Industrial Designer Profile
What is it really like to be an industrial designer? A professional in the field fills you in.
What does an industrial designer do?
Industrial designers deal with the aesthetics and ergonomics of products. We start with design exploration and conceptual sketching to put rough ideas on paper. Then we narrow down the solutions for our presentation to the client. We meet with the client, and the client chooses their favorites.
In the design refinement phase, we do computer renderings of the selected designs, using either Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator or a 3-D surface modeling program like Rhino. At this point, we develop mockups of the designs and present those to the client, and those are further narrowed down to the final choice.
In the design finalization phase, we continue with 3-D geometry development and further refinement of the design. The design then moves into engineering.
How did you get into industrial design?
I actually studied mechanical engineering at the University of Cincinnati first. Then I went to a senior design show and thought that the stuff the seniors were showing was cool. I'd never heard of it before, but I liked the sketches and renderings in the show. I've always liked drawing, but never really knew what to do with it. I dropped all of my engineering classes the next day and signed up.
What do you most enjoy about the job?
I really like the first phase of the project—concept sketching with pen and paper. Drawing pictures and getting paid for it is a great job. It doesn't really feel like work. We sketch a lot—things that we think look good, things that fit the product we're designing or a market we're trying to hit. We get as much down on paper as we can, and the design team will pick out favorites. Hopefully the client agrees with our decisions.
We push for great design on every project, but sometimes material and manufacturing costs turn a good design into an average design. A client won't usually pick the more unusual ideas, especially if they drive up cost. They like to stick with what's familiar. I always use both sides of my brain equally, so this profession is a great fit for me. It's not just about art. We have to figure out the best materials to use and how to manufacture a product as we design. I work closely with engineers, so it's good that I have some training in engineering.
What's most challenging about an industrial designer job?
For me, personally, it's giving presentations, the face-to-face meetings with clients. We go through each concept individually, being very specific about the features we've put on it. We talk about the aesthetics—why we made it look a certain way, why we chose the features we've added. We work hard to make sure our clients understand our design intent.
What kind of equipment do you use?
We do 3-D surface modeling on the computer until we think it coincides with the design intent of the sketches, but you can't be sure until you get a 3-D mockup in your hands. So we make a model. The FDM machine builds up strands of plastic in layers, and the CNC machine actually mills it out of a block of plastic or renshape, which is a very dense foam.
Can you tell me about a product you designed?
We did a line of pneumatic air tools, which was fun because we got to design a look for one of the products, and then spread that aesthetic across the entire line of the tools. It was a challenge to make these six or seven hand tools look like they belonged to a family.
Most of the current pneumatic products have only the company logo to show which brand they belong to, but we wanted to give each tool a very recognizable look so you could easily tell they belonged to a certain brand. We had a highly polished finish, combined with a sandblasted feel around the touchpoint areas, the grips. The contrast between the finishes gives them a high-quality look.
What skills or training does someone need?
You must be creative and have good drawing ability. You need to be a good thinker, a problem solver. You can learn computer skills in school. University of Cincinnati offers a co-op program, which was very useful. We had a chance to work in six different companies before we graduated school, which was a huge asset. Half of what I learned during school I actually learned on the job. The program helps students find a job after school. I'm working at a place where I originally interned. It's good for the students, and also for the employers to have fresh talent and possible future employees.