Is Industrial Design Very Technical / Engineering Related?

Hello All!!

I am posting in this forum as I really would need some advice from working industrial designers!

I hold a degree in marketing and have been working in the advertising field for a year.
I have always wanted to do something creative, and I thought Industrial Design would be a great fit.

However, I am not interested in details of the mechanical aspects of industrial design. I also find the engineering part quite intimidating as I was always more ‘visual’ than someone who likes to repair and assemble objects with mechanical tools. In other words, I am not a technical person… I am however interested in ergonomics and material science.

I think that the ideal industrial design job for would be leaning towards wearable goods, furniture, and simple everyday objects (e.g. cooking tools).

Now, I’ve also been suggested Graphic Design, but it doesn’t provide the satisfaction of building the object with your hands.

P.S. An architect guy at RISD also suggested that I study architecture, as architecture is the most ‘generalist’ design field there is that would allow me to work in almost any kind of design field…How true is that?

A large part of industrial design is making products that work. Ergonomics and materials are a fraction of that equation. To only focus on those areas as an industrial designer, you’d be doing yourself a disservice and personally I think it’ll be challenging to find a job… in the commercial realm that is. There are some industrial designers that go the sculptural/artsy route and join studios of that nature or become an independent designer. At this point, some people take the more general title as “designer.”

Do you know what kinds of places you’d like to work at - maybe you have a particular company/studio in mind? Research those places and their employees. See what backgrounds they have.

That’s a really good point. I haven’t quite looked into the firms/studios I wanted to work in. But I think I am more attracted to the generalist “designers” as you say, who have independent studios (the artsy and sculptural side). Not as much in established industrial design companies. Thanks for demystifying this!

No problem. There’s all sorts of ways to get a design education, and you’re limited to colleges if you’re looking to work somewhere that prefers the designer to have a degree. Of course, a degree is more than just a certificate. The 4 year design college experience does well to develop and nurture a design mindset. You can try with a master’s degree. Whether that’s a better option or not is subjective I think.

If you know the places you’d like to work at, you can be more strategic about how you work on projects and develop your portfolio. Do you have imagery of work you’re drawn to? Post them up here and we can talk about it.

The thing is, designers solve problems. Everything can be improved in some way, especially when you consider a specific user. There are constraints that designers have to work within in order to develop products that are successful on the market. Being mechanically inclined and able to think through technicalities helps with discovering opportunities and resolving problems. Yes, this engineering aspect can be intimidating. However, being able to break out of one’s comfort zone and try new things, seek improvement in one’s own abilities, and being curious for how things work are some valuable traits for a designer to have.

With your marketing background and unwillingness to to learn how things are made, I would suggest sticking to the customer/marketing research end of the new product development process. With that background your would be integral in determining workflow, ergonomics and overall design strategy. You would direct those who know how to make stuff.

Even things like furniture and simple everyday objects require you getting your hands dirty with tools. Beautiful furniture usually comes from an understanding of things like joinery, materials, sewing etc. It’s one thing to try and draw or describe a great piece of furniture, it’s another thing to figure out how you’re going to drill that 22.5 degree hole so that each of the legs in your table sits the way you intended and doesn’t snap off.

So either you need to be willing to dive deeper into the other side of the fence as part of the learning process, or consider focusing on other areas like research, product management, interaction design, etc.

You will not be a good industrial designer if you are not willing to actually build things. At the very least, you won’t be as good as you potentially could be.

Saying you want to be an industrial designer but you don’t want to delve into technical manufacturing problems or build things is kind of like saying you want to play baseball but you don’t like running or hitting balls with bats. :smiley:

If you’re going to make something that exists in physical space, then it’s kind of essential to be able to bring it into physical space. That means you have to build it somehow. Now, I’m not saying that it has to be the most beautiful, realistic model ever made, but you should definitely be building simple sketch models and physical prototypes. I have been working professionally for a few years now, and there is not a single product that I have brought to market where we didn’t make at least some kind of physical prototype (we usually made several).

Additionally, understanding manufacturing processes are essential.

It is my opinion that this is the biggest downfall of many industrial designers. They don’t spend enough time actually building physical things and therefore don’t have the same depth of understanding that people who actually do build things have. They spend too much time making cool looking sketches. These sketches often look beautiful on paper, but in real life, the proportions often don’t make sense. Now don’t get me wrong, sketching is important. I’m a design drawing teacher, so believe me, I understand its importance. But there is no substitute for building a physical model.

Hi guys, thanks a lot for your answers. I definitely see the value in learning about the mechanism and functioning behind a product now, and yes, it’s a good challenge to have if I decided to learn something new. I do not see myself, at least not in the near future, as a design researcher, interactive designer or a market researcher… reason being it is too close to my current position in marketing. However, I am curious if industrial designers’ career evolution within a large firm is that they become design strategist/researchers?

Thank you all for your help!!!

Lychee: As for design imagery, if you mean by that, designs that interest me, here are some examples:

    This is a laptop bag designed by 2 MBA students. I was attracted by the aesthetics/functionality of the bag and also the success of the product launch. I also found it interesting that creators of this product do not have a design background. However, I assume that having an industrial design background still gives you more chances of success in launching your own product.

  • I know this may be considered as packaging design, but I’m attracted by how the “Boxed Water is Better Product” is so eye catching, with their minimalistic design and brand message.

  • I’m also interested in the design of spaces, such as modular homes, capsule hotels (sleeping pods) and solutions for small living spaces. I don’t quite know if this touches on industrial design or is more related to interior design.

it is maybe not ideal for an industrial designer to not have some engineering/mechanical knowledge, but it really is highly dependent on what type of work you want to do? having such knowledge just saves you the time & headaches from having to revise your design into something that can actually be made/mass manufactured efficiently.

that being said while some places may have more overlap than others i would hope that most firm are not really relying on designers (at least what is traditionally thought of as a designer) for engineering expertise and i don’t think most design firms expect designers to be engineers…

architecture is only generalist once one gets beyond a certain level and attained some profile, its foundation is highly specialized though and those fundamental skills overlap well with conceptualizing & practicing design…if you are looking for a way in, there are CMF (color, materials, finish) designers (where being mechanical or technical isn’t necessarily key but even these positions require some familiarity of processes) in many companies/firms so you could look at the requirements for those positions and create a portfolio around those and/or look for opportunities to solve problems you see in the marketplace and create projects for a portfolio that strengthens the experience you already have in advertising/marketing!

Really? You have been working an agency for a year. Most companies I know don’t use agencies for product development. How many market evaluations have you done in the field with prototypes in the last year? I’d say my folks are in the 20-30/year range.

It happens.

That would be a bad assumption. I would recommend, again, actually educating yourself about new product development by getting your foot in with what you know instead of what you don’t know.

This is very true. There are all kinds of designers doing all manner of design jobs. I know several graphic designers who design the gift items for brands like Papyrus. They didn’t have any engineering background, nor an industrial design background, but they always loved stationary and stationary product and that passion helped them to covert to what is basically an industrial design role, working with factories to design product that shows up in a lot of retail. On the flip side I know designers who won’t work on anything if they can’t make it themselves (at least in theory, if not in practice… but sometimes in practice. I know designers who spend all of their time, energy, and intellect on design strategy. Some of them have no clue how to make anything, but they are inquisitive and intellectual, and passionate about what they do. When other designers get involved and do the go to market design work they are just as proud of the result and feel they made an impact.

Looking through who responded so far there is a pretty diverse group who have worked across different kinds of fields. For me personally, I’ve always just be really curious how things are made, how they go together and why. I’m not an engineer, and I’m definitely not the best craftsman, but I love a good factory tour and I’ll bend an engineer’s ear off over beers asking questions. I get a lot of inspiration from sessions like that, but that is just me. I feel like I’m always squirting away what I learned and applying it to different industries or different problems.

It really depends on what you want to do and how deep you want to go. If you are working in house at a company you are likely going to go very deep on how things are made, but you will also be surrounded by a lot of experts in that field. If you are at a small consulting group, you are likely going to have to wear many hats and may not have the luxury of not doing something. If you are at a large strategic design consulting group then you might just do one aspect of the process for clients. If you want to make your own brands and product, you don’t need to know everything, but having a healthy curiosity and surrounding yourself with the right people will really help, like the 2 women who founded Away luggage. They didn’t know anything about luggage in particular, but they were driven and curious.

Also, the kind of designer you are shifts as you take on new roles in your career, and not always in a linear way.

My point being, can you be an industrial designer, will you be a good fit? I can’t really answer that question. My advice would be to start with the end in mind. What kind of product (or service, thing, or non-thing) do you want to be designing in say 5-10 years (or your best guess) and then backtrack and figure out what you need to do/learn in order to do that. I always found it was helpful to interview other designers in my region. You will be surprised how much advice someone will give in return for buying them lunch or coffee.

Design can be tough because there’s a lot of ambiguity. There’s ambiguity in the product development process and in your own career. For example, someone can aspire to design for Apple and dedicate an immense amount of time and effort into developing a portfolio to apply with, and turns out that Apple won’t hire them. Maybe it’s their portfolio, or their personality, or they just aren’t looking for another designer at that time or already had their eyes on someone else. There’s a lot of failures (aka learning opportunities!) along the way. It’s important to be flexible and have some broad goals.

Keeping things in perspective, having to deal with your weak spots are the least of your worries. If you have a goal, do whatever you gotta do to get there. Figure out how to work situations in your favor. Not everyone goes into industrial design because they want to market research all day, but it’s part of understanding who you’re designing for. They also don’t do it purely for the engineering, but collaborating with those that make your product function helps you maintain your design intent. Everyone’s a critic, and designers continuously have to defend their ideas every step of the way. This can be challenging, but it helps you be strategic about what ideas you proceed with and how they can be better.

Basically, don’t let insecurities hold you back and be scrappy before you make a big commitment. You have a marketing degree and some professional experience. Are there design communities and events near you? Meet with designers for a chat. Let them know what you’ve been up to, what got you interested in design, and how you can leverage your prior experience and resources to pivot into design. Most importantly, keep in touch!

ID can be very technical/engineering related…but it also can be more towards the artsy/trendy brand side of it.
You can also be a stylist but unless you have a strong mechanically oriented ID team it will remain a concept.
If you also have to interact with Engineers and your answer is I don’t know how it’s made…then the engineer will “design” it for you.

The 3 examples you gave are very different.

Yes the laptop bag is very simple but I can assure you it didn’t magically appear from a sketch. The designers (even if not by degree) probably had to get very technical and learn everything about making a bag. From hardware to fabric to sewing to sourcing and so on.

The boxed water is a smart concept. The designers probably had to get very technical and learn a lot about the beverage distribution business. The challenges of shipping so many empty containers and the wasted space of a circle vs a box. Also, they probably had to learn about the pros and cons of a plastic bottle vs a cardboard box with a special inner lining and how it affects taste over time.

Modular homes and capsule hotels. How would you design it if you have no technical or engineering knowledge? Structural loads, shipping challenges, collapsible or modular structures, building codes, durable materials, cost, life of product, plumbing and electricity, serviceability, different weathers/regions, ergonomics, appeal, etc. It goes back to if you don’t have a good technical background then you’ll be relying on somebody else telling you what can and can’t be done. Sure you can designed it but if it’s not manufactured then it will remain a concept…there’s a lot of them out there. You don’t need to be an engineer and designer but you need to know enough to present some viable concepts.

Part of being an Industrial Designer is being inquisitive and learning different things. If you don’t like engineering then don’t go into industrial or structural products. But if you choose softgoods, consumer electronics, home décor, toys, shoes, or any other product you must be willing to learn the technical details of the materials and processes used in that industry.

I remember someone bringing up the difference between a good design and a good building was in the light switches. A good artist would put light switches on the opposite side of a doorway, on same position of the wall for symmetry. A good architect knows that the wall isn’t thick enough for 2 electrical boxes in the same spot.

This is a clever way to look at the process. At the end of the day anything going to market will need to be functional and able to be manufactured. As others have said, you won’t necessarily be doing the heavy technical parts yourself, but an understanding of what is involved to get your product made is always going to be useful.

Being able to speak to an engineer or tooling guy in their language means that you can work through potential problems as a team to make a product that is great on a design level as well as a technical/manufacture level. The same goes when working with business and marketing decision makers.

Industrial design by its definition means bringing products towards manufacturability, and technical/mechanical expertise is a core asset. But if you want to specialize in a few areas there are plenty of things you can do. Start by thinking more in terms of product design - graphic + 3D, then you can do softgoods, interiors, POP’s, and if you are willing to learn basic knowledge about a few manufacturing processes, software and prototyping processes a new world will open and you can keep building more and more complex products/systems.

If you are intimidated by mech. eng., the book ‘invention and evolution’ by M.J. French is a good start and makes it fun to learn about fundamental concepts.