From Lawyer to Product Designer: Is it possible?

Hi all! I’m new to Core77 and product design. I recently graduated with a law degree and the considerable student debt that often comes with it. I’m 30 years old with a bachelor of arts in humanities and the aforementioned juris doctorate - yet I’m considering going to design school for a bachelors of science in product design. As ignorant as it may sound, I never knew the field of product or industrial design existed. Now that I am aware (as of last month), I am exuberant and confounded. I wholeheartedly believe that product design is my calling, that I will leave a more profound legacy with design than I might law. However, my age and student debt force me to quiet my enthusiasm and ask if I have found my calling too late in the game. My professional experience has been predominately in sales, marketing, and management. I’m a California native and have been looking at a local but well recognized institution: Art Center College of Design (Pasadena) - however, the degree would cost well over $100K. I apologize for my lengthy introduction, my questions are:

  1. If, by some miracle, I can manage the means to pay for the education, is it worth pursuing at my age and educational background?

  2. Is it possible to do an internship or apprenticeship with a design consultancy before beginning a design degree?

  3. How formal would a portfolio need to be for admissions purposes, what does one include? I have a journal with 100+ pages of product sketches and notes but it is incredibly informal and was never intended for anyone’s eyes but my own.

  4. What is the measure of a great product designer? And is the career path of a product designer to either become an in-house designer, work for a design house, or manage their own consultancy? Are there product designers who design, manufacture and sell to consumers under the same label/company?

  5. Are there business plans available for ‘design start-ups’ or examples of highly successful and unsuccessful design companies?

  6. Lastly, what is the worst part of being a product designer? and conversely, what is the best?

If you have read this far, thank you so kindly! Any response to any of the questions, any recommendations, or advice are all greatly appreciated;I am at an enormous crossroads. Thank you!

Law to product design is a leap, but that background could be helpful when it comes to intellectual property. For example, if you intend to produce and sell your own designs.

  1. This is ultimately up to you. Logically? Maybe not. But if you’re driven and passionate, I say go for it.

  2. Before beginning a degree? No. It’s relatively competitive as it is to get an internship in ID. Maybe if you offer them free legal service :wink:

  3. This depends on the school, unfortunately I’m not familiar with Art Center. At my university I had to apply to the art school first, then to ID before my sophomore year. Both portfolios were formal. That being said a raw sketch book can be a nice way to see how you think, an unpolished honest representation of who you are.

  4. This depends on individual goals. Generally I’d say recognition and developing your own award winning products. There are plenty of designers who design, manufacture, and sell their own product under one name. I’d say that’s a dream of mine.

  5. Sorry, can’t really help you here. Some random links that may touch on what you’re looking for:
    Sparse: A Design-Driven Startup, Two Years In - Core77
    http://theleanstartup.com/
    Amazon.com

  6. I love being a designer, I can’t imagine doing anything else. I love creating and making things. Seeing a tangible result of your hard work, seeing it in your hands, at the store, randomly at someone’s house or on the street - it’s very rewarding. The worst part? Having a vision and watching it get watered down, butchered, or even canceled by marketing, engineering, or sub-par overseas manufacturing.

Hope this helps! Good luck!

Thank you Noah! I sincerely appreciate your advice and the time you took to reply. Your answer to #6 is what I aspire to have. Very helpful!

My .02 as an oldtimer. I suspect Noah is more at the beginning of his career.

  1. I personally know several over 30 non-design-background people who made the transition and are excellent designers. What you ask is not unprecedented. You will be under a mountain of debt with a low starting salary v. a lawyer’s pay with lower debt - your choice.

  2. You can get an internship with non-design related activities. Consultancies are often asked to do patent research. Your degree enables you to do that, for example. Once in, you can get a feel of the life and even ask to take part in the process other than just patents. Any good design firm encourages other perspectives.

  3. Don’t know. It has been a long time since I was in the admissions process.

  4. I measure designers by height. As for what you do, consultancies are very task specific. Corporate is cradle to grave product development which is a lot more than just ID. There are a few threads about it here. As for entrepreneurs, that is new product development, and again, that is hugely different than industrial design. ID is a small part of the npd process. Core did a good article on bringing a product to market, Sparse: A Design-Driven Startup, Two Years In - Core77

  5. Amazon and Borders will have plenty of books with case studies. I have no specific recommendations.

  6. Worst - It is what I like to do. Best - It is what I like to do.

#5 Not really a business plan but a good look into bringing a crowdfunded project to market.

Thank you! Iab, great advice - I hope that in the long run, my happiness will outweigh the burden of debt. I think I’m at a point were I can accept living modestly and happy, rather than rich and miserable.

Sain - thanks for the link! I was curious how sites like kickstarter have evened the playing field for independents - and it looks as though that is exactly what your suggestion covers.

I have to admit, I’m impressed with the support and advice from this forum. In all my years online, this is my first forum post. Although this may be a small sample, it appears that Core77 and ID are a supportive/happy community. Hard to find anyone complaining about being in ID, unfortunately the same can’t be said for lawyers.

I’m meeting with an admissions counselor at the Art Center in a few minutes. Hope to make my mind up and set some goals after today. Thank you all again!

A Hybrid Designer. Thats where you will benefit with your past experience in your previous training and together with design. There are many Hybrid Designers out there with your similar case, people who didn’t started out as having design as their first training. I did’t turn out to be an engineer in my college days , did Product Design after that. I did alright in the end, although the beginning was tough. I had to bite the bullet. I think you will do just fine. :slight_smile:

Read up more design books & articles to fuel your interest. I guess you have made the first step in signing up this forum. Kudos! This path is tough, but it is very rewarding. Best of luck!

Nothing more i can add here, IAB outline my experience pretty close. the one thing i would add is you need to ask yourself why do i want to be a designer and what do i hope to get out of it… create a list post it hear and we can perhaps help you with your expectations…

Thank you Edmund.
Chevisw - I have been sketching designs since I was about 4 years old. When I was 6yo, My parents had told me I couldn’t have a dirt bike (for many reasons including cost, danger, and my age)… so I set out to design my own. It was crude steam engine design. Since then, there have been many occasions where I’ve done amateur design work in a semi-secretive and fully amateurish level.

As a child, I dreamt of being an inventor and looked up to cartoon characters like Gyro Gearloose on Disney’s Duck Tales. I was timid about telling anyone about my aspirations to become an inventor, since Inventors are often portrayed as a bit loony or get rich quick types. I believed that in order to fulfill my dream, I would need to go into engineering but I was conflicted by how detailed the field can be… and I’m a big picture/dreamer type. As I continue to discover the field of product design, it seems to embody much of what I have enjoyed doing all these years. So after that lengthy lead up, here are the reason I want to be a designer and my expectations:

  1. To leave a legacy: I want to leave the world better than I came into it and I believe design affords me that opportunity. To think that I could design something that could survive me, function well and bring people joy is a fascinating prospect.

  2. To promote peace: I believe war can be profitable in the short term and there are entire industries built around supporting wars. I want to make peace profitable by designing products that promote harmony and coexistence while turning a profit. For example, in college I worked on developing a cocktail straw that changes colors if a drink is spiked with a drug (ironically a newly admitted attorney developed and produced a very similar product a few years later). Although an incident of assault isn’t exactly war, the product aimed to protect people from violence. From small scale product designs on up, I would like to eventually lead an altruistic company that promotes peace with each of its products.

  3. An outlet for my ideas: I would like to make the transition from hobby to profession and be able to test my concepts in the real world by developing, prototyping, manufacturing and finally releasing my ideas into the mass market.

  4. Finally, I need some sort of closure. I want to figure out whether design really is my calling or not. I fear failure, but now I think I fear not knowing more. The idea of being on my deathbed and reflecting on my life with disappointment scares the hell out of me. I don’t want to ever ask myself, ‘what if I had pursued design all those years back…’

My goal now is to pursue a formal education in design. I want to apply for Fall 2015, which should give me time to develop a formal portfolio. If I could, I would love to introduce a design to a site like kickstarter so that I could get some real experience with the arduous process of going from ideation to sales. Currently, I am reading up on ID basics and teaching myself as much as I can. There is a program at the Art Center in Pasadena that is my top choice (Dual degree - MS in ID and MBA from the Claremont Colleges). I would love to believe that I could avoid $150,000+ in tuition and teach myself everything I needed to know, but I fear that’s just not reality. I’m hoping the education will be worth it and (maybe even more importantly) the alumni network will be strong and helpful. Funny that I never liked school growing up and now I may end up with a title of “MS, MBA, JD, ESQ) following my name. I’m hoping I’m not being foolish by going to school when education costs are so absurdly high. In order to get the real world perspective of design, I’m exploring Core77’s forums as well as searching for mentors in the Los Angeles area so that I can better understand how to succeed in the field (suggestions on any LA designers?).

As always, I sincerely appreciate everyone’s input and apologize for my incredibly long posts!

It seems like from your post I read, you are determined to go for it.

Don’t let all those factors stop you from being a Designer. Failure is the mother to success. Always embrace failures.
I think as for your situation if you do get into MA program in Design. Savour the time spend in the MA Design program. Learn to take up challenges like you are now, always sketch & sketch, help fellow people using design thinking when you are there (campus time, cafe, clubbing, etc), Be Humble as well, as MA program, you meet people from all sorts, you learn from theirs.

Hope that helps. :slight_smile:

Absolutely! Thank you edmund, great advice. I’m working on learning the technical aspects of design sketching - the local library had some helpful resources.

Product Designer - IP Lawyer here. From reading your posts I’d say you’re more than ready! GO FOR IT!

I went to study law after working as a successful designer in both the corporate and consultancy environments for 5 years. The main reason for pursuing law was that I wanted to be an entrepreneur and thought that law would be a solid platform for that. Of course, it was hard and expensive, but I have no regrets! With my law degree in hand and with a few years of practice I pursued my dream by starting a brand - this is another story all of its own with its own war/success stories.

Anyway, your law degree with innate talents and drive would prepare you well for any kind of design education. And, you will love it! Good luck with your pursuits!

Thank you so much enigma… my pursuit of a law degree had similar motivations! Happy to hear others have found a balance with design and law.