Pursuing a career in design at 36...

Hey guys. So pretty much the title. I’m sure you’ve heard the story before (don’t let it happen to you), seemingly stuck in a career for which I have no passion for and I find to be soulless but compensates well. I have a degree in MIS but started working in the insurance industry when I graduated. Still trying to figure how that happened.

Growing up, I was always creative. I primarily drew cars and sneakers, animals occasionally and comic book characters. Mainly cars though. I’ve decided I want a career in which I can use my creativity, ideally transportation design or ID.

I know that a degree is pretty much a must have - which means 2-4 years of schooling (not sure what if any credits will carry over), which would land me at 40 years of age and still in need of experience…

So my question, is it possible, is it realistic to start now? Has anyone made the jump? Any advice or experience would be appreciated.

Also has anyone completed an ID degree online? Its a more convenient option but I’m concerned about potentially missing out on some of the benefits of going the traditional route.

I know the hardest part for me wouldn’t be school, but it would be when I get my first job that pays $35k and I have some 30 year old lecturing me on how business works. I would suggest doing some soul searching on if you are ready to accept 2-5 years of doing technical drawings or renderings of someone else’s design (the reality out of school) before ditching your current career.

My uncle told me when I was 10-12 years old that I should go into something to make money and then find a way to do design on the side. Maybe that could be an alternative for you? Is there a product that you would like to develop yourself? You mention shoes. You can find shoe factories pretty easily online (Moreover, I’m sure some people here could help you find a good one). I’ve seen low production runs that could be done for a small investment. If you can try to make it a business, but can live with it being a hobby, maybe that’s right for you.

Best of luck whatever your decision.

I would give special consideration to a person who risked a lot to pursue a different field. It shows a dedication and energy that is sometimes lacking in those going through the motions.

Hahah, yes I’ve realized if I do embark on this journey its gonna be a whole lot of humble pie being served and consumed. Ultimately, I think its worth it but I’m unsure exactly how many years of schooling I’ll actually need. I need to research that aspect more.

Design on the side is an idea. Food for thought. There are things I have thought about making but they were geared towards the fitness supplement industry which is already as flooded as can be.

It’s a huge risk for sure, especially on the financial side. Taking on a lot of new debt with no promise of landing a position.

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I would say that there really is no good route for ID from an online perspective. Even many 4 year programs are not truly competitive by today’s standards. Design is a very competitive field (even if 2/3rds of students may not be that competitive, the top percentage that are try very hard) and the quality of students year over years keeps improving.

I’ll also point out (as someone who once aspired to be a car designer) that car design is one of, if not the hardest field to land a job in, let alone a good job. Many car designers “Settle” for ID careers, just the nature of supply and demand.

Being in my mid 30’s I understand the risk is a very big piece too, especially if you’ve got a family, mortgage, or other things to worry about that your average 19 year old isn’t dealing with.

At this stage in your career you’d have to decide if investing $100-200k into education is going to produce the ROI you want, or if you could use that money for something else. Starting your own business for example, that could buy you a whole lot of tools and equipment.

A friend and business partner of mine was in a very similar boat, he was in his mid 30’s doing insurance underwriting (same reasons, it paid the bills) and decided to give it all up to start a bike shop since that was his true passion. He maxed out all his credit cards to do it, and took a substantial pay cut but 17 years later and he couldn’t be happier since he’s doing what he loves on a daily basis.

Part of being a creative often means you like working with your hands. Perhaps there’s something design-related with a lower barrier to entry that would excite you. For $200k you could easily rent a garage and start buying and fixing up used hot-rods to re-sell.

Do you mind diving into your story a little deeper? How did you manage to break into design without the formal schooling/degree?

I took a look at your personal website - dude its damn impressive. Extremely.

Thanks Mike - I mean really. This was the kind of dose of reality/gut check I needed. Especially the money piece - $100k+ investment, not mention the countless hours of practice that will be needed. Although, I am fortunate in that’s it’s just me - no wife of kids I have to worry about, so I can “afford” to go broke lol.

I read somewhere that the odds are better for you to make into the NFL than become an auto designer. I definitely have some things to consider. You know I have huge passion for bikes too, cars as well. I think if I can something creative that involves a passion of mine I’ll be much more fulfilled. Of course the question is what.

What’s your story though? Did you actually pursue transportation design then get into ID?

I think 1/4 of all designers want to do cars. Once you meet some people though and figure out the numbers, you realize it’s doubtful. There are 4 really good transport design programs in the world graduating about 80 students a year. I think the industry has 40 entry level openings a year. That means if you went to a state school like me, you have to impress more than 40 people that studied just transport design at specialized schools. Not impossible, but difficult.

The same thing goes for design though. I think only 4 of my graduating class are still in ID fifteen years on. I’m sure that half the class never had a full time design job. Sometimes I think it’s a miracle I’ve managed to sustain this long!

I went straight into ID and wanted to pursue transportation, but after a chance to work on a project with Pre-Bankruptcy GM I realized that the industry and culture can be a bit toxic. I met several other designers who also worked in transportation professionally (GM, VW) and all of them left the industry to pursue careers in ID or computer graphics (as it turns out all those cars you see in games like GTA and Gran Turismo needed people who could model them). I spent 8 years in ID and then pivoted 2 years ago to User Experience & Management. Frankly I was becoming burnt out with hardware design and I was struggling to find new “products” that excited me as much and would still pay the bills. I also got married, and realized it was going to be hard to find a market where my wife could teach (teachers in NY are very well paid, but there is very little hardware design) and I could explore other opportunities in ID.

At this stage in my career it was more about finding a better work life balance (late nights, frequent business trips and early phone calls with Asia became draining) and the concepts that make for good design in hardware apply equally to software. It may not be the thing I’m most passionate about in the world, but realistically I’m passionate about beer, cars and traveling and I shy of jumping into auto journalism (which I don’t think pays very well) I’m happy with keeping the hobbies as hobbies and letting them be funded by the day job.

A favorite saying my old auto mechanic would tell people is “Just because you love pu**y doesn’t mean you should become a gyno” - finding the balance that works for you is the key.

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I agree with you - difficult, especially at this stage in the game for me. Lot’s of competition out there with limited opportunities. I also need to be honest about my skill set - it can be developed but it will take years upon years due to my huge lapse. Thanks so much for your input man. I took a look at your work as well, amazing man.

Thanks for sharing your experience Mike, its very insightful to hear from someone that’s actually been behind the lines. I appreciate it. My position is, even if I don’t pursue design directly I need to find a career I don’t hate. Its reaching that point with insurance. I would be cool with doing something that maybe I’m not the most passionate about but I don’t hate and like you said, can fund my hobbies. So that’s another avenue of thought for me. Have you ever heard of Cal Newport? He talks about something similar, not pursuing your passion but instead finding a skill set that puts you in demand. Your mechanic sounds like a smart/funny dude!

Finding skills that are in demand is one thing, finding work that you find challenging and rewarding is also valuable, even if you aren’t necessarily in love with the specific work. I enjoy the challenges of helping to manage a business, and on my life long path I’d rather end up a C-level employee than stay in the trenches and just execute on design work all day.

If you have the time you can certainly try to take on personal projects to try and see what kinds of things you might like to do. I have friends who have quit their jobs to go off and just build one off furniture pieces, start a pig farm, start a bar, build custom motorcycles, etc. All of those things started off as potential hobbies that evolved into full time gigs. Sometimes even just looking at your local area and saying “Man, this town would be great if we had XYZ” is a good place to start if you’re willing to take the risk. Designing your own collateral for a business is a great way of designing something that means a lot to you and learn along the way, even if the designing part is just part of the journey.

Good point - I’d much rather have work that I find rewarding these days, regardless of much I get paid as long as I have roof over my head and maybe I can afford to a little hobby or two.

There are definitely some things I’d like to explore on the creative side besides design. I’m learning to code now, so we’ll see how that goes. So I know you mentioned your one friend maxed out credit cards in order to start a bike shop. Every time I hear of someone doing something like I wonder if they had anything to fall back on, in case things went wrong? A spouse that worked, savings, parents etc or did they just completely put everything on the line and risk total and complete failure. If you have a safety net, its easier to make the jump.

I find entrepreneurs are like gamblers. Consider Bob Voulgaris:

He bet his entire life savings ($70,000) on a 6.5-1 bet that would take over six months to decide. Then he waited. Six months later, after many nights of eating ramen noodles, many days of slinging luggage, and a 15 point deficit in the 4th quarter of game 7 against Portland, the Lakers were crowned NBA champions, and Haralabos Voulgaris had a half a million dollars.

I would never be comfortable betting my life savings on anything. Even my own skills and ideas. Some people can do it repeatedly on things that are further and further from their control or ability to analyze. I don’t think it’s a virtue or disability, it’s just different.

Yeah in this case he bet it all. Now the initial investment was probably closer to $50-100k, and I’m not sure what his backup contingencies were (most of that was investment in physical product, which always has a certain level of resale value).

Some people will say “you can always go BACK to insurance” I’m sure with many years of experience you could always find another job doing what you do now if your new plan fell through - you’re the only one who has to sleep at night with that decision.

I took the risk gamble by leaving a comfortable corporate job and moving to a startup. I figured this is the time to do it, not in a few years when I’m trying to start a family. We’ll see in a few months/years how that pays off.

A Petrolicious piece about someone who went back to school for design later in life after buying a DeLorean… I think the primary driver here is going to be deep inside do you feel you have to do this! if yes, then you have to decide how you want to do it. My friend who owns Icon, Jonathan Ward, is not trained as a designer, but is he one? I’d argue he is. But he also founded his own company that works around the way he works.

I can relate to this topic more than I care to admit. I’ll be turning 36 in a week and I have never been so unhappy in my current career path. I’m currently working as a project coordinator for an architecture firm where I manage the production of our project drawing sets, coordinate everything with our consultants and work directly with the clients to do their projects. I have the most responsibilities and more pay then at any other point in my career. I’m also engaged in educating students about the industry in my spare time, but no matter what I do I’m just finding my current career path incredibly unfulfilling.

So where I stand now I figure I have a few different options to consider. I either need to go back to school and get another Master’s or PhD to change careers. I could transition to a different market sector that may or may not provide better project types or opportunities. I could go out on my own and start going after the projects I really want. Or I could work towards starting a home goods company that I’ve had interest in for years. Becoming a full time educator/writer/researcher also has some appeal. I’m weighing the pros and cons of all of this and I’m still not sure what I should do. Ultimately my strongest desire is to make cool sh*t and continually grow as a designer/educator/business person. So how do I get there while providing a sustainable career and manage to be happy doing what I do?

If I had a great answer for you I’d gladly give some better advice. For now, just know there are others out there considering some of the same options.