April 19, 2020
A Reply Too Lengthy for /r/industrialdesign
While browsing reddit on a Saturday evening I came across this post from a second year industrial design student chock full of uncertainty in their future and their sketching ability. I ended up spending a lot of time writing a response that wound up being too long for reddit. Deciding it’s just too good to edit and not wanting to hide behind the anonymity of reddit, I thought I would post it here.
If you’re reading this, u/revowow, feel free to email me if you want to chat about anything.
I’m currently finishing my 2nd year studying ID and I have yet to really understand where I’m supposed to go after college. Can anybody here guide me on where they’ve gone to and how much it related to what they were passionate about? For context I absolutely love CAD and I have extensive knowledge on almost all Adobe products, but I lack on my skills with sketching and all that. Is there a field I could go to where I could focus on what I’m good at or am I SOL? My program at UIUC keeps nailing us that we won’t really get anywhere without a solid good sketching foundation.
Thanks for any help that I can get, it’s been stressing me out recently.
My lengthy response begins here:
There’s a lot to unpack here, and a lot of other great comments already posted (our Australian designer friend, the individual speaking about communicating ideas visually) – but I’ll throw my hat in ring too with a different-yet-similar opinion. I’m going to work backwards because I’m going to make the assumption that your lack of confidence in your design sketching skills combined with your program’s emphasis on them is what’s driving a lot of the larger “what do I do??” worries.
Let’s start with your concerns about sketching. It’s true what they say - if you want to be a practicing industrial designer sketching it’s probably going to be a big part of your job, especially when you’re starting out. However, there’s some higher level reasons for this that I’m guessing probably aren’t being explained to you in detail and to really understand it all it’s important to have a basic understanding of how product development works.
I’m going to over simplify this for you, but for the record, I didn’t know any of this when I was a student I learned it over time working as a design & innovation consultant. In most companies, product development happens through a semi-standardized process that usually takes the place of something to the effect of a double diamond four phase approach – Discover, Define, Develop, Deliver. Although not always explained this way most companies product development processes can be distilled down to something akin to these phases. And because product development was (and still is!) the basis for many companies, many companies also structured their organizations this way.
So what does this four phase approach look like in practice? To begin, Marketing & Business folks lead the Discovery phase: defining the business goals, understanding the market, identifying opportunities, researching concepts with consumers (if you’re lucky). Next up, Designers are usually calling the shots in the Define phase – consisting largely of ideation and concept refinement, often with some input from both marketing & engineering on the front and back end of the phase respectively. This is followed by Engineers owning the Develop phase – design engineers and/or mechanical engineers specifically – and this phase consists of turning a pretty sketch or rough CAD created by designers for rendering or prototyping into CAD that’s ready to be sent off to manufacturing. Lastly is the Develop phase is owned by Manufacturing Engineers and Sourcing/Supply Chain folks who figure out how the hell to make millions of a product, and marketing & business step in again to get the product on shelves and advertise it. Again, I want to emphasize that I’m oversimplifying new product development and also note that It’s not necessarily a linear or waterfall process – the role of any of these departments might get stretched across phases and shifted around depending on the organization (e.g. Designers getting pulled in by marketing to help do research or create concepts for BASES testing; or Design Engineers being responsible for both Develop & Deliver work because there’s no manufacturing done in house); But, all that said, this is roughly what product development looks like.
(Note: to the professionals out there reading this, I’m oversimplifying this to make a point, please read the rest of my post before you downvote me)
So – why does all this matter to you and what does this have to do with sketching? Well, over the last 20 years the tools and processes for product development have become more democratized through the digitization of tools. For example, affordable CAD software that can run on a consumer grade laptop or rapid prototyping with a desktop 3D printer is a really, really new paradigm as far as product development goes. Innovations like this have enabled companies to be less siloed because access to the tools has allowed more people to extend the reach of their efforts. A individual behavior in response to this is employees in organizations increasingly clinging to their expertise; which also means over-emphasizing the skills that are both unique to their individual professions, and these are usually the kind of skills that require experience and investment of time to be great.
You ever hear a business professional of any kind talk about pivot tables in excel? And how great they are at creating and using pivot tables? Well, if you haven’t, I can guarantee that you will one day. But, much like excel and pivot tables are to data analytics in business – two skills that are unique to Industrial Designers are design sketching and ideation. While other departments, like our friends in marketing & engineering, can walk into a conference room for an hour and sit around and talk about what a product might be or how it might function neither of them are particularly adept at quickly showing their ideas of how a product might work and the many forms it might take. Now take a group of industrial designers (along with those marketing & engineering folks) walk them into the same room for an hour with nothing but copy paper and pens, and they can walk out with tens of hundreds of ideation sketches. This is not where industrial design begins and ends; but, because it is such a valuable and unique skill In many company’s product development processes, this is often a function that is reserved for/owned by industrial designers.
But in a world where a Marketer who knows the basics of creative suite can make a compelling looking brand/mood board, maybe even slap together some basic graphics for advertising or packaging; and an Engineer can take their functional-yet-hideous CAD and make a pretty rendering using keyshot…these good enough efforts can be combined to serve up a convincing enough “product concept.” As you can imagine, there are some organizations where this might not leave much space for industrial design to own any part of the design of a new product. And if you think about the bad products that are out there…I’d bet dollars to donuts that this is WHY they’re bad products. There are many companies where some Marketing folks told their Engineers what color to make their purely functional CAD and boom – a shitty looking and oddly functioning product is born and mass produced. The world is full of products that are poorly designed, and a lot of times that’s because there was an absence of design present when it was being developed.
You’ve probably heard instructors in your program sing praise about how Industrial Designers are some of the best people at working across disciplines/business silos, and this is true to a certain degree. But, a lot of that work across disciplines can easily be overshadowed by the efforts other departments, For example, Industrial Designers will do a pass at CAD for making renderings, and great Industrial Designers can deliver something pretty close to being ready for manufacture; but it’s common for everyone at a company to think that Engineers are the ones who actually “do” the CAD. So as a result…Industrial Designers have increasingly taken ownership over the part of the process unique to them and the skills that enable that – Ideation & Design Sketching, respectively.
And it’s also important to understand that this fetishization for sketching isn’t a new or recent development, it’s been happening slowly for the last 30 years, and the over emphasis on sketching is something that’s turned into a bit of a vicious cycle. Until about the mid-2000s, industrial design students didn’t have digital tools available to them, so ALL THEY LEARNED in school was various fidelities of sketching and hand prototyping. In turn they went out and got their first jobs as a sketch monkey. They toiled day in and day out making marker renderings and climbed the ranks and became design managers & leaders at companies…who then began hiring for entry level design positions. But here’s where the vicious cycle starts; these leaders start looking for entry level designers to do the entry level job that they once had and as a result the only skill they know to expect (and how to evaluate) from an entry level designer is the one skill they had at that stage in their career in the 1990s or early 2000s: sketching. The same design leaders who prioritized design sketching as the de-facto entry level industrial design skill are the same ones who increasingly didn’t fight hard enough to own more of the product development process as the tools and processes became more democratized and digitized. Instead they clung to sketching because it’s a unique skill they’re comfortable evaluating/speaking to/executing on; and as a result, at many companies, have ended up relegating Industrial Design as a profession to a relatively small slice of the product development pie.
This feeds the cycle in the business where now marketing and engineering (and others) start saying “Okay, well we want more ownership of the process, so we’re going to go ahead and extend our responsibilities and just come to the designers when we need sketching.” And to take it a step further, these same design leaders then also start teaching at industrial design programs or talking with the heads of those academic programs and tell them “I really need people who can sketch for my entry level jobs.” Universities want to be able to boast employment numbers for recent grads to drive up enrollment (so the university has an influx of cash to their design program – it’s business all the way down); and the cycle repeats itself. This is also why there was a bit of schism in industrial design in the 90s with companies like IDEO, Frog, and Doblin – all founded by Industrial Designers who were more interested in human-centered design methodologies & design research – splitting off from offering traditional industrial design consulting and started to own innovation companies (this is a whole other post). I hope this all helps you understand a bit more why it seems like your academic program emphasizes sketching as the standard skill that industrial design graduates seeking entry level jobs are expected to have.
There’s some great news about design sketching, though. The great news is that it’s a skill. And it’s like any other skill in that anyone can learn it and get great at it. Unfortunately, there’s some bad news – there’s no shortcuts to getting great at design sketching. It takes time, it takes practice, and no one is good at it out of the gate. Even your classmates or instructors who might seem to sketch effortlessly well were not initially good at this. I promise you their first product sketches were probably shit at one point in time. But, they kept at it. And this is the truth – you keep at it, you’ll get good at it. And if you’re great at design sketching this is hands down the best way to get your foot in the door at an entry level industrial design job (or an internship). This is why people in your program keeps telling sketching is all that matters: because to get that first job – you’re going to be expected to be one of those people who can get pulled into a conference room to crank out 20-40 new product ideas in an hour. And to do that you really do need to be good at sketching because that’s what everyone in a company is going to be looking at you, waiting on you to do (not just your design colleagues, but also your friends in marketing & engineering). And the better you are at sketching and communicating ideas visually, the better you get at ideation – which is really an area where Industrial Designers can deliver more value faster than most any other departments. I’ve met designers who don’t feel comfortable generating ideas even after being professional industrial designers for over a decade, even though they’re great sketchers. It’s hard to be an idea machine, but it takes time, and unless you’re doing it day in and day out, it’s a hard skill to even practice.
So there’s more great news about sketching – it’s never been easier to learn design sketching. There’s countless designers doing sketch-a-days on instagram, lots of designers doing YouTube tutorials, more and more books of product design sketching examples; hell, there’s even a conference now that’s just for design sketching. BACK IN MY DAY ALL WE HAD WAS COROFLOT. But seriously, the internet is full of people learning how to do this just like you, and it’s an open door for you to be a part of that community and learn with them. You will get better at sketching. I promise you. But, you have to invest the time. And the more time you invest in it, the more short-term success you’ll have as an Industrial Designer.
So taking a step back from sketching – is sketching the only way to succeed as an Industrial Designer? Hell no. Depending on the company and the role of industrial design there – it might not be as important! There’s plenty of companies where the design team is stretched across the 4Ds so much that ideation, while important and still owned/led by them, is just one of a long list of priorities the team is responsible for delivering on. I’ve had former classmates and colleagues who do so much else besides sketching (like helping lead consumer research, or cranking out renderings for marketing materials, or getting into the depths of CAD for manufacturing, or working with sourcing to verify manufacturing samples) that there’s days they pine for the opportunity to sit in a room with other Industrial Designers and just sketch for an hour. Notice all that other stuff I mentioned, it doesn’t involve sketching, but it could very well fall on your shoulders as a practicing Industrial Designer.
Here’s another fun fact about studying industrial design that instructors or leaders in your program don’t emphasize enough: the skills and software you learn as an industrial design student make you incredibly marketable and versatile. You walk away with a bachelors degree and the knowledge of the basics of qualitative research, 2D/3D visualization, rapid prototyping, and knowing enough software to make you eligible for a wide variety of jobs, so it really does set you up to pursue whatever you want to pursue.
If you’re way into CAD, as you mentioned, you can definitely find a job doing CAD. I know a few folks who have worked in “environment design” and they spend the a lot of their time laying out things in CAD like interior environments or exhibit/trade show booths. Or, you could find a job doing CAD that might not even be as an industrial designer, it might be something more akin to a design engineer where you’re turning others ideas into something manufacturable. I am firm believer that you can find a job doing whatever you want, but the more obscure the job is, the more likely it’s going to be a competitive field and you will probably have to work harder to find a job and succeed at it.
If you are truly passionate about working in CAD; then focus on that. Learn how to do everything in Solidworks as surfaces and you’ll be worshipped by many a design engineer who usually has to spend their days rebuilding un-manufacturable CAD that was made by industrial designers for renders. Learn rhino/grasshopper and become a generative design wizard that will make architects blush. Hell, you could just spend your time learning how to model/animate using a tool like Cinema4D and combine that with learning compositing in After Effects to get great at doing visualizations for marketing/advertising/etc. Think about all of Apple’s advertisements of the products floating in space, also those close-ups and such – that’s not real photography any more, those are all spicy renders meticulously built by people who know CAD really well, and I bet a few of those people studied industrial design.
I’ll close my rant by taking a step further back and focusing on a word I used a few sentences back: passionate. And although I won’t write as much about this, I can’t emphasize this enough – you have two years left in design school to design whatever the hell you want, so do whatever it is you’re passionate about. Your studio classes might give you a brief or have some boxes to tick as far as assignments, but it’s ultimately up to you to really execute how you see fit. If you really want to get better at sketching, make all your projects about sketching, ideation, form development. No decent industrial design instructor is going to punish you for spending extra time sketching ideas. Or if you really want to get great at CAD, then you get fast enough at CAD and master the software well enough that you can demonstrate that you don’t NEED to spend the time sketching because you can throw up a point array and use algorithms to crank out a variety of forms (which you then have scripted to automatically be pulled into Keyshot and rendered). Whatever your passion is, it’s up to you to decide if you want to pursue that and then learn the skills you need to turn that passion into a job and/or a career. This is much easier said than done, but it can be done.
I say this all to you as someone on the other side of an industrial design degree and a decade of experience. About 12 years ago I showed up at UIC (waddup sister school) to pursue industrial design as a second undergraduate degree. I walked in the door fully torqued on industrial design; wanting to design lamps and lighting systems for interiors, maybe work my way up to the coveted chair one day. I almost immediately found myself more drawn to exploring and answering the “why” behind the things I was assigned to design. This led me to get way into design research and strategy (although I didn’t know it was called that) and way into CAD and 3D printing too because those tools allowed me to put rough concepts in the hands of people to get feedback. All the while, I was struggling to stay competitive with my industrial design peers who were really getting great at more refined sketching. Sure, I could crank out rough thumbnails, but beyond using a sharpie to outline my sketches to create contrast – my sketching never progressed past a certain point because in retrospect my heart wasn’t in it. By the end of my program, I was pretty far down a path that was NOT industrial design that my senior thesis was using the debate around net neutrality and design research with consumers as a jumping off point to rethink a consumer data-based business model for internet service providers. I had 1 page of sketches in my thesis as the product solution was only a small part of the business model. But, it was and still is great design strategy work that I’m proud of, albeit very light on actual industrial design.
Since graduating I’ve had a pretty fun career working as the research & strategy person (“design strategist” is what’s been on most of my business cards) at a few product design & innovation consultancies. I spent the first 5 years of my career working side-by-side with industrial designers and doing work that informed and inspired them by creating context & constraints for the designers to ideate within. I would’ve never been able to do any of this if I hadn’t studied industrial design. And although I’ve shifted to work more upstream (there’s usually not a lot of big picture strategy being explored or defined by the time designers are involved in product development), I recently saved the day on a huge business strategy project by creating a solution using CAD and 3D printing it myself. All the business folks and software developers I work with in my current role were blown away that I just looked at was a massive problem for them, which was how they might mount an single-board computer/media player device inside a metal housing. and came back with a working prototype the next day. As a matter of fact my 3D-printed solution is what we’re currently using in a live test of the project we were working on. The client loved it.
I’m still not great at sketching. The fuzzy front end of strategy and innovation is where my passion is; and although it hasn’t been a clear road (it is still very unclear, as a matter of fact), but I use the skills I learned studying industrial design to do this nebulous thing called Innovation and Design Strategy everyday. I’m not at all saying design research and/or strategy is what you should consider as a path to pursue, but more making the point that you are learning a wide array of hard skills (including design sketching!) that will enable you to pursue whatever it is you are passionate about. So, spend the next two years of design focusing on discovering whatever it is that you are passionate about.
This is the scene at the end of Back to the Future III where I tear up the newspaper and tell you the future isn’t written, you can make your own future. I feel like this reference dates me, but whatever – it’s true.
Another user posted a follow up question and I posted yet-another lengthy response.
At the beginning of your career – yes. If you’re great at sketching you’ll have no trouble finding an entry level industrial design job. This is a fact.
A quick aside I touched on in my first response but I want to reiterate again - This is also why sketching is emphasized by industrial design academic programs. The majority of undergraduate industrial programs aren’t research focused (e.g. funded by grants) so funding comes primarily from student enrollment. The best way to lure students’ parents (who usually pay for the degree) is post-graduate employment numbers. Again, I can’t emphasize this enough - it’s all business. Back to the sketching vs. CAD question - I’m going to answer this by taking a step back and analyzing the title of this profession - Industrial Design. Working backwards, let’s start by defining design - which at its core is human-centered problem solving. Design done without context or restraint, and especially the context of solving the needs of people, has more in common with sculpture than it does with actual design. Ideation and sketching are a great tools skills for thinking through how a problem people have might be solved with a product because sketching is fast and cost-effective relative to the overall investment of time, money, and resources required for product development. A single sketch by an industrial designer can answer a lot of questions about what a product does, how it works, and what a product looks like - hence why the ability to ideate and sketch is so valuable.
That said, there’s a whole other word we skipped over - Industrial. In the context of ID - industrial encompasses all the knowledge, skills, and understanding needed to take a concept (something expressed in a sketch) and turn that into a functioning product that can be mass produced. This half of industrial design often gets overlooked in design school because of the focus on form and ideation (see the bit in my blog post about design leaders talking to university programs, and the above aside), but that doesn’t mean it’s not as important. If you, as the designer who sketched a concept, will see a lot of your designs die in development in two ways.
The first is in explaining & selling a design. In the context of product development - a beautiful sketch will always help sell a concept to another designer, but this isn’t always the case with our friends in marketing and engineering. Marketing people might dismiss the look or functionality, while engineers might start asking how a concept could conceivably be made. You as the designer have to be able to speak to both of those stakeholders (so brush up on those presentation skills because you will be presenting); and you need to be able to defend your sketches by tying form & function to a specific user need; and be able to utter more than “injection molding” when you’re asked how it gets made. Which comes to the second way a design can die - the transition from concept to mass-manufacturable product. If you as the designer can’t take your beautiful sketch and turn the form into CAD that can then be refined for manufacturing you’re at the mercy of someone who DOES know CAD and manufacturing. If you’re lucky it’s a design engineer who understands your sketch well enough and is used to and enjoys working with industrial designers and will involve you in the refinement of your 2D design into CAD for manufacture. But, if you’re unlucky, it might be an inexperienced (or worse a very experienced and stubborn) mechanical engineer who only cares about the cheapest tooling and cost-per-part possible. Again, if you think the sketch is going to be enough to convince a non-designer to not alter your concept in refinement to make it more manufacturable (or some other nonsense like adding in an unnecessary feature), that’s probably not going to be the case. I’m over simplifying product development again to make the point, but I assure you these scenarios are not unfounded.
This gets back to the idea of ownership of the product development process, and as a a designer you should be looking for ways to understand as much of the process as possible so you can be involved in as much of the process as possible. This includes a deep understanding of human-centered research methodologies (so you can participate upstream); and a deep understanding of manufacturing methods and their limitations and how to develop CAD for those manufacturing methods. The more you, as an industrial designer, can speak up and be involved across the all phases of the product development process, the more success you’re going to see in creating & selling concepts and turning those into mass-manufacturable products. And ultimately this is how you can bring the most value to an organization. So in the long run, do you have to be great at CAD too? Absolutely. But, in the continuum of a design career - junior industrial designers are not expected to be as proficient at CAD as they are expected to be at sketching. You’ll often learn CAD on the job as you are tasked with turning your 2D sketches into 3D designs to hand off to manufacturing. And as you work within the confines of a given company and the manufacturing methods at their disposal - the more you’ll understand the limitations and possibilities of a given manufacturing method. I know designers that can deliver some pretty, pretty formidable CAD for manufacture based on something they sketched. It’s not something you’ll be expected to do on week one of your first job; but being able to turn a sexy sketch into a CAD is something to aspire to, for sure.