Industrial Design: RISD or SAIC???

I’m having so much trouble deciding between RISD and SAIC for industrial design. I feel like RISD’s ID department does a better job of preparing students for actual work in the field whereas SAIC tends to focus more on doing stand-alone conceptual designed object pieces (is this true?) and that a degree from RISD would offer more promising career opportunities.

However, RISD gave me barely any financial aid. Me going there would be difficult for my family and would also leave me with a lot of debt. On the other hand, SAIC offered me a large scholarship which would allow me to graduate with about a quarter of the amount of debt I would be leaving RISD with. They also offered this freshmen mentorship program thing which would include a study trip to Italy.

I’m so worried that if I choose to go to SAIC I will be forced into a curriculum which focuses more on conceptuality and humanities rather than technical skills and understanding of the industry, but also that if I choose to go to RISD my family and I will be crippled by debt. Please help!

I’d say the opposite is true typically. How did you select those two programs, uolulu?


Looking at SAIC’s Designed Objects webpage gallery and both schools’ Behance sites ( and they actually seem very similar – see my crude infographic below. I would be curious in hearing how you chose these both as well.

A (tangible) <------------------------------- B -------------------------------> C (abstract)

A | is where the products and concepts are handmade, hand-fabricated, or machined by the students themselves. Lots of wood, metal, ceramic, paper/board. Very old school in a sense that these projects are all about making the physical object, but not necessarily how they might be done in industry nowadays.

C | is more out there, conceptual, more fine arts, experimental.

B | is more commercially focused, how things might be done nowadays. More focus on market research, problem solving, sketching, visualization, CAD, rapid prototyping from CAD files, etc. In an example of a cellphone, probably 90% of the work done is not in physical mockups, but it still focuses on a physical object as the end goal. Maybe it doesn’t make since right in the middle of A and C, but it is definitely not as abstract and is meant for a produced and sold in the end, while less tangible than making everything by hand.

Interestingly, I see that schools either have more of a B only, or A and C but less B. IMO it looks SAIC and RISD are both the latter. Not that any of this is good or bad, but up to you (and you did voice the concern of working in the field).

@uolulu, is this undergrad or grad?


I went there for my undergrad and graduated in 2010.

I suggest starting a conversation with a design professor there. Tell him/her your expectations to find out if this program can possibly satisfy you.

The mentorship sounds interesting, but find out how much design you will actually be exposed to during your first couple of years. I can’t really speak for the state of the program these days. It was very young when I went and has been rapidly developing since then, but SAIC had a freshman program that purposefully exposes you to a lot of different disciplines. You might not be happy if you have to spend your time doing that. Or it might be great to expand your horizons.

What other schools are you considering?

To clarify, I was a transfer from UW Madison. I was able to avoid the freshman program and gen eds that way.

I cannot speak for SAIC, but I can tell you tangents about my experience with RISD grads and some recent news.

Traditionally, RISD seems to foster a sense of entrepreneurship with its grads. Grads seem to really have a ‘can do’ and ‘make it happen’ attitude - very attractive to folks who are looking to hire.

While they seem to have that as a positive, I have noticed that most grads leave RISD with a very rudimentary knowledge of manufacturing and some gaps in tool sets; they come out with Solidworks/CAD experience and are comfortable building physical things, but some basic communication tools of strong drawing skills were often very lacking, in my experience.

I tend to adhere to a ‘core’ mentality, where I would prefer to have grads exposed to many tools, but have focus and expertise in a few ‘core’ tools - beginning manufacturing knowledge, strong visual abilities (sketching in CAD doesn’t count in my book), materials understanding, focus on end user understanding, and a strong sense of process and the role of design within product development. There is always the ability to build those and others as you become employed, but I think those are fairly necessary upon graduation and entry into the design work force.

Depending what you want to do (UX, UI, ID, packaging, etc.) those skills may want to be different than what I am stating, but again - I am coming from a physical product design perspective.

Now, I also know that the college president recently left among turmoil - President of RISD Receives No-Confidence Vote

Unfortunately, it seems the pendulum may swing closer to blending art, design and architecture under one umbrella and have only 1 dean, and not 3.

Again - I have no inside track, and this really comes down to what you feel is right and best for you - I just wanted to add my $0.02.


hi uolulu,
I finished my undergrad at SAIC two years ago (was there over 3 years), and I would agree the program is conceptual compared to most, (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing), but the AIADO dept. is in its own little bubble compared to the rest of the school, so the conceptualism is toned down quite a bit, with all of design (except Fashion and VisCom, for some, unknown reason) in one wing. And btw, I was a transfer (coming from a ceramic sculpture background), so I never did the First Year/Contemporary Practices Program and Sophomore Seminar, except for the required English and Art History classes, (and there are several Design oriented ones to choose from too).

According to your scale of tangible to abstract (which made me laugh), SAIC hits A, B, and C, though not as much C as you might think. Its important to note that ALL of those points are still done these days. You are going to make lots and lots of sketches and rough models, way before you turn to CAD and a finished prototype. I would say from my experience that I wished I learned more Market/ User Research and Manufacturing techniques like injection moulding.

The greatest thing about SAIC, that made me want to go and what I still love about it, is its inter-disciplinary philosophy. Object Design would be your emphasis, but you should definitely take advantage and experiment with the other great classes/skills that are available to you, like Art & Tech, Metals, and of course my favorite, Ceramics.

As for technical/manufacturing/entrepreneurship concerns, yes SAIC tends to lack heavily, but these are things that can also be learned outside the program, on your own. For example, I took several Rhino and CNC Integrated Fabrication classes, but took a nightly adult class for Solidworks after I graduated (no big deal, and super cheap). I learned by far the most from my two internships while in school, which I highly recommend to get those business/studio and manufacturing experiences you want and need.

If you decide to go, aim on applying/getting in the GRFY, Samsung and Salon del Mobile studio seminars inside the dept. Classes like Lee Weitzman’s Furniture Design Practices in the summer are amazing, because you go to manufacturers, studios, retailers all over Chicago, plus NeoCon. And absolutely attend lectures and workshops over at UIC, to learn for instance licensing and patenting/ intellectual property.

I would say that ultimately, is it up to you and your self-discipline to get the most out of where ever you choose to go. Your professors are your mentors for life, so forge strong relationships with them, since they know exactly what you are going through, and where your concerns stem from. You should start up a conversation with one of the faculty, like Tim Parsons, or George Aye. Also, celebrate the fact you got such a huge scholarship, because this place is EXPENSIVE, and if your final decision comes down to money, you can do no worse then go there.

PM if you have any other questions or concerns. Best of Luck!