Design vs Engineering

I am a high school senior who is getting ready to apply to college. I’ve known I want to go into industrial/product design for a long time, but now I’m starting to wonder if an undergraduate degree in product design is really the best way to get there.

I want to design products that have a lot to do with technology and electronics. Some designs that are similar to things I’d like to create one day include:

Astro Time-Lapse (Astro: Time-Lapse + Motion Control by Oscar Ramírez — Kickstarter)

Revolights (revolights. join the revolution. by Kent, Adam & Jim — Kickstarter)

Iris Camera concept (Iris by Mimi Zou on Vimeo)

WVIL Camera concept (Concept Camera: The WVIL on Vimeo)

Erascan (Utilitarian Things · “Erascan is a whiteboard eraser that scans the...)

Little Printer (

There’s no doubt about it; the college curriculum for a design student is a million times more appealing to me than the curriculum for an engineering student. Will a degree in design really get me where I want to be, though? I don’t want to end up designing shoes, furniture, or other things I don’t have any interest in. If I want to design new technologies, should I be looking at engineering programs instead? I wouldn’t love the coursework, but I know I’m capable of doing it. I could make good grades and graduate successfully in either field.

Right now I’m planning to apply to the Industrial Design programs at Virginia Tech and the University of Cincinnati. Any advice or commentary is appreciated.

VT has a great engineering program, it sounds like you’re interested in the “how stuff works” part of things perhaps more than the actual design/human aspect of things.

Engineering may be more appropriate, but these days you can learn a huge amount on your own. And remember that no one engineering discipline covers everything. An electrical engineer will know how to build the boards, but not actually build or engineer the enclosure, and vice versa. Learning how to solder basic circuits, build and program an Arduino, are all pretty attainable skills as a designer.

It also depends where you want to be in your career. Many of those concepts that are kickstarted were built by small teams or individuals. Being a designer doesn’t mean you can’t do that, it might just mean you need to call up your electrical engineering buddy and say “hey can you help me with this PCB?”

VT does offer a double major option, but frankly it’s very - very intensive, and you’d have to be careful that coming out of college you aren’t under-equipped to be a designer, or an engineer.

No, I’m definitely interested in the design/human aspect of it all. That’s part of what I love about product design, that it pulls together so many different disciplines (marketing/business, anthropology/psychology, art/design, etc). I’m just worried that by getting a design degree, I’ll end up completely cutting myself off from the “how stuff works” aspect.

This kind of makes me feel a bit better about going ahead with design. I’m just not sure where/how I would even begin trying to teach myself those basic engineering skills.

Hey planes,

Given what you’ve said I would recommend a design program. If you want to keep yourself in tune with the “how stuff works” aspect, you will. I know there are many design programs that cover basic mechanical engineering principles, but if you’re interested in something that your curriculum doesn’t cover, the internet will help you out.

I’m in a mechanical engineering program right now actually. If you’re looking for some indication of what you’ll get out of it, here is my third year final project for reference:

the first 40 pages are calculations, and the rest are the actual technical drawings. After third year it gets much more specialized, so this is a good idea of what you would come out of an engineering program with. Don’t be put off by the calculations or length though, its a pretty easy project once you’ve done the three years leading up to it. If you like I can dig through some of my first year notes to give you an idea of what that involves as well.

If you’re interested in electrical engineering, it gets very deep into semiconductors and stuff, I’ve done fine in personal and professional projects with my high school knowledge of ohm’s law, parallel and series circuits and an arduino. If there’s a hackerspace near you that’s a great resource as well.

The internet is a good start, Arduino is open source so all of the information is online and Arduino is an extremely powerful tool for prototyping concepts. In the real world, no one expects you to do everything yourself, it’s very easy as a designer to design the behavior and let someone else worry about how it gets done. But, having your hand in a little bit of software and electrical know how is definitely helpful.

The Teagueduino was an awesome project for introducing the platform, but unfortunately it seems that no one is willing to build the kits anymore.

You can always think about what you want to learn, then possibly audit some classes at college for introduction to programming, etc.

Wow. You are expecting a great deal from your education. I see several options.

A. Don’t expect to be the end-all be-all at the end of 4-years of college.
B. Spend the next 12 years in higher education covering all bases.
C. Get your 4-year degree and let actual job experience provide those additional skills.

Personally, I’d opt for C, or a toned back combination of B and C.

In general, it sounds like you don’t want to specialize in one particular area. I am the same way. I like the design, research, strategy, engineering (mechanical and electrical). I have also dabbled in chemestry, physics, molecular biology, graphics, UI, branding, copy writing, production, logistics and other things that my old brain cannot recall at this time.

My advice would be to not get pigeon-holed into “industrial design” or “engineering” or “marketing”. Look for places (businesses and schools) that offer the full range of new product development.

My advice would echo the above responses. Go to a school that offers ID as well as Engineering, so that way you can interact with many types of specialties. Get involved on campus with the different clubs available, and stay interested in any and all technologies out there.

It’s not like they keep all the cool information secluded to only those in the specific programs. I went to art school, but played around a whole lot in the Aerospace Engineering Virtual Reality lab. Lots of fun to be had when you know a few people and you can play with some insanely expensive equipment (that was one of a kind in the world at the time…)

Well, this certainly made my decision a lot easier! I think I’ll be sticking with design. Really, though, thanks for this. Until I saw your project, I wasn’t clear on what I could expect as an engineering student. This helped a lot.

Yeah, this is a good idea. Virginia Tech is actually my first choice right now; there should be plenty of opportunities for collaboration and networking there.

I really appreciate everyone’s input! Thanks so much for reminding me that I don’t have to be strictly confined within my major and that there are still opportunities to learn outside of the classroom. Hopefully I’ll be heading off to a design program in the near future!

Happy to help! It sounds like you’ve made your mind up but let me know if you have any more questions on the engineering side.