Any hints for an engineer trying to break into design...

I have noticed several postings for people with great art/graphic/illustration backgrounds looking for advice on how to break into the design job market. What I am wondering is if any one has ever gone the other way, from engineering into design? I am specifically interested in challenges, advantages, etc. Any input would be great. :slight_smile:

skinloda -

sounds like you are an engineer considering to cross into ID -
speaking strictly of personal traits and skills (there are obviously a whole slew of other factors i.e. - market, company, location etc.)

for starters you need to be highly creative (creating unexpected juxtapositions of ideas, forms etc.) and be sensitive to form, space, color, texture, i.e. you can manipulate 2/3D elements into aesthetically and appropriate forms/objects (in this case, more explicitly = products).

IN addition to these core traits is the ability to accurately convey 3D form/concepts onto paper media (adhering to the laws of perspective, foreshorting/porportion, light and shadow etc.) This skill is indispensible
in ID. FOLLOWing this essential skill is knowledge of 2D/3D CAID applications - Vellum, Solidworks, Rhino, Alias, ProE etc…this variable changes thru the course of time…understanding the core premise behind the way these apps function (solid modeling versus surfaces etc.) is important to know. Obviously a fundamental knowledge of manufacturing processes/materials allows ones designs to be feasible - this is very important as well.

The ability to research, observe, to critique and analyse and to have a genuine sympathy for your user is also very important. Know your design history, understand fashion trends, and also understand the psychological factors that compel people to buy/adopt certain lifestyles etc.

IN my opinion a designer is someone who must possess a diverse skill set, have the ability to deconstruct and micro-analyse a multitude of factors and yet synthesize these factors (research, data, budget, intuition, subjective form etc.) into a coherent piece of product design that at the end of the day satisfies/delights its intented demographic and of course also brings financial success to its sponsor.

Most of this may be redundant info…in any case ID is a hugely competitive field and only the talented AND HARDWORKING survive.

All the Best -


Great feedback! What do you think about entry into an existing company? Seems hard to jump disiplines especially with such talented competition generating porfolios on a fulltime basis vs. my parttime attempt!

Any thoughts on how to target specific companies that would appreciate an engineering background? What is your thoughts on sketching abilites vs. say technical abilities, do you think companies are willing to make those trades?

your engineering background is obviosuly a huge plus to your skill set.
as i have previously mentioned - if you think you possess the traits/meet the criteria listed, inlcuding more things i havent mentioned…and you can present these skills in a brilliant portfolio/web presentation etc. - than you should not hesitate to explore possibilities within your co. or elsewhere…this field for the most part i think judges one by what they have to SHOW as opposed to what they say they can do etc.

its a tricky business objectively evaluated ones own talent and skill…but if you think you have what it takes to be a designer…than pursue it…build your skills…(sketching for ONE)…become familar with current design and its past…join IDSA…go to school part-time etc…again sketching is huge…dont think that companies will tolerate a DESIGNER who cant draw…at the end of the day…and some people may disagree with this…being a designer and one’s success as a designer is mostly dependent on TALENT - Combine this with hardwork, luck and some connections, and your good to go…some people work to the bone, but never make it because they cannot simply compete with those that are truely gifted…
ask yourself some serious questions regarding your talent related to this field…before you dive in…wish you the best.

For a Designer Sketching ability is at the top. Based on the need to rapidly and easily convey ideas through concept sketches. The lack of sketching skills of graduating designers is in my opinion the major contributor to the high rate of degreed IDers who never find work.

Ideas are a dime-a-dozen, technical skills can be learned (i.e. one year ago I had no pro-e experience now I can model forms that our engineer with 7 years pro-e experience would say are impossible for pro-e to handle), Sketching and Aesthetic skills are a God given gift. Those who have the artistic skills find the work, those who don’t waist their tuition money.

Though I am still relatively inexperienced in the field, I have seen many people who were exceptional thinkers when it came to the technical side of design, and making their ideas into functional test models, with mediocre artistic abilities. However every one of these people aside from the two who did go back for engineering have never found a position within the design industry.

I am going to have to disagree with you on this point. Anyone can be taught to sketch, it is a skill to be learned like your pro-e skills. The more you practice, the better you get, just like any other skill. I am certainly by no means a da Vinchi, but I am able to effectively communicate an idea by the means of sketching. If you don’t believe sketching can be taught, I would recommend “The Natural Way to Draw” and “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”.

You may be 50% right on the aesthetics though. I have seen people with lots of color and composition theory, but make ugly things. Their work is usually much better after learning about color and composition, but it still isn’t that good.


May I ask why do you want to design? What aspect of product design attracts you, and how engineering is not fullfilling you?

To be honest with you Mattdesign, I think that design has always been in my blood. I have always struggled with the rigidity of engineering but the security of work lured me to engineering. Now that I work in the industry and have put on the shackles of a 9-5 I have realized that I have always been a designer at my core and just ignored it.

One of the main aspects that I look forward to is more intimate relationships with customers and products. I like the social/political/cultural aspects of design and its broad influence.

On a more personal note I like the connection that designers achieve with whatever product that they are working on. I love loosing myself in ideas and work related to new and innovative concepts. Engineering keeps you tied to the pole of reality to often, I want to cut those ties.


I think you have a good general idea of what product designers do. I don’t think there is a short cut to becoming a product designer even with your engineering background. Your experience and knowledge of engineering will certainly help you in product design environment, but you will have to be a good designer first, if you want to pursue a career as a designer.

Some bigger corporations can offer you to go back to school. I can’t give you specific company names, but I have worked with some designers who have switched from mechanical engineering to industrrial design.

If you are not fortunate enough to work for such a corporation, I think you would need to pay out of your own pocket and go back to school. Design education is not a sure thing, but I personally don’t know anyone who skipped out on design education who is practicing design successfully.

Good luck.

Designer wrote:
Sketching and Aesthetic skills are a God given gift.

iab wrote:
I am going to have to disagree with you on this point. Anyone can be taught to sketch, it is a skill to be learned like your pro-e skills. The more you practice, the better you get, just like any other skill. I am certainly by no means a da Vinchi, but I am able to effectively communicate an idea by the means of sketching. If you don’t believe sketching can be taught, I would recommend “The Natural Way to Draw” and “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”.

I still stick to my oppinion, as I have seen numorous students who wanted to be designers desperatly sit and work through the two books that you mentioned in addition to “How to Draw Cars Like a Pro”,“Mastering the Artist in You”, and many other sketching and drawing instructional books. One of my classmates tried so hard he enrolled in two drawing classes at our university and as well as one at each of the three junior colleges in the city. Even with all that practice no significant chage in quality, speed, or technique was ever made.

So I still say that you must be born with the gift first to beable to refine it.

Skinloda, I registered just to thank you for starting this posting. I am an engineer too, also trying to break into design. (In the Seattle area, anyone?) I am a mechanical engineer with a strong education in design theory and design projects in robotics, I also have a BA in art, but I haven’t figured out how to put together a good portfolio yet. I do Pro-E and Solidworks, but no Rhino or Vellum which seem to be crucial. Can I just do sketches and Pro-E models for a portfolio? Just a question to send out to the void…

Mattdesign’s comments about education are disheartening, I was hoping not to go back to school after just having gotten out…does anyone know anyone who has gone from engineering to design successfully? I am aiming for small companies, thinking that they might be more likely to take on a fresh young thing with promise, should I be aiming for bigger companies instead? I thought that perhaps unconventional qualifications might not fly past the H.R. people.

Mechengr, good to hear from the northwest, I am originally from the northwest (Or) and find myself in So. Ca. following the job market.

I echo you thoughts about the question of small vs. large etc, I have had the same questions running through my head, but so far no answers. I would say as you have probably seen from these boards portfolio is KING, when is comes to design positions. If you are like me it has become a new second job, trying to generating content for a portfolio just to get in the door.

I still hold out hope that once you find that first position it will be easy to assimilate and to move to a comfortable zone nestled into the product/design community. I guess time will tell, I will keep you posted on my findings and by all means do the same.

Hopelessly stuck in cube land!!!

I think most of you are missing the point and giving our young engineer friends here not only false leads but, honestly, false hopes.

A red flag quickly goes up in any design employer’s mind when facing an engineer applying for a design position. Professional frustration early on in any career spells potential trouble for the employer, who’d much rather hire happy designers and happy engineers separately. An engineer attempting to appropriate himself as different a field as ID (though end goals are common) may come across either as arrogant, insecure, incompetent or all three. It takes a great leap of faith on the part of any firm looking specifically for an IDer to hire a wannabe designer in the form of an unhappy engineer. Bottom line here - in the eyes of an employer at least, unhappiness with what you do now does not necessarily make you better at something else. And the burden of proof is on you.

Having worked as a designer in engineering departments for many years, I am continually awed by the number of creative engineers looking to a full-turn career jump to ID as the only way to better their professional perspectives and job satisfaction. Engineering school, as is the case of ID school, is strictly a starting point, it only teaches you to how learn further, but you are responsible in life for drawing out your own map.

My personal take on this is that engineers have much more leeway in adopting a designer’s approach and general methodology to product development than the other way around for one simple reason - design education lacks the science component on which our physical world is based. With the help of further education, a good mechanical engineer can become a very good design engineer by breaking out of the relatively rigid scientific approach to product design and moving closer to the end user needs, which is at least a good part of the bridge separating the two professions.

I find it very limited and simplistic to just drop an entire engineering baggage (if at all feasible) and all of a sudden pick up paper and markers and start selling oneself as a sketch and rendering artist, i.e. what some here consider the stepping stone of ID membership (and they are wrong).

Both design and engineering today are in search of solutions to a myriad of product problems, opportunities and hosts of social, environmental and technological issues. In time you will come across designers working on highly-engineered concepts and engineers very much involved in usability issues most self-conscious designers consider their unique turf. Field reality is a lot of crossover exists between the disciplines, but make no mistake about it - a designer can only go so far - an engineer taking a DESIGN APPROACH to problems can in many cases go much further. This general approach can be taught in ID programs to an extent but is much more dependent on the person’s innate skill set and interest in approaching product design from different perspectives, not just the scientific.

My final word of advice to engineers contemplating throwing the baby out with the bath water is DON’T. Build on what you have with perhaps an additional ID degree or work in an ID firm as an engineer for a while, then re-profile yourself as a DESIGN ENGINEER, i.e. a competent, creative engineer with design sensibility, know-how, experience and also do something few engineers do: keep a portfolio of your projects, technical as they may be. My sense is you are seeking a more open, flexible work environment conducive to applying your pent-up creativity, not necessarily “becoming” a professional industrial designer on the quick.

Consider all this and visit ID schools and studios before deciding that becoming a product stylist beats making complex things work in terms of intelectual challenge, not to mention financial reward. Sketch monkeys in ID are the proverbial dime-a-dozen today. Engineers understanding and designing for human needs, however, are a rare breed. Maybe you’ll better stand out with a combination of the two, but still putting your education so far to its best use.

Check out Design News magazine for more on what creative engineering can be.


Great insight! I feel like you have combined the last 6 months of my life into a few paragraphs. I appreciate your honesty and agree with you on several of your main points.

I did not intend to say that I am an unhappy engineer but rather as you have said am just seeking an opportunity to better express myself and my talents. And again as you have said it may not be strictly an ID kind of position that I need but rather an intermediate position that would be better suited.

As you say I think products and designs can only benefit when designers and engineers understand each other (which does not necessarily mean they have to agree.)

I appreciate your comments and think that you have really added some great insight to this discussion.


I realize that this thread is over a year old, but I"d like to ask add a question to this:

I’m an engineer who’s looking to work in a more creative ID environment - i.e. like IDEO… I’ve submitted a resume and portfolio to them, and got no more than a postcard back. the question is: are there more ID firms that are similar to IDEO, being creative and free-minded? if so, who? I want to keep an eye out for a job with them.


thenickboy, try Coroflot.

t takes a great leap of faith on the part of any firm looking specifically for an IDer to hire a wannabe designer in the form of an unhappy engineer.

This is great insight, Egg. I’ve been subscribed to this thread for a long time, hoping to find advice on avoiding the situation you’re describing; “wannabe designer in the form of an unhappy engineer.” I like to hear that “Engineers understanding and designing for human needs, however, are a rare breed.”

My plan is to take on engineering projects which will put me in a closer working relationship with industrial designers and slowly transition into taking on more top-level design issues usually addressed by the ID. Like usability, human factors, and product styling. Good idea or bad idea? Getting there is definitely going to require some schooling.

How valuable is a Mechanical Engineer with an Industrial Design degree? Does anyone really want these kind of guys on their team?

they’re happy to have you, but don’t expect them to relate. until i show my engineering cred, engineers will consider me an artist. until i show my ID cred, other IDers regard me with similar suspician (especially if i get technical on something). it can get old proving you have multiple skillsets. that said, there are more and more dual-degree ID/Eng people out there. perceptions are changing.

Thanks for the reply ykh. How did you get yourself into the dual-role engineer/ID’er? Are you able to balance the artistic and engineering type tasks in your workload?

9 years undergrad w engineering stint in between. i personally don’t recommend the eng undergrad/ID masters route. i’ve met some. yet to be impressed. i’m sure good ones are out there. just a very very rare breed imo. having all that undergrad was a major help in balancing my abilities. at least that worked for me.