionals can become so tied up in the company they started with that they can neglect to realize that their money-making potential has drastically improved over the first five years of their careers. Entry-level industrial designers make around $47,000. Once you are experienced, not just a fresh graduate of industrial design schools, the average rises to almost $60,000 and potential income rises, as well.

There is a divide between those graduates of bachelor’s programs and those who attended three-year MFA programs. As with entry-level programs, there is a lower upper bound to the earning potential a bachelor’s degree will afford than is associated with an advanced degree.

At the same time, there are a number of other factors, including social skills and management potential, which can make an even larger impact on one’s money-making potential. A born leader who cultivates an ability to improve morale, further define project objectives and guidelines, and coordinate team members will be able to start shooting for some advanced positions early, which can more than counterbalance any lack in educational pedigree.

For instance, senior design positions, which you qualify for after five to seven years of work experience, pull in roughly $85,000. These usually require some skill and experience in project management or at the very least a solid foundation of interpersonal excellence. Senior designers manage teams, coordinate efforts, and collaborate with researchers, marketers, executives, and others to solidify company goals. Then they translate those goals into rigorous guidelines for team members, which requires some talent with words as well as with people.

Even if designing and drafting is your dream, then social skills will be important. The way this career works is by rewarding talent with responsibility. If you want more artistic control and you want to take your skills to the next level, some degree of management will be necessary.

Specialists and Management

Specialists and managers have trained and further defined precise skill sets far beyond the skills they learned in their industrial design schools, which make them a commodity in the workplace. This guide sees management as part of the natural growth of successful industrial designers. Other specialists, such as ergonomists, fall into a separate category. The U.S. Department of Labor publishes two separate figures for the salaries of these two types of professionals.

Average salary of managers, of companies/enterprises – $63,940: This figure includes professionals working as project managers, though it is unknown whether industrial design professionals at the senior level, who are in charge of small teams of designers, counts in this statistic. What is important is the fact that management positions pay the best, on average.

Average salary of specialists – $59,150: The variance within this figure is likely higher than with management. Management positions all have a similar value in design studios, whereas certain specializations change value quite a bit depending on developments in technology, supply and demand, and the economy. There is also a large discrepancy between individuals who are talented within their specialty. These individuals, who become commodities in the field, have a high upper bound. In fact, the top 10% of industrial designers make over $97,000. While specialists comprise only 8% of the total labor market, they take a much larger portion of the top-paying jobs. If you are talented but do not want to use as many social skills as a management position requires, you may want to consider a specialization.

Industrial design, talent, and management: The most talented designers often take control of projects, because they are confident they have the best vision and they know that vision will not be realized as a draftsman. Many find that they naturally begin to learn the value in communication and working with others, because they see those working around them for the help they can provide. In a similar way, they start to see their talent as a responsibility to those around them. In order to do the best job they can for the company, they are morally obligated to lead. Technical expertise is then applied to process. Instead of working with a computer, senior designers communicate their vision to their team, translating the design process from a solitary endeavor to a team environment. They begin tackling higher-order problems, develop people skills, and cultivate their vision. If these things sound fun and interesting, then you may want to consider management in industrial design.

Preparing for Job Searches

Everybody knows the cornerstones of the job search, but they will probably miss one or two crucial pieces of advice, which could end up losing them a great opportunity for success. Be sure to have covered all the bases to make sure the entire approach to the job search is organized, comprehensive, and flawless.

List of Career References. Industrial designers need to be team players, so references are not often overlooked. They say that the cover letter should interest the employer in the resume; the resume should interest him/her in your portfolio; the portfolio should lead to your references. References are like the credit check of hiring. Checking references is the last thing employers do to make sure everything is in order before making the call to offer a job. Be sure that your references know they are on your list; if it has been awhile since you were last in contact, call to let them know what you’re up to.

  • Portfolio. The portfolio is extremely important; everybody knows that. Somehow, industrial designers still pay too little attention to the packaging. Why this is, exactly, will probably remain a mystery the rest of time. Before then, you will need to take out a magnifying glass and take a look at that portfolio. Carefully choose the binding, the paper color, the lamination. Go crazy with it, but control everything. In the end, if you have an accurate portrayal of your character and style realized in three dimensions, and you will have a great portfolio.
  • Resume. You may be a great communicator with the sketchpad, or at the conference table, but industrial designers are not known for their ingenuity with the written word. Send your resume to a few friends (the more writers/editors, the better) to ask for their opinions and revisions. They may be able to describe your work experience better than you can.
  • Interviews. Industrial design schools can be so competitive that you can start to see hierarchies everywhere, even where there are none. Once in the job market, you will come face to face with those appraising your character, talent, intelligence, and charisma. It will be easy to think that if you were perfect, across the board, then you would be hired, and your job search would come to an end. But in the world of design, employers hire based on idiosyncratic criteria that the applicant has little control over. If the style of your portfolio seems like it would be a great fit, then you will be hired. If not, then it will often not make a difference how stellar your references are.

Finding a Job after Industrial Design School

Expect the job market to be tough to crack, as many talented and competitive individuals are vying for positions. In order to land a great job opportunity after industrial design school, recent graduates will need to polish their resumes, time-management skills, and professional communication skills.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, job prospects for industrial designers will increase with the national average, around 9%, by the year 2018. In 2008, there were 44,300 industrial and commercial designers in the U.S., and there are expected to be 48,300 by 2018. The vast majority of growth is expected to occur in technologically advanced products, so those with any training or emphasis on computer science will have more entry-level positions to choose from.

A great deal of new design firms are expected to be opened overseas to bridge the gap from supplier to designer. This decreases the amount of time from blueprint to finished product, giving firms a slight temporal advantage over the competition. So, being willing to live outside the U.S. will also give you an edge.

Individuals who are most effective during their job search do more than just send out resumes. They typically set a consistent goal with regards to resume dissemination; however, they also compartmentalize their work time.

Research design firms of interest: If you have not already, home in on a subfield you are interested in and research design firms within that specialization. Sometimes, firms will not widely disseminate their job postings, and these can be some of the best opportunities on the market. If you find a company that really suits your interest, send a letter of interest. This is like a cover letter, but rather than addressing the letter to a specific opportunity, it describes generally where you are in your career, what you are interested in, and requests information/advice the firm has to offer someone in your position.

Develop skills: Don’t sit at home and let the rust dull your edge. Give yourself projects with specific timelines so that you continue to grow as a designer.

Expand your network: Join all the social networks that you can find for professionals, generally, and industrial designers specifically. Lean on any friendships you made with professors, friends, etc., to keep your feelers out.