Industrial Design tangental careers

Hey guys, I’m linking engelhjs’s post about career coaches because it could potentially relate, but it’s also a different question to be asked.

When asking myself what I enjoy about industrial design, especially physical product design, one of the first things that come to mind is innovation (and R&D). For me aesthetics is important, but what makes me categorize a project as a “win” mostly is if it does its job better than its predecessor or does so with less material, effort, or time than its predecessor. I feel like that could potentially be the main goal of other types of professions in the physical product realm. For example, the work of a business strategist or the work of an inventor. Someone even mentioned to me that some Venture Capital companies have people on staff to come up with design-centric business ideas and also help find new companies to acquire.

Does anyone know other jobs in the physical product area that I might want to look into that have more to do with the soul of the idea than the polished end product? I need to breath fresh life into my job search again. Thanks in advance to you all!

I know this isn’t what you asked, but I think information/data visualization is a closer cousin to ID than the perhaps more obvious field of interaction design.

  • aesthetics matter
  • does a job, better yet does several jobs
  • elegance and simplicity in equal measure
  • enjoyable and intuitive to use

Look into what used to be called “Design Planning” and is now renamed “innovation planning” - taught originally by Larry Keeley at IIT-ID in Chicago.

Its the thinking and planning BEFORE the form giving and you basically describe its goals in your post above:

Let me look up some links for you

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Ok, it seems they’re back to calling it Design planning again (I’ll have to edit my CV ;p)

and this

Recommended book. I still use it at work


Thanks for starting this thread, @bornduff This is actually one avenue I’m looking down, as well. I love working through what it takes to transform ideas into physical products, but I have really become passionate about higher level strategy and process that set up businesses, initiatives, and individual projects for prolonged success. There’s a lot of variability in what those roles are actually called, but it’s definitely a viable, if specialized, career path.

@bornduff have you considered product line management?

I think this is a great example.

Usually, I think this is considered more on the business side of an organization but I see a direct correlation to design.

@_YO Did you cover this in your business-focused course for Offsite?

I think positions like product line management are natural evolutions for designers as they progress in their careers. Moving past nitty gritty product details to start focusing on designing product/business strategies.

A potential downside to this type of career growth is becoming distanced from the design process as you move up the management ladder and your focus is forced to shift towards more business-related goals.

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Correct. It is a strategic role, not a tactical role like design. And is been pretty much my career trajectory.

For clarification, a product manager is traditionally a downstream marketing role, after product launch. The upstream marketing role is many times called portfolio manager. Our particular BU uses the term Market Intelligence.

Also in our BU, we mostly have mechanical and biomed engineers doing what the OP wrote about making a better product. Customer experience can be done by other than IDers. I’m the last IDer in the BU and I get my ID jollies by being an R&D process mentor. Plenty of ID guidance can be given.

The business strategy and design complement. It is why you see companies like McKinsey buy companies like Lunar.

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@iab I haven’t heard of a portfolio manager, but the terms and responsibilities vary from company to company in my experience. At Nike Product Line Managers were involved in product planning and research as well as building the business case for the product and calculating ROI. Downstream they would often do sales trainings and sometimes present to retailers. Same when I was at Sound United. The PLM team actually reported to me for a bit there which was a great learning opportunity. Most of my clients have PLMs in a similar role but one of them is more like how you described, downstream only.

@ntrolz1 I do teach about this in my business & design class for offsite. We covered PLMs in last Monday’s lecture actually. I try to help the students understand what the various people do in each department in a business, finance, operations, marketing, the different types of engineers, how to work with HR & IT to get what you need, the mountains of research just sitting in customer service if you dare to ask for it, and how talking to folks in shipping and receiving and returns can teach you a lot…. All this stuff that I feel like doesn’t even get mentioned in design school :rofl:. We talk about things like how org charts and positioning statements affect your outputs and the likelihood of what concepts will move forward. I wish someone had taught me that much earlier in my career!

@_yo is correct. Nomenclature will be different from company to company.

I will say The R&D or NPD group is a microcosm of the greater org. The difference being a contributor in R&D may where several hats. For example, Market Intelligence does upstream/downstream marketing, commercial & GQO finance, sales, customer service, customer analytics. When we we smaller, someone on the technical side would be responsible for ID, engineering (mech & electrical), quality, manufacturing, sourcing, packaging, receiving, shipping. We always have had regulatory as separate, but we are in the medical device world. SO you get to do a bit of everything and can figure out what floats your boat.

On the face of it, marketing determines the problem, technical solves the problem. There is crossover, but mostly technical to marketing and not marketing to technical. Personally, I got bored with the technical, went over to the liquor and guessing.


Yeah, same at Peloton/Precor. Often serve as VOC “voice of the customer”. They can be curious and motivated to advocate for big bets, tightly aligned and trusting of design… or they can phone it in, with the same tired xls business plans, project after project. Typically their big task is the MRD or PRD and keeping that up to date. There are also TPM (technical product manager) roles which usually require an engineering (or design) background, a bit closer to the product itself but still pushing paper at the end of the day, not designing a thing but guiding the forces around it.

Product Marketing is the launch and post-launch advocacy.

What?!?! :rofl:


LOL, love that… sounds like a good move to me :slight_smile:

Totally, the amount of variance in that role is huge. At one of my current clients the PLM also runs focus groups, sales rep surveys, and manages the NPD timeline, she is a rockstar (and also a former designer). I’ve worked with folks on the other end of the spectrum as well though :wink: … but yes, the PRD always seems to be a key part of the role. PRDs being another topic in the class. As @iab said, the technical folks can influence the marketing folks, so if you can influence the PRD before pen hits paper you are in better shape.

Thanks for the reminder about TPMs @slippyfish … we were just getting big enough at Sound United to add that role in my last year and that is another good example of a possible path for a designer.

It really just depends on your skill sets and how you like to apply your design knowledge.

For the record, some of the best PLMs I’ve worked with have been former designers and also some of the worst! A lot of the best PLMs I’ve worked with actually came up through sales. Sales person who really knows the customer and has the ability to squint through the data and be a little forward looking vs reactive can be great in those roles.

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also @bornduff I’ve seen designers make their way into PR, technical marketing, and yes, even sales! I’ve worked with some great sales people who started as designers! Understanding the product story and being able to communicate that to customers can be powerful, as long as you know how to close a deal. That’s the hard part.

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Marketing = liquor and guessing.

It’s an old joke.



Multi-product companies for geo-fenced markets use it alot, I’ve heard it in most mobile phone companies (back in the day, I don’t know current practice, manufacturing has changed). For ex. North Asia Portfolio Planning Manager, Motorola was one of our design planning graduates job titles straight out of graduation; another was Product Portfolio Manager, Nokia

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Also why Aalto University was conceptualized back in the day circa 2006/7 - its the merger of 3 distinguished private graduate schools - the Helsinki School of Economics, the University of Art and Design Helsinki, and the Helsinki University of Technology. Aalto was named Aalto in 2010.

Otoh, they struggle with the blending of disciplinary traditions and ideologies. One of the reasons I’m contemplating a move from the product development track/mechanical engineering to design/school of arts and design is due to the imposition of now obsolete ‘scientific’ science publication requirements on areas which are newly emergent and gray.

The interstitial space between business and design, the Overlap you could say, is where I’ve built a career since 2005.

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Might have been covered here but a good number of ID folks end up in research firms. At B&D, we used a great firm in ATL that specialized in ONLY:

  1. upfront discovery methodology,
  2. coordination of field research locations,
  3. clearance and coordination to attend sites (homes, businesses)
  4. Accompanying clients who wanted to attend first-hand,
  5. Documenting insights,
  6. Distillation of information for the client
  7. Visits to the client to present findings and offer opportunity opinions.

I often attended the field research visits (because I love observing people in situations related to products AND I enjoyed the global travel). But that last part regarding opportunity opinions was always helpful as we brainstormed next steps.

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Great point @Generatewhatsnext … most of the in house ethnographic research team at frog when I was there had been designers at some point who just gravitated toward research.

When I was there I always tried to mix the ID team with the research team on projects because I found when research and design were done serially by separate teams it was a huge opportunity for the insights to drop and be disconnected from the result. When there was good overlap in the team and the work-streams things moved a lot faster and the research felt more actionable.