Career Advice - Leaving Engineering for ID

Hey everyone. I am in a real pickle.

I’m a “product design engineer” with a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering. Have developed numerous products sold world-wide over the last 15 years.

My current skills are 3D modeling in SolidWorks. 2D drawings for manufacturing. Technical knowledge of injection molding and how to design parts for manufacture. I often work directly with manufacturing teams.


I’m very empathetic and very visually oriented. I care more about visual aesthetics and creating a good user experience than how many pounds of force does this survive or which adhesive should we use? I’m drawn more to cool shapes, colors and textures.

So I thought maybe I should become an industrial designer? An industrial designer with 15 years engineering and manufacturing experience should be a good combination, no?

The next question – other than going back to school for four years to get a degree in Industrial Design, is there another way I could transition to that field? How could I become an “Industrial Designer” in a high enough capacity to get a job as one?

I’m very open to freelancing, maybe in one particular area like initial concept design or photo rendering, if that is viable. My favorite work is creating the initial design concepts and photo rendering.

I always resonated more working alongside industrial designers and artistic directors than any of the engineering types. Would like to transition to a more artistic position asap.

Am I on the right track? Totally off base? I do feel kind of lost right now.

Appreciate this forum and any feedback. Thanks!

Is there any room to speak to the head of design at your current company and maybe get some mentorship and take on some project work? I think it is important to always make your intentions known. The opportunities might be right in front of you. I certainly have seen more technical industrial designers slide over more toward engineering and more business focussed designers become product managers, more marketing focused designers become brand managers… so I think it would make sense that there could be an opportunity for you to self actualize in your current workplace… if not you are no worse off than you are right now.

Another path would be to get a position as a ME at a design firm. These tend to be more creative engineering rolls that will include more design level CAD modeling and rendering and participation in the ideation process. When I was at frog we would always have out in house Res in ideation sessions. This way you will be working with designers everyday at a design lead organization with an opportunity to learn and again perhaps transition a bit.

Overall, great advice. I’m currently unemployed. Have been applying for ME positions, but it doesn’t feel right. Can’t apply for ID positions, because I don’t have the skills. Hence I’m in a real pickle. Concerned about going without an income long enough to get those ID skills required.

That’s good to hear. I am more entrepreneurial and business focused. I’ve thought about becoming a product manager, but not sure how to land a new job as one with no direct experience as such.

That is a great idea. I will sharpen up my CAD and rendering skills and look into that ASAP. Excellent responses yo. Thank you!
Any other insights are welcomed and appreciated.

The best SolidWorks modeler I ever worked with was a senior mechanical engineer. He also never seemed to sleep. But he was able to sew up, fill, patch, and smooth out areas - making them suitable for some of the stranger molding processes we use - better than I could, and I’ve been using SW for nearly all my surfacing for 10+ years.

You probably have a deeper knowledge of how SW works than most ID people will, so perhaps really doubling-down on the surfacing tools, knowing the various methods inside and out, can make you a more valuable asset in whatever job you get next, ID or periphery.

BTW, did you see the Labor Bureau report on the Core77 home page? Industrial Design jobs projected to grow 3% slower than the national ‘all-jobs’ average. Just saying if you think more school is the answer, putting that time/money into an area that might be increasing in demand might be a smart hedge.

There are some great jobs out there that are looking for a hybrid professionals.
I have seen several engineers in Industrial Design roles.
I think startups and small business would be a great place to look s they often need people that fill needs across the company.
You could get a product design job that is more engineering focused but exposes you to work on more classic industrial design work.
I work for a company called Kiwi Co. that loves hiring industrial designers with a passion for engineering as well as engineers with a passion for industrial design. They end mixing this groups into a hybrid product development group.
I am not saying this is common but those jobs and roles are out there and might be a great point of entry.

The best path for you would be to find a Design Engineer job at an ID Consultancy or a company that has an internal design studio. Once you land that job then you can practice and teach yourself about ID, hopefully with some ID mentors from your work.

To be honest, this scenario pops up every other month. Somebody has a degree/career and wants to transition to ID, ideally without the 4 year degree. If you want to do that then I would suggest create a portfolio. However, your portfolio will be compared against dozens of other portfolios of people with 4 year degrees and some ID work experience. If you are dedicated, then you should be able to find enough resources online to learn about ID and teach yourself.

Reverse the roles. What if an ID person told you that they wanted to be an Engineer without the schooling. What would you tell them? Would you hire an ID person as an Engineer without school but was self-thought? How would he or she compare to other recent Engineering grads?

Unless you are very dedicated, the chances are pretty slim. However, I do know a graphic designer that has spent months doing self-directed ID projects and has finally landed an ID freelance position. Good luck.

99.99% no.

I’ve seen a couple of people do it… I think ME’ing has changed a lot, of course depends on the specialization. At Sound United one of the ME’s had an ID background. Did that for a bit then went over to project management. His was a young guy and his goal was to understand every aspect of product development.

I used to be much more defensive about these kinds of questions (as anyone who has been reading these boards for a longer period can tell you). FH13, I totally get your perspective, and in theory 100% agree. It would be like electing a reality TV show host as president (oops… back away!)… or lets say asking your mechanic to also do some open heart surgery… same thing right, pop the hood and get to work!

In practice there are rooms for hybrids in NPD between marking, design, and engineering… especially as engineering has taken on a lot more of a program management/factory liaison role vs tradition hardcore mechanical engineering, and ID has gotten a lot more into mechanism design and DFM. The tools also allow those lines to blur.

Now let me walk that back. Just because something can happen, doesn’t mean it will happen for you or that you will be good at it. The design director I worked for at Jordan had no formal training beyond a few architectural drafting classes, but he knew he was the .001% exception to the rule. Ironically (or because of this) he went on to found Pensole, one of the first schools devoted to footwear design. He is also a natural mentor/coach type personality.

Ironically, looking back on my education, I reflect much more on my art/architectural history course, 2d theory, 3d theory classes. These are the kinds of things best learned in an academic environment and they are evergreen knowledge sets. Learning about the concepts behind the Guggenheim, the philosophy (not the aesthetic) behind the Bauhaus, why Brutalism was so important, what real minimalism is in art and why it mattered, these things are a base level of knowledge that will never get dusty and will help you for decades… unfortunately most ID programs don’t seem to teach this stuff anymore either.

So I think I just argued both sides of this without adding much but a rambling rant. Apologies for that. Maybe it will make sense to someone. :slight_smile:

Maybe my 99.99% ‘no’ was too harsh. Depends on the environment. I work primarily with mechanical engineers, and a handful of EE’s. They have to solve some hard problems, many of a manufacturing optimization nature (what works on paper, vs characterization of ‘real world’ results). Being a manufacturer we have a long term responsibility for ‘sustaining’ engineering. When sh*t hits the fan (which isn’t often of course) the engineers need to go back and dig into the minutiae of why something didn’t work. A lot of times this sounds like it boils down to the kind of book-learning rigor that good schools seem to reinforce.

Another example is if you are an engineer at a company and get deposed for some kind of lawsuit. The defendant’s counsel will probably ask “where did you go to school? Is it a good school? What kind of relevant subjects did you study?” etc etc

So - a lot depends on the kind of company, and of course the person. All of the engineers I’ve worked with have had formal education. Not all of the product developers have this background though, and certainly the minority of the company founders, which is interesting. (My current company was started by an industrial designer.) So maybe I’ll scale my assertion back to 90%.

I agree that it is very unlikely… maybe 95% no :slight_smile: , to swing from ID to engineering. Even less so in an environment like you described where the team is doing very hardcore ME work with liability implications.

What do you think the percentage is to swing from ME to ID to get to the OPs question?

It doesn’t seem common, but that doesn’t mean its not realistic or possible, to move from ME to ID. A small company could draft some ME’s into the default ID role, especially if they are really competent in some CAD surfacing package. For example, I could envision a few engineers/tech people forming a company to make some product and one of the ME’s does a competent-enough job to get the product made.

All of the ID’s I’ve worked with had formal educations in design. Some took ‘alternative’ paths, such as school → Disney imagineering → PDX shoe design, or school → exhibit → Microsoft UI (in the mid 90’s when the definitions were wide open) → product.

To the OP’s point if they know the hard tools and techniques really all that’s standing in their way is developing the user-needs skills and understanding how to turn that into a design brief. After that its the cultivation of ‘being comfortable with ambiguity’ and generating multiple solutions to a design problem - this is a skill that seems to make ME’s insecure.

In addition to becoming an ME at a consultancy, many medium/large companies have an ID presence in the NPD/R&D groups. Getting hired on in those groups as and ME and being mentored in ID while there is an option too.

Just my .02, but a degree seems like a waste of 2-4 years of unpaid time to me.

Also, I would happily hire an “engineer” for and ID role and an “industrial designer” for an engineer role. As a matter of fact, I just wrote our job descriptions that make it so. For the record, I was educated as an IDer, but has held an “engineer’s” title for more than a decade.

I think we’re all saying the same thing. It can be done but it will take a lot of effort on the person. At the end, it’s about the skill of how well you present your ideas and the substance behind them.
I guess deep down I think people don’t value ID education as much as other professions. I get the feeling they “just want to skip all that nonsense and just become a rock star designer”. Seeing how competitive the field already is I find it even more challenging for people without some professional training/mentoring to transition into ID.
Yes it can be done. Like I said, I know a guy who through self directed projects and sketching for months finally got some freelance work. I also used to work for an ID guy that could dance in circles around some MEs specially around production and manufacturing techniques which he learned throughout the years researching and reading books (imagine that).
As for the OP. It can be done but the “safest/easiest” way would be to work as an Engineer at a company with a Design department and slowly transition by getting a few mentors and doing self directed projects from 6pm to midnight for a few months. Also, his Engineering pay will also go down to a entry-level ID pay.

Happy Monday.

Fellow ME looking at filling a more ID oriented role here.

Going into university I debated between the two and ended up in ME. Part of it was my upbringing, do the hard thing, it’ll be more rewarding. Also, before being in that field, it’s hard to understand where ID ends and ME begins. Anyhow, I’ve been out of school for 5 years now. I’ve spent 2 of those in a small NPD consulting firm and have been at a custom playground company for the last 3. I’ve been lucky to fill roles where I am involved in defining what the product is and what it’ll look like on top of being on the R&D side driving some of the technologies we’ve been using forward.

With that said, I was torn for a long time. I spent a lot of my free time trying to build up an ID portfolio hoping to switch over. But I’m realizing that was kind of in vain. The truth is I’m much less valuable to a company as an ID than an ME. 4 years of schooling is a lot of lectures to attend but it’s a lot of practice time. Your experience may allow you to cut some of that but it’s a tough climb to get a competitive portfolio together.

While I’m now giving up on a pure ID role, it’s not all bad. I learned to sketch half decently. As yo puts it, it’s often a super power to direct a discussion. My rendering and presentation skills have also proven useful in these in-between roles I find myself in. Expanding my repertoire of design, architecture and art references is also handy to draw from. I also enjoyed putting that time in my passion, no regrets here.

As others have mentioned, try to find these in-between roles. Not only will it scratch that itch for you, I think you can be a super valuable asset. Roles like being in a design consultancy, an NPD team, or simply in a company that allows you to shine as an ME that actually gets and appreciates ID. These are unfortunately hard to find roles. I’d look at your network and maybe at meeting new people that can vouch for you for these kinds of roles.

You mentioned having an entrepreneurial spirit. Joining or founding a start-up could be great for you. In the last few months I’ve had acquaintances consider me as an early employee/cofounder because of my wide breadth of experience and interests. As I was mentioning, go out there and meet people. Maybe consider doing collab portfolio work with some ID folks with the agreement that you’ll get some input and gain some experience in that field. Are you on instagram?

Again, as others have mentioned, product management could also be up your alley. Microsoft’s Panos Panay comes to mind as a possible inspiration. He started in ME but veered towards product management roles by doing an MBA. He managed to build a strong brand and was a key part of turning MS’ image around. He empowered his designers to bring new computing concepts to the shelves. He also put what I assume to be his “mechanical” fingerprint with the advancements in hinges and fabrics.

To finish my personal story, I’ve been concentrating on Computational Design lately. It’s a nice intersection between my interests and skills and also super motivating as it’s quite nascent. I’ve been putting together a portfolio and considering a Masters degree if I can’t land a dedicated role in the mid-term.

I kinda disagree about a PM role. That to me seems more of the unicorn than an ME in an ID role. 99.9% of the PMs I know are spending 90% of their time on downstream activities. If that’s your bag, great. But for me, I would much rather spend more than 10% of my time on the upstream.

And lately in my new large corporate role, I have met many claiming and having upstream in their title, but they are clearly not.

Really great stuff here Louis. I liked the last point about looking into bleeding-edge new fields where the lines between pure engineering/technical chops and design “creativity” are blurred. Props to you for knowing what motivated you and what you were best at, and going after it.