Industrial design schools aim to provide students with the technical and conceptual skills required by successful professional designers. First-year introductory courses tend to focus on developing technical expertise, whereas later years focus on application, ideation, and other more conceptual skills. The following list provides an outline of the resources in this guide and an overview of some of the cornerstones of industrial design school.
Basic industrial design serves as an introduction to the general design process. Schools vary quite a bit as to how they view this part of the curriculum. A safety course will be involved, in addition to an introduction to designing with materials. Some programs split this course into a number of components, such as drawing and drafting.
Graphic and industrial design introduces the means of communication between these two careers. Graphic designers care about communicating a message or product to the public view, which is a fundamental concern of industrial designers. In addition to this concern, however, industrial designers consider function, replicability, and ease of production. Coordinating and balancing these elements in one project is the focus of this course.
Computer imaging in the design process is becoming an increasingly important course to industrial design professionals. This course typically defines how the computer-aided industrial design (CAID) process differs from sketching as a means of communicating, how it impacts team projects. In addition, there is always a heavy focus on practice – using computers to design, draft, and coordinate class assignments.
Intermediate industrial design begins to focus on conceptual skills as opposed to technical skills introduced in basic industrial design. Assignments, rather than focusing on one aspect of the design process, require the completion of a project from initial brainstorming and sketching to finished product. Often, this level begins to involve more communication skills, as some assignments are given to teams rather than individuals.
Practice in industrial design places students in an atmosphere that closely approximates the professional environment. Courses focus on integrating project requirements with goals, plans, and drafts, as well as communicating with supervisors, both verbally and via drawings.
Human-centered design classes will introduce a new way of approaching product development. Sometimes called user-centered design, this course focuses on the study and analysis of human behavior to the ends of producing a new tool to facilitate target behavior. It is an exciting new field that will most likely continue to have dramatic applications in industrial design.
Contemporary manufacturing looks at various production processes. Knowledge in this area becomes integral to the design process, particularly for product design. Among the topics covered are limitations on contemporary factory production as well as advantages and disadvantages of using plastics, metals, and other materials in mass production applications.
Advanced digital design processes focuses on CAID software that is introduced in basic drafting courses. The material and assignments are more advanced, in some cases requiring collaboration among students. In addition to the technical component, some courses consider the nature of using digital technology for industrial design.
Ideation is the study of ideas – how to generate, refine, and ultimately decide what to throw into the wastebasket. There are currently a number of different ways that have been proven to produce new ideas, and this course will give its students access to a number of useful and revolutionary tools.
Basic Industrial Design
In the first year of training, industrial design schools start with foundational skills and core knowledge. Before students are expected to think conceptually in the workplace, they need to be able to handle the tools properly. This may not be exciting. In fact, it will probably seem menial and boring. Don’t worry. It gets better. Here’s the profile of most first-year programs.
The first and most important skill is: how not to die. For starters, whether or not the student has taken one before, a safety course is mandatory. These vary in scope and tools, but most of these courses introduce students to the equipment they will use, usually in a wood shop. Better programs may be a bit more exciting, as their shops will be kitted out with nifty gadgets for later use. Do not drool on them. Sorry if the safety course seems like a waste of time to you, but if you learn one thing that keeps you from getting killed, it’s worth it.
The second skill, only slightly behind the first in importance, is drawing. Even if you have covered all your sketchbooks with scribbles, graffiti, and models, you will probably be entered into one of these fundamental courses. You may already know 50% of what the instructor will teach you, and you may find another 25% obvious. But drawing for industrial design is different than sketching, and particular skills will be covered that you may find integral to your later studies. Freehand drawing is the basic, communicative tool of the field, and professionals need to have a solid grasp of how form and spatial relationships can come across on paper.
Drafting is also a prerequisite. Particularly, understanding orthographic and isometric projection for use with industrial design and transitioning from using all of those drawing skills on a sketchpad to digital technology. This one is usually an eye opener for everybody, as the drafting tools available for student use are typically more impressive than anything they have previously learned to use.
The best advice is to be willing to feel like a preschooler and still work hard. You do not want to snag yourself on a rudimentary skill just to have it come back and bite you in your thesis project. So work hard, and if motivation is flagging, go online and search for design pictures and projects to remind yourself of where you are heading.
Graphic and Industrial Design
Graphic design is a field very closely related and useful to industrial design. Typically, industrial designers develop their ideas in a visual medium and communicate those ideas in an appealing format for investors, project managers, or business execs. Graphic design picks up where industrial design leaves off. It takes a beautiful idea and makes the visual appeal reach the potential of the concept.
Industrial designers care about how their product looks; occasionally, how it feels; and always, the cost of production. On the other hand, graphic design is purely vain. It does not concern itself with inventing real contraptions, but rather with wholly visual displays. You can see why the two professions might bump into each other in the same classroom, but the type of thinking that goes into each is quite different.
Basic courses at industrial design schools that wed these two fields will often cover communication between the two disciplines. One course objective may be to facilitate coordination between visual and pragmatic elements of a project. These are concepts that not only prove useful for working relationships, they also provide a keystone to any design. That is, the concept needs to be beautiful in its execution. How it looks is often at least as important as how well it works and how easily it will be produced.
There is an important exception to this rule, as evidenced by Aeron, a company that produced the world’s ugliest chair, and succeeded. It was the world’s first ergonomic chair, which made it without a doubt the most comfortable seating implement. The only problem was its horrid look, which hearkened back to medieval torture devices. When the prototype was made and reviewed, it appeared that the design, no matter how beautiful to its engineers, would never cut it in the marketplace.
Looks, in this rare and exceptional case, were deceiving – in more ways than one. The Chair of Death went to market and beat the odds. Its ugliness set it apart from the competition, as did its luxurious feel, and customers soon realized that there was more to this futuristic piece of furniture than met the eye.
Bill Dowell, the lead researcher of Aeron at the time, describes a critical facet of industrial design: “When you are in the product development world, you become immersed in your own stuff and it’s hard to keep in mind the fact that the customers you go out and see spend very little time with your product.” Graphic design considerations help to keep products grounded in the concerns of the consumer, which is absolutely necessary for most projects.
Computer Imaging in the Design Process
Computer-aided industrial design (CAID) is taking an increasingly large portion of the design process, as well as course instruction. As software improves, allowing for more creativity in the CAID process, young industrial design firms (and schools) are placing more emphasis on familiarity with software.
Consider the rapid prototyping machine, which can take a design and output a physical model. These machines have been around for about 30 years now and they are even used by some artists to produce complex models. They can now be used quickly and effectively to bring the designer’s vision to life, from design to reality, within days. That potential is unmatched by the drafting sheets you use in shop.
But software, no matter how well engineered and easy to use, will not kick drawing to the table. A great designer will know when to use and when not to use software to draft a design. Typically, computer drafting occurs after a few initial sketches and revisions of the idea. Sometimes, the design may not need to be physically produced for some time, in which case computer imaging may not be necessary.
On the other hand, there are plenty of cases when a designer’s model needs to be communicated effectively to another team across the world, in which case sketches will not cover the distance. More involved schematics can also necessitate the use of drafting software. In cases such as these, the drawing board moves to the computer.
Iindustrial design schools may train its students to use just one type of software or it may train its students in the use of multiple platforms. This training typically begins in drafting, when class-goers begin learning how to take their initial sketches and translate them effectively to the computer. Normally, these classes involve more complex projects, requiring a more numerous set of parts than anything before attempted on paper alone.
Explodes, parts lists, isometrics, and tolerances are standard on the syllabi of intermediate drafting courses, all of which are largely implemented by computer software. Most students find these courses challenging, due to the vast amount of knowledge and experience required to master current software. At the same time, these courses expand on the level of detail designers can work with, allowing for increased control of projects. Consequently, most find these classes stressful and exhilarating at the same time.
Intermediate Industrial Design
The second year at many industrial design schools requires students to oversee a project in its entirety, demanding organization that leaves some students fumbling. Projects begin with concept and continue to prototypes and modeling. Brainstorming with drawing, feedback, criticism, and revision is followed by drafting, modeling, and production.
If the introductory classes introduce all the components of the design process, then the intermediate level bolts them all together. Many students report this stage to be the most exhilarating part of school because professors’ expectations are not as high as they are in the final year. During this time, students are expected to make mistakes – albeit small ones – and learn from them.
One common pitfall for students is the sudden shift from skill development to idea development. Depending on the level of guidance provided, students may try to take on projects that are too advanced for their current abilities because that is what allowed them to grow and develop in the past year. Instead, keeping ideas simple and elegant facilitates student performance and progress. Elegance is a cornerstone of great design, and intermediate courses will directly engage students in the physical aspect of Occam’s razor, which says: “The simplest answer is the best.”
In addition to focusing on simplicity, students are expected to achieve higher levels of organization and follow-through than they were at the beginner level. If you tend toward the creative side and have justified disorderliness by attributing it to your right-brain thinking, then be prepared to encounter difficulties that will force personal development. This is what the intermediate level is designed to do; you will make mistakes, most likely more than you would like to see. The distinguishing factor is being able to accept those mistakes and integrate what you have learned from them.
Now, instead of receiving a red mark, students lose valuable time correcting themselves, which harms project outcomes. Before you know it, the project will seem out of control, hemorrhaging from multiple lacerations, etc. Creating extensive documentation, mapping out the design process, scheduling tasks, planning for inefficiency, and following through on expectations are a few of the more mundane project management skills required for excellence at this level.
Essentially, the intermediate courses necessitate the development of management skill sets, minus the interpersonal component. No matter whether project management is a goal or not, these skills will be absolutely integral to the workplace, either as a designer or supervisor.
Choosing an Industrial Design School
Attending one of the top industrial design schools would be a boon to your portfolio, resume, and expertise. However, each has different specialties, tracks, advantages, and disadvantages that will come to mean more to you as you deepen your search.
First, you need to know what you want from your education in terms of specialization, prestige, direct experience, location, etc. Maybe the campus is particularly important to you, so you need to go visit your top picks to see if you like the physical environment. You are the only one who can decide on these things, but here are a few things to keep in mind for your search.
- Focus is extremely important in this profession. Those who know what they want to work on next have a significant advantage over the competition, regardless of whether they stick with it for any more than three years. Therefore, it is crucial that you gain exposure to what most interests you in the design world. Moreover, you want to be creative about ways to find exposure. For instance, if you want to design cars, find your favorite car company’s web page and start sketching. You also might want to contact the company, informing them of your professional interest and asking for any more detailed information regarding the design team.
- In the same way, it pays to be persistent with design schools. Look up the faculty, what projects they have done, and whether you like their work. Do not be afraid to contact the relevant department for more information.
- Consider the level of involvement you want with faculty and go to the students and graduates of the institution to figure out which professors are more likely to really engage in an apprenticeship with their students. Check to see if someone from your high school or college has matriculated at the institutions you are interested in, then grab their contact information and send a cordial e-mail, asking specific questions about the aspects of their industrial design school that interests you most. If you do not have any alumni to contact, ask the contacts at the school for students who would not mind answering some of your questions.
- There are always more than three solutions to a problem (this is not mathematically proven… yet). Consider alternatives to the route you have chosen. For instance, many industrial designers have graduated from master’s programs, some only have undergraduate degrees. This is particularly important when considering what do with the next step in your education. If you are not absolutely certain that industrial design is the right field for you, then industrial design school is probably not the right place right, and it will not become the right place until you gain enough expertise to know.