This time last year I decided that I wanted to leave my career in retail management and become an industrial designer. I am now working as an Industrial Designer / Engineer at a prestigious company making home hardware. Getting here has taken less time than I ever would have imagined, thanks to the excellent resources available, advice I have been given, and luck (a.k.a. privilege, as I am a white, cisgender, straight, able, married, 29 year old US citizen living in NYC). I wanted to share the pointers I followed in case they are of use to others… and to clarify, this is advice on how to get an entry-level ID job, not to be a great designer. I’m sure a university course would give you a better foundation as a designer.
1. Find out what kind of designer you want to be. BA and MA students spend years exploring design to find their niche and building a portfolio to prove their worth - outside of a university course you will need to do this on your own. I found it helpful to go to university open days to meet student and ask them what they were studying and what reading materials they would recommend. I looked over course syllabuses to figure out what topics a designer would be expected to know, and looked at hundreds of graduates’ portfolios to see the standard and sorts of designers there were out there.
2. Design some products. Design and make things as often as possible. The finished article may be terrible by your own standards, but the process will teach you a lot. I didn’t have access to digital fabrication facilities, so I designed things that I could make from wood and blue foam using hand tools. Each month I added a new product to my portfolio, and after 8 months I was at a stage where I had good products/projects to replace the poorer ones.
3. Emulate the portfolios you love. There are some portfolios that just work – the products are interesting, the pages are well laid out, the narration is engaging, and you finish reading with a clear idea of the designer. Try to emulate the portfolios you love – the process will make you realize your weak points and work them out. For instance, when I first compared my portfolio to one by a recent SVA student I realized mine was lacking hand sketches, finished products, and decent 3D renders. It prompted me to address those as priorities.
4. Do short courses at universities. Being in NYC, I had the option to do some short courses at Pratt Institute and School of Visual Arts. These were crucial for me – they taught me industry standard skills (ideation, prototyping, presentation, 3D modelling) and allowed me to put the name of these prestigious schools on my resume. The Industrial Design course at Pratt was around $800 for 10 weekly 3 hour sessions. The Rhino Software Intensive course at SVA was around $300 for a 7 week course (I couldn’t recommend this course more highly).
5. Do free courses (as long as the institution is credible). I enrolled in the IDEO.org course on Human Centered Design. It was free and manageable, and gave me an insight into the ideas and processes fundamental to many areas of design. It also allowed me to put IDEO.org on my Resume, which will catch the eye of anyone who learned about IDEO at university.
6. Buy the books and read them. I read a number of great books which were invaluable in learning certain subject areas:
a. Making It: Manufacturing Techniques for Product Design (Chris Lefteri)
b. Materials for Design (Chris Lefteri)
c. The Industrial Design Reference & Specification Book (Dan Cuffaro)
d. The design of everyday things (Don Norman)
e. Emotional Design (Don Norman)
f. Speculative Everything (Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby)
7. Learn the software. Lots of jobs require competence in Rhino or Solidworks. I learned Rhino first as I read that it is easier to switch from Rhino to Solidworks than the other way round. I enrolled at SVA to do this and found it much more accessible than when I tried learning through youtube videos. Once I was competent with Rhino I started learning Solidworks (through youtube videos), and playing around with Fusion360. Fusion360 is free for the first year, and Rhino is free for 90 days. Solidworks has a student version which costs around $200 – you will need to be enrolled in a short course to get that though. Keyshot also has a 10 day free trial which is great for getting your portfolio done. All of these worked fine (if slowly) on my 7 year old laptop (i5, 8gb).
8. Get an internship. Unpaid internships are unfair to the intern and to anyone who isn’t fortunate enough to be able to work for free. That said, the two part time, 3-month internships I got were fantastic. I learned to use a CNC router, Laser cutter, wood shop, and to make ceramics. I even got to design a few products that were made (and was paid an hourly wage at that point).
9. Apply for everything. Even if jobs say that they require a BA or MA in Industrial Design, or X years’ experience, the hiring manager may still consider candidates who don’t have this. Over the course of 10 months I applied or around 30 jobs and got 4 interviews and 2 jobs out of it.
10. Make every application as good as it can be. This means tweaking your portfolio for every application, writing a cover letter that answers all of their questions. Also preparing a presentation for the interviews so that you have backup when you get into the interview. Applying for jobs can feel like a full time job, but once you have done it 10+ times you will have a library of emails, versions of your portfolio and answers to questions. Still, with the 2 jobs I was hired for, I spent all day Saturday and Sunday improving my portfolio and refining my application specifically.
11. Swallow your pride. Your first ID role probably isn’t going to be your dream job – but at least try to get one that allows you to develop more as a designer.