I'm a rocket scientist, but I don't necessarily want to be.

I am a rocket scientist, and I need your help.

Technically, I don’t work on rockets, but when you tell somebody you interned at NASA, it’s easier to lie than explain your actual role.

My degree is in Aerospace Engineering, initially due to (mis)guidance, but now due to educational inertia. Halfway through my degree, I tried to switch to ID, but due to drastic differences in curriculum, I couldn’t do it without repeating my first two years of undergrad. I spoke to a few people employed in the field, and they suggested I finish in my degree, then work my way into the industry as an engineer.

I was attracted to ID because of the opportunity to work as the eponymous “t-shaped person”: jack of all trades, master of one or two. I spontaneously generate ideas in all fields, from softgoods to footwear to furniture to … to aircraft, and I enjoy learning about the markets, techniques, challenges and possible innovations in lots of disparate fields. In engineering, however, I have seen a tendency towards “pigeonholing”, or a desire for subject matter experts, which is opposed to my ideal breadth of roles.

I am trying to plan out a career transition, but before I do this, I want to know whether I do, in fact, want to go into ID. I don’t want to end up trying to distract myself from my job.

My questions are mostly about the actual day-to-day work of IDer:

1. How long do you usually work on a typical project? How many projects in a year? How many at once?

2. Do you find all your projects to be similar? Is it easy for an IDer to break free of a portfolio-induced pigeonhole?

3. What about your job is fulfilling? Is it the everyday work you do? Is it the smile on children’s faces? Something else?

4. How is your time spent? How much time do you spend ideating, sketching, CADing, prototyping, writing, calculating, etc?

I have seen the thought with which many of you respond to the messages on this board, so I am eager to hear answers to these questions, and any other information you feel would benefit a lonely wanderer like myself. I am working on assembling a presentable portfolio in my spare time (which is dwindling; my Christmas knitting has caught up to me), so in the meantime you’ll have to rely on my own word that I’m at least halfway decent at the design process. (I hope a latent desire to eliminate possible competition doesn’t skew the results, but I trust you. Yes, you.)

Happy Holidays!

1a. Depends. As a consultant, 2-12 weeks. In corporate, 6 months - 3 years.
1b. As a consultant, 10-20. In corporate, 1-3.
1c. As a consultant, 4-8. In corporate, 1-3.
The corporate gig is cradle to grave. Consulting is done in phases.

2a. No.
2b. Define easy. Design is design but there are some barriers between specialties.

3a. I get to make stuff.
3b. Sometimes.
3c. No. But I am a bit of a scrooge.
3d. Everyday is different and keeps my mind occupied.

4a. 1% inspiration. 99% perspiration. And 95% of my time cruising Core.
4b. I mostly direct in my old age. An “advanced” career means little sketching, CAD, etc.

One of my employees is a rocket scientist (serious, no kidding). He wasn’t very good at new product development (not to say you will be the same). He now works at the company that makes Slurpee machines.

1a-b. So most of the descriptions of ID I have found have been of consulting. Good to know.
1c. This sounds optimal. My preferred method of work is to have several projects going on in the back of my head while I focus on something else. The back of my head is where all the ideas seem to hang out.

4b. What about the people you direct? (I assume it’s people you direct.) Maybe when you were a junior IDer.

Thanks for your prompt response! Slurpee machines were a cornerstone of my childhood. I applaud his effort. But if he is your employee, does that mean you too work at a Slurpee machine company?

Should have read “ex-employee”. I do not work at Slurpee machine inc.

4b. We try and get prototypes into customer hands as soon as possible. My technical crew is developing them and my marketing crew is in the field testing them. I make sure the marketing crew is hearing the customer and I make sure my technical is hearing the marketing crew.

Ah, I see. I should have guessed Slurpee Inc. might not be your cup of tea. Or cup of something.

One of my challenges at my current position is distraction: I have so many things I wish to spend time designing that no hobby seems sufficient to contain them, and they multiply far faster than does my spare time. I would think ID would alleviate this problem, at the very least providing an outlet for diverse creative energies. Did you (any of you, not just iab) have this problem, and do you still? Are you able to do out-of-the-blue generative work (invention, I suppose), as part of your job, not just as a hobby? Or is that something different than ID all together?

Creating ideas easily outstrips the ability to implement ideas. You know the 1%/99% thing. Your job title is irrelevant to that fact. Although as your career progresses, you have more and more people implementing your ideas.

ID is only a small part in the process, invention or blue sky. What I find interesting is choosing the which idea should be implemented. That is the most critical part of the process.

If Steve Jobs would have kept Apple only making the best designed computer in the world, I think they would be out of business today. He decided to take Apple into a completely different market, selling music. Which in time gave him the perfect platform to sell apps, which in turn gave him a lock in creating the smart phone market. Granted it is a bit of a chicken and egg thing, but if you developed a small hand-held computer that can’t run “regular” programs and had no apps readily available, you would have the Newton 2 instead of the iphone.

so you dont have any ID training, but feel being a rocket scientist and sketching in your spare time fulfills a formal ID degree? in that case, i could be a rocket scientist if i do it in my spare time?? if you want to go into ID get a formal education. ID is more than just sketching ideas…

Well, to be honest, seeing as the inventors of rocket science didn’t have rocket science degrees, I have to assume you can be one without a proper degree. And the same could be said for ID.

That question was rather a non-sequitur, though. I asked the question to find out what an IDer really does day-to-day so I don’t waste a bunch of time and effort changing careers (I suppose that answers your questcusation.)

That said, what do you, who are apparently an IDer, do every day?

My biggest question is why do you want to make this switch? Being a rocket scientist is got to be a better paying job then a designer. Being a designer is not about ideas it’s about getting good products to market. Only about 10% of my time is spent on ideas the rest is getting stuff finished and to the market place. This is a bit crude but ideas are like farts everyone has them and most of them stink.

My day to day changes a fair bit. I had a accountant friend ask me what my day to day was like. I found the question hard to answer. Mostly because everyday is different. I have worked in corporate gigs for my whole career. But unlike a lot of corporate gigs I usually have about 15-30 projects a year. This is not including things like photo shoots and catalogs and random graphics. So I feel quite well versed in a number of different skills and aspects of design.

I find the work fulling in the sense I love drawing something and working through the whole process to get it on to a store shelf. It is very nice when you walk in somewhere and see your product hanging on a wall or someone using it.

Some hard parts about design sometimes there is a lot of repetitive work. My current employer requires formal drawings for all current colors and so you might spend a whole day just doing small tweaks to 30 drawings. Also some people are quite fun to brainstorm and work with in the initial ambiguous phase of design and some people are not. This particle phase when you work with some people can be quite painful. So you have to learn how to mange this so things still move forward. People skills are critical.

Also judging from your background some problems you might face one major hurtle could be the lack of a right answers. In design you are rarely giving a product that is a right answer. Because the answer changes biased on the metric you use. So you need to be comfortable with not knowing if you have the right answer because chances are you don’t have it. You have the best answer for you giving situation.

You mention working on 15-30 projects in a year. (And that it’s not a common corporate scenario, but still.) In aero, most careers are one long project, or lots of variations on the same project. The education and career development is geared towards “subject matter experts”, who know everything about one thing and work in it all the time (they tried to get us to select “sub-majors”). I don’t want to be one of those. I would rather integrate lots of fields of knowledge and work quickly from conception through production (even if it means a pay cut.)

I also enjoy sketching and thinking with my hands, and writing MATLAB code all day doesn’t typically quench that thirst.

You’re right, design doesn’t have one right answer, but typically, neither does engineering. The only time there’s a right answer is when the problem came from a textbook. (And typically, only the odd problems.) It could also be that there’s a right answer, but nobody knows what it is or how to get it. Otherwise, why work on it? We did have a few open-ended projects (senior design comes to mind), and most of the people on my team were analyzing beams and calculating propellant weights before we had even investigated the architecture of the project, which gives you an idea of the type of people typically cut out for aero.

Thanks for answering, though! I think there’s a few engineers pursuing ID out there (or vice-versa, though I think it’s a lot easier to fake engineering homework skills than ID studio skills) who might benefit from this thread.

Greetings - I think the challenge you’re setting for yourself is an excellent one - and since you’re already a problem solver it should be much easier for you to evolve your skillset into the value of an ‘Industrial Designer’. My advice to those who might say, ‘go get a degree, then you’ll be a designer’ is that you and I both know better - experience in the field is far more valuable to the advancement of any skillset. So to that end, you might do well to get yourself involved in a small manufacturing company where you can provide the value of a seasoned engineer and also develop an extended skillset approaching the value of ID. Lots of small companies don’t even have ID and don’t even farm it out on most of their projects - they just use their internal jacks-of-all-trades.

To answer your questions;
1. How long do you usually work on a typical project? How many projects in a year? How many at once?
In my first 3 years as an industrial designer I was with a design consulting firm (93-95) - the workflow was pretty consistent with firms located anywhere. There was always a mix of project type; a few short term (1 week to 1 month), one or two internally driven exploratory (could be a day, could be a year) and a few long term (6 months to 2 years). The size of the staff dictates the # of projects. Some were always new business, some were always established relationships.
During my next 13 years I was a corporate designer and worked up to being a global design manager (95-08, GM then Black & Decker). Each designer generally had three projects on deck at any given time - one hovering around Blue-Sky and nearing the start of development, one in the middle of development and one near the end of development. In addition, there were always internally driven projects but it was rare that they ever saw the light of day as a finished product or idea (priorities changed far more often in the Corporate scene, erasing lots of previous and ongoing work with it).
For the last 6 years (07 till now) I’ve been a partner of a niche product development & marketing communications firm. We’re very small on any given day but our network of consultants can grow to a few dozen when projects require certain expertise. Our clients and projects are global. On average we wrestle with 4-8 client projects at any given time, some are a few weeks to a month long, most are several years long (we do everything from research & brainstorming to delivering final products for the store shelf (or the Amazon listing).
2. Do you find all your projects to be similar? Is it easy for an IDer to break free of a portfolio-induced pigeonhole?
The subject categories of consultant work are always varied, although some consultancies grow into very narrow expertise and take on only those types of projects. Corporate work tends to be very narrow in scope (almost the ‘expert in the field’ mentality) but it depends on the breadth of the products they manufacture.
3. What about your job is fulfilling? Is it the everyday work you do? Is it the smile on children’s faces? Something else?
Early on I was all about learning my trade and wondering how I could achieve something more, then I transitioned into a comfy corporate environment where the pay is great, the work tends to get too familiar and the obligatory Corporate-American time in the office was never easy. Now I’m all about diversifying income streams, developing our own products, partnering with clients for future income and only working as much or as little as I want or need.
4. How is your time spent? How much time do you spend ideating, sketching, CADing, prototyping, writing, calculating, etc?
As you might expect, early on in my career I was sketching and prototyping almost 100% of my time, then it transitioned into 50% sketching, 30% CAD, 10% prototyping and 10% admin. Now I act primarily as a project manager so it’s more like 40% billable PM (20% designing, 20% liaison with our experts), 20% admin, 20% outreach and 20% internal project work.

If you have a natural appreciation for style and form and you can identify what attracts most people then you already have a good bit of what makes designers special. The next thing to work on is visual communication of thoughts and ideas.

I hope some of this helps! Good luck.

Wow, thanks! This forum is happenin’!

You might be able to get what you’re looking for without making a huge field switch.

I worked as a virtual reality developer for a few months, the system operator was an aerospace engineer. Her job involved programming as well, but they needed me because they were so full on patients that her development time was severely hampered.

It was probably the closest job to ID I’ve had, other than actually working in product development. Finished about three major applications during my four months there. Activities involved identifying gaps in patient care, sketching out solutions, then creating the 3D models, inserting them into the software, and testing them on the system (a 6 DOF platform, hence the need for aero and mech eng’s).

i am an IDer, EVERYDAY. i put on the shelves about 10-12 new products every year, for the last 16 years.
i draw everyday, approve models, work with suppliers, blah blah blah…