What's it like as a lone Industrial Designer?

Hi folks!
I’m currently interviewing with companies, and the most recent opportunity is with a company that has never had an in house industrial designer before. I would be the only industrial designer, and reporting to the design director who reports to marketing. The product line is simple enough that they don’t currently employ an engineer, although they indicated they are looking for one.

I still feel a little new to the industry, having worked for 5 years as a packaging designer, and I want to know what it is like to be the lone Industrial Designer in a company to help me make a good decision if they happen to offer me a job. What should I expect? What are the pros and cons. Thanks!

Pros: It’s a job, you’ll have the potential to make a big impact and perhaps grow a larger team if it is a company that is capable of scaling.

Cons: You may need to sell people on your value, fight for your decisions, and not have other designers to back up why your work is beneficial to the company.

If the product line interests you, you think it’s a good opportunity and the work and learning will benefit you in the long run it’s probably worth taking, you’ll just have to be aware you’ll have a lot more headwinds than a company that has a large design function.

Thanks Mike! That makes sense. Sounds like I’ll get really good at selling my ideas.

Also, since they’ve never worked with one internally they’ll be amazed at all things they will think of for you to do to help them. They will see your value very quickly I think!

I think the most important thing will be for you to define your role.

I’d outline that in a document, for your employer, but more importantly for yourself, and then identify a few opportunities that align with that document that could be quick wins and knock those out in the first couple of months. It is important to establish momentum.

The company I’m working at now had various industrial and graphic designers but they never had a design leader. The first thing I did (before I even started) was outline my vision for my role, a mission statement for my team, and what the first few projects would be. Coming in with a sense of purpose is huge.

@yo - Thanks, that is exactly the kind of approach I’m want to adopt. Great advice!

I recently left an ID job where I was the only designer. It was my first job out of college and I don’t think I could ever be a long designer again. I wish I had read this and implemented what I wanted into the job. Instead, I was stuck taking lead from my boss, who was rarely there and only focused on design sporadically. Most days, I had no idea what to do at work. I was hired as an Associate Designer, which in my mind meant that someone was to give me direction. Ultimately, I had little to no direction because my boss expected ME to come up with my own work. What a mess! However, from this job I learned that I need to work with other designers. I need people inspiring me and need creativity around me always. I can’t sit by myself and “find inspiration” at my desk. Really be sure if you can work in the kind of environment where you are the only creator. I would also do as other posters have said and line out what you want from the job and define your role. I think things can easily fall by the wayside if you don’t.

I’ve spent the past six and a half years at a place as the only (and the first) in house industrial designer. As above, I wish that I had read a thread like this as soon as I came on board. Also in the same line as the above poster, I came on board as an intern at first, then a “staff” designer (read this like a junior designer in terms of hierarchy with a lead designer responsibility).

So a couple pointers that I’ve learned so far:

-Everything is collaborative, so go into meetings and discussions in that mind set, you’re never going to do all the work alone and present it to an engineering team. (this may hold true at most places tbh)

-Before you were there, some of your tasks were done by other people, who may not like giving them up. Work with these people as your allies since they have experience you don’t within the company. Many of the design engineers where I currently work took their positions because the way it was structured they have a lot of creative control and outlets within the product development process, they may view you as coming in and taking that away from them, squash this thinking, you’re there to help them, and working together take the quality of what they were doing in the past and push it way farther (together).

-Many people may not understand what design is (especially this thing called industrial design), be patient with them, try to educate them (as much as you may not think this is your job to do, it is one of the most important parts of your job early on).

-Be flexible, I cannot stress this one enough. Especially in your process early on, you’re most likely walking into a pretty defined product development process that may only include something like “get outside designer to do some concept sketches of final product” with no real research phase. This is ok, you will show them why the research phase and ideation phase will help them, but early on you may need to curtail your preferred process in order to jive with projects that are already underway.

-Try your hardest to not become cynical at the company, change happens slow sometimes, quick other times, often it’s out of your control. If you feel too locked down, start working on a pet project that becomes your creative outlet. Becoming cynical will only hurt your relationships with your colleagues, and when it comes time to move on to another company, it will hurt your chances of landing that job.

A lot of good stuff here, but I’d just like to add that you may need to be careful not to get caught up in what others around you are doing and remember to be a designer. I came into an organization that was mostly engineers as a designer just out of school with a minor in engineering and it was very easy at times to follow the lead of the rest of the organization and solve problems as an engineer. With no one else there to tell you to do design related tasks or follow the design process you really need to be your own design advocate, not just to the organization but to yourself. Remember your design education and keep in touch with other designers and design goings-on, either here or elsewhere to help keep the design juices flowing.

I’m the lone ID guy in a $billion private company for the past 7 yrs. I report to VP of R&D. Its not easy and its not for everyone. You are always ‘fighting’ for your design to push through because the majority of people don’t understand how ID as an important cog in the corporate machine.

Here’s the breakdown of staff. 40+ ME, 15+ EE, 5 BioEng, 9 Graphic Design, 10 Drafters, 50+ Marketing, 1 Industrial Designer

Its a blank slate; you steer the design direction where you want your company to go
You become indispensable to the company (assuming you’re good)
You are working in a cross-functional team 100% of the time
You get to have a hand in every product that goes out the door of the company
You have to wear many hats (project manager, mechanical designer, CAD jockey, ‘resident artist’, prototyper, graphic designer, package designer, etc)
You are the go-to aesthetic guy

You have to attend every meeting to make sure Engineering/Marketing doesn’t make design decisions for you
No way to collaborating (or bouncing ideas off) other designers
You have to be a design champion and constantly have to educate everyone what you bring to the table
If you’re company comes up with an ‘ugly’ looking product it’s 100% your fault (even though it may not be)
Similarly you have to face the music if the CEO (in a town hall address) says this particular product need to look better
You are an island in a sea of Engineers- its a constant struggle (unless you like that sort of thing)

there’s probably more but I need to get back to work

Thanks to all for the comments. I didn’t end up getting that job, but this topic can certainly help others and myself in the future! There are some good leadership tips in here too.


Just read this thread. Really can relate. I know if coming into the conversation late, but I had to give my 2c.

Being a lone designer is tough, especially when you are the only designer of any sort in the organisation. On top of all the ID, I do 50% of the graphic design here (our marketing co-ordinator does the rest), as well as engineering (if you want to call it that… we don’t have an engineer).

It’s lonely being the only one. I agree that it means more projects and responsibility, which can be great, but imagine having 2 or 3 other designers to bounce problems off. That would be amazing…

I’m in my second job as the only designer. Hopefully that will change at some point.