If you’re interested in an industrial design career and obtaining an advanced degree from an industrial design program, you need to know some things about design studios, including how they function, who is in charge, and what they do. There are a couple of great reasons for this. First, in a few years you will be vying for these opportunities. Second, you want to know what you are walking into before you walk into that job interview. The interviewer will make more sense to you, which will make you more comfortable and intuitive in the way you answer questions.
You would not expect to be a good hunter without knowing the natural environment of your prey. Likewise, you don’t want to walk into a job interview without understanding the fundamental hierarchy of a design studio.
The information gathered here details some of the primary design job descriptions. Along with each job title is a brief synopsis of the roles and responsibilities of the position, as well as some guidelines and advice for pursuing the position. By the end of this article, you will have an overview of the jobs available to MFA graduates, what skills are required, and what the hierarchy is.
Each design studio is different. Some are modeled almost exactly after industrial design schools, with a small team of specialists led by a project manager.
Others are splayed out across the globe, using telecommuting technology to coordinate complex projects. Automotive companies, which produce different product lines depending on the country, often send highly confidential data halfway around the world regarding specifications of the next high-tech engine for review, additions, and alterations. No matter who or what business entity you work for, knowing your interviewer’s responsibilities without needing to ask will give you an edge.
Particular fields in need of industrial design specialists, including toy, automotive, furniture, ergonomics, and product design will each have its own unique business structure.
Jobs for Which an Industrial Design Degree Will Prepare You
Industrial design intern: Being an intern at a design studio is probably one of the best ways to gain real industry experience, but you cannot expect to train your technical skills, nor your ideation. Many studios will relinquish shockingly few responsibilities to their interns, relying on the lesser rungs for coffee runs, etc. On the other hand, there are opportunities that provide a great work environment to their interns, assigning real projects and giving helpful feedback on design tactics. Do not drop your summer for the first company to bite at your resume.
Senior industrial designer: In larger companies, the senior industrial designer commands a design team. This person is in charge of hiring new team members, as well as coordinating with other departments of the company. Marketing, engineering, and business executives often orchestrate the directives that guide the senior industrial designer’s efforts.
Product design engineer. Product design engineers use rigorous analysis to create new ideas that will fall within company branding and achieve company objectives. They are typically engineers who want to use their creativity in their professional careers on a conceptual level. They specialize in brainstorming new products to add to old product lines and have proven themselves as entrepreneurs, as well as in corporate environments.
Design manager. These professionals aim to construct the processes, environment, and rules that will produce the most innovative, effective designs to achieve company objectives. Often, design managers can fill a number of roles – creative, technical, etc. – whatever is needed to ensure the product meets guidelines.
Project manager. Most companies, whether they provide goods of some type or not, appoint project managers to oversee and coordinate complex projects. It is an art that many industrial designers work their way into, translating their ideation processes to the public domain.
Developing new toy ideas, designs, and models may not be easy, but it is fun. In fact, it makes play a necessary component of each day. At the same time, it requires careful deliberation. The choices a designer makes not only impact the way children perceive their world, they can also facilitate development and learning – or become responsible for the lack of mental growth.
Toy companies comprise over $10 billion in sales per year, giving them a serious role in the U.S. economy and in the considerations of students of industrial design schools. Most major companies offer internships, recruiting innovative, considerate students to work for them, granting crucial experience. Sometimes, these internships turn into a career after graduation.
This is the story of Sean Lee, graduate of the California State University – Long Beach Industrial Design School. He is perhaps better known for his major contribution to Mattel: GAK. This product became a household name by the mid-1990s, within five years of his graduation, and set him apart from his peers and set the tone for his career in the toy industry. He describes the work atmosphere at Mattel as fun, exploratory, and spontaneous. Sometimes his team takes a day trip to the beach, just to relax and talk about their ideas. If this is what he does for his job, I would like to know what he does in his free time!
For toy designers, play is an integral part of the design process. For children, it is thought to be necessary for growth and learning. Developmental psychologists have hypothesized a variety of theories regarding the nature of play, what it is useful for, if it is necessary for growth, and what its constraints are. For instance, Piaget, one of the first, most groundbreaking developmental psychologists posited that play did not produce new cognitive development, but rather consolidated and built upon old learning. A number of theories to come since disagree, asserting that play promotes mental development. Some even believe it necessary to achieve new levels of reasoning.
Toy designers take research into careful consideration in their processes, as well as safety standards, promotion, production, and packaging. All these things have an enormous impact on how well a toy will do on the market and what effects it will produce in the long run. At the same time, they tend to have wonderful and vibrant imaginations. They are curious and usually social people who like working on long projects and on a miniature scale.
If you think you may be interested in developing toys as a career, then there are some definitive steps you can take, both to improve your appeal to toy companies and to develop the skills and knowledge areas necessary for toy designers. First, it helps to be able to connect the toys one played with as a child to those being developed today. Many designers find it useful to be able to pick out trends in the marketplace, as these provide insight into the evolution of child psychology and fashion sense.
One activity that has helped toy designer aspirants in the past has been to take a sincere, focused look at the toys that have been the most popular and to take notes on them, how they are played with, what cognitive abilities they require, what skills they train, how they appeal aesthetically to their consumer base, and so on. Do not be afraid to look for support in your findings by reading up on some developmental psychology. Regarding technical expertise, building models or taking photographs can develop some of the skills current industry professionals find necessary to achieve success.
The field of furniture design is filled by an extremely diverse field of professionals. Some design teams do not use computers, insisting on continuing ideation and drafting with pen, pencil, and paper to construct unique and elegant (typically wood) furniture. These studios may not receive hundreds of orders or reserve space on magazine covers, newspapers, or online; however, they choose to keep their lives simple – a reason that appeals to many. They may be difficult to find, but the apprenticeships offered by these crafters can be extremely fulfilling to students in industrial design schools.
On the other hand, there are other furniture designers who focus on implementing high-tech production technology, CAID software, and use ergonomics and user-centered design. These studios will more typically receive their share of the limelight and be easier to locate. They will offer internships that will involve less intimate contact with senior designers or project heads but may serve as a better entry on one’s resume.
Charles Gibilterra is one of the latter variety. He is regarded as one of America’s most prominent furniture designers and one look at his glass studio is proof enough to see that his sense of aesthetics is contemporary. This man has been all over in the design world, from an automotive design scholarship that he used to pay for his University of Southern California education, to becoming an exhibit designer, then finally landing in furniture via interior design.
As an interior designer, Gibilterra found that in order to fulfill the needs of many of his clients, he needed to design some pieces himself. Finding what his clients wanted on the market was impossible; they wanted something new. Something can also be said regarding the natural ability of the designer, which presented itself through the work he was doing for clients. His talent was literally irrepressible.
Mr. Gibilterra stands as proof that it can take fierce determination and not a small amount of exploration in order to find one’s place in the right studio. Finally opening his own design studio in 1974, he was an immediate success in California, where he set the trend in residential furniture by using natural forms and materials. His designs use a wide variety of materials, including glass, leather, fabric, teak, stainless steel, and wood. Taking his inspiration from nature, he twists and shapes these materials to represent aspects of riverbeds, seashells, and water, among other phenomena.
Looking at some of his work can truly open one’s eyes to the potential for innovation in furniture design. It serves as an inspiration and a positive influence, not only in the subfield but also to industrial design as a whole. Gibilterra has a clearly defined process through which he consistently discovers new and elegant furniture. His creative capacity has also spurred him onto other, even more artistic projects in bonsai, sculpture, and painting. He portrays the more right-brained side of industrial design, which can clearly be used in furniture.
The vast majority of graduates of industrial design (ID) schools find careers in product design. After a few years in the industry, professionals specialize, sometimes in a given field, such as automotive or toy design. They can also specialize in a particular aspect of design, such as ergonomics, materials, or user-centered design.
One of the reasons why industrial design is such a great field is that it uses both sides of the brain. You need to be organized and creative in order to be successful. Because ID professionals deal with real materials, they need to know on a physical level how pliable each material is, how well it conducts heat, what the conditions are under which it can be shaped, etc. Only deep knowledge will allow an ID professional to be effective with his/her creative efforts.
Another serious consideration of ID professionals revolves around consumer interest. They need to be able to anticipate a consumer’s attraction to a product. They develop an intuitive sense for what will sell in the marketplace and what will not. If you were thinking about more artistic careers, then you may have the luxury of focusing solely on the finished result, but designers must concern themselves with who will want to buy it and for how much. Even the seemingly easiest concepts can make billions of dollars for a company and being able to come up with those designs takes intuition. Take the iPod and iPad, for instance. These were both simple ideas that solved simple problems, yet they have managed to support Apple as one of the most renowned companies in the United States and the world.
Product designers, in particular, can deal with either innovating new products or improving existing products. The type of assignment often dictates how creative the design process is. For instance, improving an existing product can entail stylistic changes only, which moves the project into the realm of the stylist. More rigorous changes to the function of a product usually require design teams to work closely with engineers, tying them down to mechanical issues.
Typically, the process begins with a product proposal. A researcher will look at the problem and compile information for the project. The product design team will then take its turn, implementing that information in the production of a number of ideas, sketches, and drafts. Often, toward the end of this stage, CAID software will be utilized to compare the design team’s efforts with those of any competitors, because their goal is to create a better product. Whether the new product is better in terms of price of manufacturing, convenience, or style, the team must collaborate with marketing and company execs to fully assess its success/failure.
Depending on the industry and company, teams will then model the product, either with clay, foam, or whatever materials it finds most appropriate. The product is then assessed at this stage as, well, being tweaked, tested, and realigned to suit company objectives. Nowadays, firms that are kitted out with three-dimensional printers can transform digital drafts into models within minutes of the finished plans.
Because product designers often collaborate on team projects, interpersonal skills often come in handy, as well as the artistic design, drawing, and organizational skills that will be an absolute must for industrial design schools.
Working on product design teams, ergonomists will inform the design process with research in human-based factors. These can center on comfort and health, as with ergonomic keyboards or furniture. Designs with ergonomists on the team tend to better suit the practical function of a product but there are few designs out there that balance the two elements very well.
For instance, ergonomic keyboards are intuitive to the wrists and hands of the user; however, they have failed to gain a significant market share because they do not match up with human intuition, which dictates that a tool look and feel like a single device. We look at typing as a single activity, and we expect that the tool we use to type appear as one tool for both hands, rather than as two tools, one for each hand.
Ergonomics can also focus on systems and processes. In the latter two cases, research is focused on behavior. Researchers look deeply into the ways humans act and what they do to accomplish tasks. They assess habits and rituals, probing for activities that can be improved by products. This kind of thinking has been around for some time – we have a natural tendency to want convenience and improve processes on our own. As a field, ergonomics received a huge boost during the second world war, during which a number of advanced weapons were created that could not be used by human operators. Design teams learned then, usually after the fact, that they needed to consider human limitations in the products they create.
The main difference is that now, human-centered reasoning has become more precise, methodical, and scientific. Rather than simply considering whether a person could lift a device or operate a complicated firing mechanism, discoveries have become more nuanced. Is there a way to shorten the way people make coffee at home (instant coffee sticks)? Is there a way to customize mattresses to different body types, or adjust to neck or back problems (Posturepedic mattresses)?
Ergonomists may need to think creatively to address new problems or to solve old problems in more efficient ways, but they also need some rigorous mathematical training. An ergonomist is not only trained to think about human behavior but also to conduct and interpret the behavioral research that will inform new products. For this reason, classes typically entail a certain amount of data analysis and statistics. Most ergonomists have a master of science degree to prepare them for the quantitative, research component of their work. Most MFA programs in industrial design schools will have a course or two on user-centered design, but these alone do not prepare students for a career as an ergonomist.
As specialists, ergonomists enjoy a high degree of flexibility as far as their career choice and field. More and more product design teams are finding them integral, and research training is improving in its adaptability across disciplines. To start a career in user-centered design, you can read industrial and graphic design magazines. Analyze how products and systems are written about, advertised, and function. In addition, you can begin to pay more attention to your environment, to your own habits, customs, and behaviors. Try to break down your activities, to see if there is a way for a product to increase convenience, efficiency, or ease. With this exercise you will become more accustomed to the type of thinking your future career will require.The best-case scenario is: you conceive of a product that will put you on the map. At worst, you have a funny story to tell at job interviews.
Automotive Design Team
Everyone dreams about designing cars, don’t they? The dream of being on an automotive design team is as popular as the dream of becoming the president. Everyone wants to design a sleek and exotic racecar for the Indy 500, but few want to sketch the interior of a Honda Civic. People seldom dream about taking the myriad problems a car company has and wracking their brains for hours to find a new way to graphically communicate the brand in a new way, without completely breaking from tradition.
Being on an automotive design team is probably quite different in reality than it is in one’s dreams. The biggest difference comes in the amount of control you are likely to have over the project. As a kid, you can draft up the entire vehicle, daydream about headlights, and if you want, come up with new, more powerful engines. Industrial design schools do a good job of teaching their students, but many people are unprepared for one aspect of a career in industrial design: your contributions will only be one small part of the whole. You will coordinate with an extremely intricate and complex team of seasoned professionals. Sometimes, co-workers will be located in different parts of the world, transmitting new plans digitally with state-of-the-art CAID software.
Being only one part of a large team, it is important to be adept at communication and collaboration. Keeping a professional, positive attitude becomes a survival trait, and those with leadership abilities quickly rise to the top. One aspect of such extensive collaboration is taking specifications and integrating them seamlessly into the finished product. Automotive teams take cost of materials, space available in the vehicle, and projected use to bear regarding their decisions. These considerations restrict the free-form imaginings of children to the laser-tight, focused concepts that ID professionals produce. It may not be as fun, but when the finished model makes it to the driveway, the payoff is enormous.
In order to fight the disenchantment, the profession requires consistent use of imagination to recognize the importance of one’s contributions to the project. The parts you help design may not even be visible on the vehicle, but they will require months of complicated work. Stylists draw and redraw the various elements of the interior and exterior of the vehicle. Once the senior designer accepts a general model, it moves on to computer drafting, followed by modeling. The final design, complete with specifications, is due months ahead of production.
The reality of designing cars is quite different than you may have expected. Even knowing what you do now, you are bound to discover a few surprises nothing could have prepared you for. But the concept is the same. When you go to work, you still know you are designing cars, and successful individuals keep that childlike innocence intact, no matter how high they go in the company structure.
Because there are relatively few positions available, it may be necessary to expand your job search upon graduation. Spread your net wide, particularly for internships, and be willing to accept design work at large manufacturing plants. These may not tap into your dreamscape, but they will provide critical experience that automotive companies will value on your resume.