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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Who is an industrial designer?

I have come to realize that when I have been doing freelance, with my own business, it is pretty much "Industrial Design". I want to refine my skills, but I do not want to attend a school that will stifle me and categorize me into a certain bracket.

If you want to take on the design world (with or without a degree), you need to know who industrial designers are.

The field of industrial design is a nebulous cloud of marketers, engineers, sculptors, managers, ethnographers, techies, enthusiasts, and many others. In other words, industrial designers come in all varieties. Here are some typical types of designers.

1. The design consultant.

The consultant should be really good at dazzling investors and clients and distill confidence in the people they deal with. To be effective, they need to be able to communicate their ideas clearly and concisely through their portfolios and face-to-face meetings with clients. Therefore, their portfolios and people skills should be really well developed.

Most ID programs, including BYU's, shoot for this objective. If you were to get a degree in design, you will spend lots of time tweaking both your sketching and communication skills so that you can dazzle anyone you present to. The curriculum is centered on lots of projects that pass through every phase of the design process-from conceptualization and research through to physical prototyping.

2. The corporate designer.

This designer is a different beast altogether. This designer also needs to communicate effectively, but also has to manage the development cycle of the product as well. Whereas a consultant tends to get a broad understanding of a variety of materials and processes and products, the corporate designer gains a tremendous depth of knowledge surrounding the entire culture and lifespan of a specific set of products. For instance, the corporate designer is much more integrated into a company's other departments dedicated to the products development-such as marketing, sales, supply, manufacturing and upper management to name a few.

From what I've seen, this is usually overlooked in the core design program at the design schools, though this information is readily available in both manufacturing and engineering degrees as well as business degrees, depending on your focus. Students in these degrees learn how to actually manufacture products and how they would get to the store shelves. This is less intensive on the actual styling of the products and more intensive on the materials, production, and distribution, etc... of the product's design. Nevertheless, most of this knowledge will come through on the job experience.

3. The design craftsman.

These include freelancers that specialize in a particular area of the design process and get really good at it. One design craftsman could have awesome sketching skills and make poster quality promotional images for products or concepts. Another design craftsman could have a strong aptitude for CAD/CAM, and know the idiosyncrasies of applications such as Rhino, SolidWorks, Alias, Pro-E, and others. Still, another type of design craftsman could a prototyper who understands how to make physical models quickly and/or precisely to show proportion and dimensionality before or after time is invested into building the 3D CAD geometry for production.

At school, you would get an introduction to all of these tools and processes, but only an introduction. To become a top candidate in any of these areas requires a great investment of time and altruistic attitude. The advantage of school here would be to set deadlines and put the specialized skill in the context of the project as a whole.

4. The design spokesperson.

These people are really good at selling ideas to others. They may not even have good sketching or engineering skills, but can tap entrepreneurial veins of investors and stakeholders. Nevertheless, they understand how design can make or break a product or product family. The design spokesperson tends to be more of an ally to the design world as apposed to a charter member of it.

Design programs at BYU or elsewhere rarely covers this aspect of design, mainly because it has become rolled up into the business program's entrepreneurial degrees. As with corporate designers, design spokespeople gain most of their knowledge after entry into the industry and use school only as a foothold to get into the field.

5. Design Critics and the Masses.

I will arbitrarily role up the rest of the design community in with the masses. As I asserted in an earlier post on my blog, I believe everyone has an inarticulate designer inside of him or her. Everyone on is entitled to an opinion about why design is the way it is regardless of their ability to explain why they think the way they do. Nevertheless, some people can make careers out of explaining where design came from and where it is going. These will usually come from a degree in art history or perhaps journalism or communications. They can become the much coveted and courted editors in magazines like Business Week or Wired, who have recently devoted entire sections to tracking trends in industrial design.

Now, in order to succeed in any of these areas, regardless of the formal education you may receive, you will need an awesome portfolio and resume. BYU or any other design program will give you the opportunities you need to build your portfolio, but if you are able to create an awesome portfolio and resume without college, all the better. Keep in mind though, that the learning curve is steeper and quicker outside of college and can be daunting at times.

Many professionals from an equally diverse number of industries have jumped ship and landed into any of these areas of design. They seem to have the spark that seems common to all of us industrial designers. Many industrial designers may not even know they are industrial designers, but find themselves doing the same things we do.

On the other hand, many industrial designers jump ship and land in another industry in which they find interest. I once knew a lead designer at a firm where I worked who was perhaps one of the best design engineers I have ever met. He knew almost every part of the SolidWorks CAD suite and understood a great deal about designing for manufacturability as well as aesthetics. He left to become upper-middle management at a family company back in the area where he was from. He will probably rarely use his skills in SolidWorks again, but he happy that he made the move.

The lesson that can be learned from all of this is this: You can be a successful industrial designer without an industrial design degree, let alone an "industrial designer" job title. What a design degree is good for is getting an introduction to the expansive and nebulous design world, as well a chance to stuff your portfolio and resume with some cool projects along the way. I probably could have said all this in fewer words, but I think this has been more informative this way.