Need Advice: Switching to Industrial Design

Hey everyone.

I have been lurking in the shadows here and on several sites for the past year or so, and I feel like there is a huge collective of informed and insightful participators on this board. Thus, I feel like I can tell you all my story. I am a 26 year old from Atlanta with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. I have had a passion for Design for many years, however I was under the impression that Mechanical Engineers perform many of the tasks that designers do. By the time I got my diploma I felt pretty stupid. The market is also saturated so getting a job in any design capacity is laughable if you don’t have a 4.0 and 5 years of research and industry experience. I have been in the HVAC (Comfort Cooling) industry for about two years and it has been everything I feared. I decided a few months ago that I was going to make the switch from Mechanical Engineering to Industrial Design. I am currently enrolled at Academy of Art University in SF taking Online Classes just to get started. My plan is that after my fiance and I get married this fall, I am going to begin applying at various more respected schools and hopefully nail it down.

I have the following quandaries:

  • I am 26 and already have 5 years of technical education (Graduated Honors from Georgia Tech) under my belt. Should I try and go Graduate Level or is it of more benefit to me to tough it out in the trenches, and start at square one as and Undergrad.

  • I don’t have a portfolio. Period. I lost everything I had in a flood last year, so all of my work that could even be tangentially related is gone.

  • I don’t know the requisite software. I don’t have and can’t afford Photoshop, Alias, pro-E. As it is I can barely afford school, which is paid for by loans. I know AutoCad and Ashlar-Vellum Graphite like a champ, though and have logged several thousand hours using them professionally. However it has simply been for 2D drafting of HVAC floorplans, no 3D.

  • My hand sketching skills are awful. On a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being crayon stick figures and 10 being the Sistine Chapel Ceiling) I am roughly a 2 or 3.

  • What school? US News caters to Business and Engineering, so it is tough to find a real authority on who has what I am looking for. As far as US Schools I have narrowed it down to Pratt, CCA, RISD (yeah, right), or one of the schools in Chicago (not sure which yet, need to do more research). I have also looked into going to GB/Europe, but the details are even sketchier for that enterprise. I will definitely pursue Graduate Study of some kind, as I am convinced it is necessary in my chosen path.

I need help. This is seriously what I want to do with my life. I am heavily interesed in Interaction Design, Consumer Products, and Sustainability. I am reading this website regularly, along with design-engine. I read ID, wallpaper, metropolis, iDesign, and several related lifestyle magazines. I am fanatically interested in the work of Ray Kurzweil and the research of Douglas Hofstadter and Andy Clark in the realms of Human-Machine interaction, empowering technologies and advanced informational interfaces. I’m a member of ASME and IDSA. I’m half way to completing my PE. I follow closely the work of Yves Behar, Karim Rashid and their contemporaries. I live and breathe this stuff. It permeates my work and my leisure time, my dreams both waking and asleep. My only problem is that at this phase I don’t have any qualifications. I don’t feel that I could get an internship, but I feel like I am wasting 8-10 hours a day of my time that could be better spend learning and making contacts. I’m frustrated. If anyone has any advice pertinent to my situation, I would love it.

Sorry for the huge post, but I figured with such a diverse pool of Designers in all capacities, with all manner of backgrounds and levels of experience, that I could find someone who could help me to cross over, and make my dream a reality.

Jason L Taylor
Atlanta, GA

Hey Analogue,

For starters, It’s awesome to see the amount of passion you have for an industry that you have yet to really get your feet wet in. This kind of attitude is lost in many designers and students of design and from my small amount of experience, it’s the ones like you that really come out ahead.
As you said, you wrote a pretty extensive post, so I’m going to try to bullet point my response for simplification, although I doubt mine will be any shorter.

In terms of school, If you can take the financial blow, and risk your financial, relationship, and personal securities to START a career at 30 that you will no doubt continue to love going to, start from scratch. It sounds hard, it sounds SCARY! But then again so do alot of big risks you take in your life. But if you come out of school with the same attitude you have now, all those things like portfolio, job experience, and software knowledge will come as you study.
As for schools, may I suggest thinking about U of Cinncinnati? Their classes may not be outstanding, but what allows their graduates to really stand out is the internship program. By the time you’ve graduated from there, you will most likely have about 4+ internships under your belt and hopefully some products out on the market. This is a 5 year school mind you, but after you leave, you’ll have the type of experience that employers are looking for. If you’re stuck on the places you mentioned, a nice place in Chicago would be Urbana-Champaign. Otherwise Pratt turns out good students as well. But no matter what school, it’s the student that makes themself good, not the school.
Your sketching will need improvement if it is what you say it is. The key is just to keep doing it. No matter how bad you think you are, just keep doing it and showing it. Allow for harsh criticism from everyone because it’s honesty from others that you will need to listen to if you are going to get better. Pick up some books on sketching people (how to draw comics the marvel way) as well as books or websites of sketches with robots, hardware, products, whatever (, pretty advanced but you get the idea)
Whatever you decide to do with your life, above all else, have fun. If you aren’t enjoying what you’re doing with any part of your life, find a way to fix it, even if it means starting over. You only live once (pardon the cliche).

Go for it, it’s worth it.

I recomend you should rethink your school list though. Here’s a list os school with ties to the industry that are also not that expensive.

University of Cinncinati (the quality and consistancy of students coming out of there recently is impressive)

Cleveland Institute of Art (good and cheap)

Columbus Colege of Art and Design (not as good, but even cheaper)

Center for Creative Studies

Don’t worry about your age. I bumped into a guy in your same predicament a few years ago, he happened to be the salesman at a funiture store I was at. He recently finished his first year of ID at 29, but if you asked him, I think he would tell you it is worth it to do what you love.

Thanks guys! I hadn’t considered those schools that you mentioned, mainly because I didn’t really know of them. US News does a really bad job of covering Art and Design programs in any depth. At this stage of the game for me it seems as if my best bet is to get a leg up with lots of internship experience, so schools that have strong internship ties would be a plus. At least it gives me some excuse for being 5 years behind, maybe.
I’ll be giving those a look.

I will note for the record that I was able to get myself a free trial copy of Alias Studio, which seem to be good. Now I just need to get Adobe’s Suite and I think I’ll have my plate pretty full.

Good sugggestions, I appreciate the inspiration!


For sketching skills, you should consider an undergrad in ID vs. a Masters. You’ll get more experience and learn the techniques.

Live and breathe the Alias Studio Personal Learning Edition. If you can’t fork over the cash for the Adobe CS, consider the Corel Draw suite. Not many people use it, but it’s arguably just as powerful. It’s what I used through college.

Buy and read these books at least once:
“Creating Breakthrough Products” by Cagen & Vogel
“The Design of Everyday Things” by Donald Norman
“Emotional Design” by Donald Norman
“Contextual Design” by Beyer & Holtzblatt

Once in school, look for internships at design consultancies that offer ME and ID. Your ME will get you in the door, and you’ll be exposed to ID and the “fuzzy spots” between the two disciplines.

Also join the IDSA (there’s a student discount) and attend the regional conferences. FYI the National Conference is about to hit DC, and it would be worth attending.

I agree, they seem to rank based more on percieved presteige to high school art teachers rather than on job placement and alumni success. Check out the student’s and schools board, there is a lot of info on various schools in the top few threads (stay out of the Pratt glory holes though)

Hey Analogue,

Your story sounds amazingly familair. I was pretty much in your shoes three years ago, sans engineering degree. I ended up going to RIT for a grad degree. I had to take an entire year of sophmore level classes in order to learn sketching/rendering/modelmaking skills. I learned a lot while there and really felt that I left with enough knowledge to hit the ground running in ID. Although the faculty there is small, the quality is large – in addition to the faculty and staff, I learned a great deal from the junior and senior level undergrad students who took us in and guided us through building design skills… others were complete jackasses who had the general designer elitist attitude - just avoid them :slight_smile: In anycase, you can always teach at a university with a grad degree. just something to keep in mind. best of luck! keep us posted.

Thanks for the post cg, I have definitely added all of those books to my Amazon Wish List. While I am at it, are there any good books/resources on Alias Studio? I have done all of their basic tutorials and now I need to get moving on learning more. As for Adobe, it appears as though the student version of CS is not that expensive, so I may just end up doing that when I get a few hundred dollars I don’t know what to do with. I figure I need some sort of reference manual for that as well if anyone has a recommendation.

I joined the IDSA a few weeks ago, and I did notice that they have a conference in DC. I have considered forking over the $300 for a spot, plus it is fairly close to me. Seems like it will be pretty cool!

Oops, I forgot to log in for my last post!

Well, 00ber Guest, that is good news. I had heard from people who went to RIT but they had other majors and didn’t have much information on the ID program for me. How did you get accepted as a grad? I’m worried mainly because I don’t have a portfolio. Did you take the GRE or any of that? Thanks for your input, this has all been very helpful in refining my plan.


Hi Jason,

I was in a similar situation too but ,like someone above, without even a first degreee. I was a machinist. My work was boring and analytical (and quite physicaly draining). Like you, I spent alot of time learning my trade, only to discover that it was a soul-less grind. So at 33 I decide to do something about it. I am currently attending the Academy of Art in San Francisco. About that:

I have my days like anyone else. Sometimes I wonder what I am doing here, and sometimes I think that I am lucky to be where I am. I am sure you know about the head of the program here, Tom Matano. I can say that his presence has made a difference and that the majority of the faculty here expect you to do your best and work very hard, due to the fact that our leadership is really trying to put the school on the map. The result is, of course, tremendous growth if you apply yourself. When I started, I had never really drawn in earnest. Now, I am in my 3rd design drawing class and I look at how far I have come and realise that my skills have grown alot. I would definitely say that you should take the undergraduate classes in sketching, model making, and design.

Academy-bashing is a past-time on these boards, but I am here in the trenches and I can tell you that the resources are here to turn out top-notch designers. All it takes is your determination, and your wife’s understanding! :wink:

Impatient Pete