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Choosing an Industrial Design Career

(This article was originally published in WeWork’s Creator magazine.)

When you think of an industrial designer, you might think of Jony Ive, Apple’s British design overlord, or Marc Newson, whose Lockheed Lounge set a new record at auction for the world’s most expensive design object.

But most industrial designers spend their days developing a wide range of more mundane things that impact our lives in big and small ways: things like smart thermostats, toothbrushes, arthroscopic surgical devices, and electric cars.

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Jony, Vlada, and Marc.

Industrial designers approach each product as a problem to be solved – and no problem is too small. For Vladlena Belozerova, senior industrial designer here at Bresslergroup, these problems have ranged from incentivizing men to do more housekeeping, to guiding people into positions that will yield accurate images inside a skin cancer-screening imaging booth. Her portfolio also includes modular bike accessories and a device to alleviate incontinence.

“You have to be really passionate about people’s everyday problems,” says Belozerova. “This is really important. Industrial designers have to see the value in every project and consistently give it as much attention as something that might sound bigger and more impressive.”

Paths To Industrial Design

Belozerova was in high school when she learned about a degree in product design at a local university and knew she wanted a career as an industrial designer. At first she thought she wanted to design furniture, but when she realized she was more interested in everyday products, she applied to the Rochester Institute of Technology’s industrial Design program to pursue a BFA.

No problem is too small. Industrial designers have to see the value in every project.

Anna Couturier, Chief Product Officer for LIA Diagnostics, a startup developing a discreet, easy to use, and environmentally friendly pregnancy test, studied jewelry design as a precursor to product design. After getting a BFA in jewelry design and CAD-CAM, she earned a Masters of Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania’s Integrated Product Design (IPD) program.

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Other common routes to industrial design include engineering, architecture, and graphic design. Jason Lempieri, pictured above, who owns his own company, ReThinkTANK Design, and teaches industrial design at University of the Arts in Philadelphia, develops products that reflect his education in architecture and industrial design: a hand rail that doubles as a racetrack for toy cars, and accessible storage for readily needed kitchen utensils.

He also designed the Laundry Punch Bag, a laundry bag that becomes a punch bag when it’s full. (It solved the problem of getting young men to pick their dirty clothes up off the floor.)

An Increasingly Fluid Profession

The traditional definition of “industrial designer,” as someone who develops concepts for manufactured products, is changing. As tech becomes embedded in our lives and products become more about digital experiences, industrial designers find themselves designing our interactions with products as much as they’re focused on colors, materials, and finishes.

Mathieu Turpault, Design Director at Bresslergroup, explains this evolution and gives a short history of industrial design in his TEDxPhiladelphia talk, “The Disappearance of Everyday Objects.”

Old thermostat: Meet new thermostat.

Old thermostat: Meet new thermostat.

In a 2013 report called Valuing the Art of Industrial Design, the NEA’s Director of Design, Jason Shupbach, explains the evolving nature of the profession. “An industrial designer might not only design a high-tech medical device for a hospital, but also the patient’s interactive experience and touch points with medical staff in the emergency room. Similarly, industrial designers might work with retail merchandisers to reorganize store floor plans and re-imagine the in-store experience for potential customers. “

Day To Day Work

“The beauty of industrial design is you can do so many different things with it,” says Belozerova. “You can design the same thing every day for the rest of your life, or different things all the time. You can be analytical and mathematical, or more painterly, artistic, and tactile and not engineering-minded at all.”

Industrial designers can go into automotive/transportation, consumer products, commercial equipment, medical devices, social impact projects, furniture, commercial design, strategy and research – there are many avenues. Different educational programs tend to prepare people for different paths.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Integrated Product Design (IPD) program is typical of the types of interdisciplinary programs springing up to prepare people for this increasingly fluid profession. It merges industrial design, engineering, and business, and yields a lot of entrepreneurs. (Get a sense of the industrial design industry and educational programs across the U.S. at the Industrial Designers Society of America’s Design In page.)

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No matter whether they’re working in-house at a company, for a consultancy, or for their own startup, industrial designers spend a lot of time doing ethnographic research – they act as anthropologists, putting themselves in their customers’ or “users’” shoes. Lempieri spent a lot of time at laundromats, observing people and how they use their bags, and asking a lot of questions while he was developing Laundry Punch Bag. “I tell my students that industrial designers can’t be shy,” he says.

They watch and record the tiniest details – a gesture, a position, a surface texture, a connection between disparate elements. These insights become the basis for product innovations – new features or new product lines that make life easier and more magical. Sam Farber developed OXO Good Grips kitchen utensils after noticing his wife, who suffered from mild arthritis in her hands, had difficulty gripping ordinary kitchen tools.

Though industrial designers log plenty of solo time at their computers, drawing at the Cintiq or on Solidworks or a comparable CAD program, they also collaborate closely with a project team throughout the life of a project. These interdisciplinary teams include innovation strategists, user researchers, mechanical engineers, ergonomists or human factors engineers, and marketers. For tech-embedded products, this list expands to include software engineers and interaction designers.

Empathy Is Required

What do you need to succeed as an industrial designer? Everyone interviewed for this article stressed empathy as a key trait – “You have to care about your fellow human to the point where you want to make life better and more interesting for them,” says Lempieri. Curiosity is also important, as is optimism — you need to believe you can make life better and more interesting for your fellow human.

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These 3D printers help make a lot of prototypes.

Optimism gets industrial designers through the many cycles of concepting, prototyping, testing, reworking, prototyping, retesting, and reevaluating that inevitably occur for every product. So does a comfort with ambiguity and a thirst for solving complex challenges. It’s not unusual to spend months developing a concept, only to have to scrap it and start all over again.

Knowing the end result will better peoples’ lives makes it all worth it, and the desire to innovate becomes all-consuming. “It’s the type of work that takes over your life,” says Belozerova. “You always see something that either inspires you or makes you think – I feel like I’m never really off.”