Designer or Engineer

Supposing your recent ID grad from a programme that did it’s best to stuff everything a designer needs to know in 4-5 years but you soon realise it wasn’t enough. Supposing you spent most of your time working on bullet proof problem statements, sweet renderings,human factors studies, stunning models but not enough time plastic part design, basic mechanics, electronics and machining. How does one get on the fence between engineering and design and be productive while on the fence …

Experience teacheth the fool. It doen’t matter how ‘cool’ it is if it can’t be made it’s destined for a trash can or an art gallery. And to look at design from this corner of the spectrum is quite frustrating. I am curiuos to know whether there are any recent grads out there that identify with this perspective and who have successfully made steps towards the fence.

I believe that this middle ground is where a trully successful Industrial Designer lives. Unfortunately fast paced work environments don’t leave much time for one to advance their skills in a relevant area.

What does a designer in these shoes do to go the next level … Work at a manufacturing house? Get another degree this time in Engineering? Take private classes in ProE and Solidworks … what? There is this gaping hole that needs to be filled! Everyone here is a visionary of sorts and everyone here is good at problem solving! We have all the tools to wrap our heads around a problem and propose a solution, but maybe not enough to execute it. (You know that really shitty feeling you get right after your concept is selected for further development and then suddenly the designer is out of the loop and an engineer takes over …)

Do you feel me?

it’s all about the environment.

To your credit, you have become aware of this role confusion early on in your career, other designers just keep bumping their heads on the problem never trying to figure out where they fit. This could turn into a very long-winded argument on the merits and shortcomings of design education today, especially in North America.

Some engineering schools, notably in France and Germany, actually offer mechanical engineers - after 3 years of their basic program - an intensive 2 year industrial design training. While some may argue 2 years is not the 4 most of us went through doing only design, it’s also hard for us out school to ever challenge their 3 years of applied engineering knowledge. There are many of us “older” designers strongly believing that to survive at all and stand out from its more decorative sister design professions, industrial design should become an offspring of mechanical engineering programs at college level.

Ask any professional in marketing today what is one of the essential ingredients in an effective marketing campaign, and inevitably they will tell you it’s a strong, clear and especially singular product proposal. In other words, one loud and clear argument. Purpose confusion leads to poor message retention and essentially getting lost in a crowded market.

This is largely where industrial design is today. Maybe not in our own overly optimistic eyes but surely as seen by the worlds of business and industry usually employing us. Too many people unqualified to tackle technological complexity (let alone human factors) claim membership in ID and add to the growing role confusion.

It is no accident that many manufacturers prefer to hire engineers first as ours is - still - a world built mostly on empirical knowledge. I’m not convinced IDers should fit a “middle ground” as you put it, that would marginalize us even further as an expendable resource. You are only worth what the market supply-and-demand chain sets for you. The supply right now is overly generous but the demand for IDers relatively stagnant in my opinion, if not outright declining with the various consulting firms that have closed or downscaled in the last few years.

This should have been a wakeup call for the schools to gradually start re-orienting the curriculum towards a stronger integration with the basic pillars of economic success today instead of leaving industrial design in its current state of product cosmetics the media just can’t get enough of.

Unfortunately, none of that has happened and, as always, new graduates like you will just have to painfully fight their way solo for even the slightest hints of recognition from either engineering, business or manufacturing. The more fortunate or head-strong persevere enough to make of ID a lifelong career but this is otherwise a professional path with a very high casualty rate.

It really didn’t have to be this way.

seems like this is a personal issue for you. more than career issue. if ID was enough you’d probably not ask this. obviously you want more… of something.

i went back to school. but i had decided on dual degrees at 17. engineering was tough when i wanted to design. design was tough because financially it was harder. now that i’ve been designing for a while, i want to get more engineering into my work. thats tough anymore. alot of engineering is done overseas now. so i might just go back for a masters. maybe even a third bachelors in EE. but those are personal decisions. not career driven. and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Depending on your situation your need for knowledge of manufacturing processes will vary dramatically.

In my experience, good conceptual designers are harder to come by than decent mechanical designers. Think about the ratio of ID to ME! Focus on your strengths and your purpose within the organization. Then put those ME’s to work.

Four years is plenty of schooling… The rest you learn in the field. I learned almost everything I need to know about materials and manufacturing processes in one semester of touring factories.

It’s more important that you can accurately describe what you want to the engineers who will ultimately describe your idea to manufacturing. If you’re overly specific, your little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. In my experience it’s better to ask ME for a “soft, tactile elastomer” than to ask for the one brand-name you might happen to know. Also, nothing’s better than show n’ tell when you really want to get into the details… Bring an ME with you to a electronics store to illustrate the ‘feel’ you want in a knob!