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Forays into the physical with thoughts on industrial design from frog's product design team.

From Engineer to Design Engineer: 8 Steps to Transform Your Career

One of the questions I get asked most often is from engineers looking to break into design. It’s usually along the lines of: 

“I’m working as an engineer at a company on really technical aspects of projects and I don’t feel creatively challenged.  I’d like to get more involved on the front end design side working at a design and innovation firm like frog.  What should I do?”  

Making the transition from hardcore mechanical engineering specialist to design engineer generalist is a tough one, but it is doable if you are really dedicated to making it happen.  Luck has a lot to do with it, but here are a few tips based on my personal experience and the experience of people I’ve worked with.

Companies like frog prefer to hire engineers who have worked on multiple aspects of a consumer electronics product that has shipped into market.  There are hiring exceptions, but they are few.  I tend to look for people who are eager to learn, passionate about design, and who can solve tough problems.  Everything else you need to know can be taught.  Because of the work we do (a new project every few months) you will have to learn on the job about a new industry many times in a given year.  That is why being open to new experiences and being intellectually curious is one of the things we look for in applicants.  Other than that, here are some specific things you can do.

Design!
You are probably doing detailed mechanical design and/or analysis.  That’s pretty different from what we doat a firm like frog.  Focus on the design work and get some experience under your belt that is more user-oriented. Try to get involved in aspects of your current company’s work that affect user experience.  Features like handles, buttons – things people touch and/or see.   Designing parts that are aesthetic and that involve complex surfacing in CAD like housings and shrouds is also significant.  Put these in your portfolio.
 
Be willing to move laterally
You may need to take an intermediary job that has you designing things that people interact with, for example  at a consumer electronics or medical company, before getting hired into the design world. . This work will help you learn the special considerations that an engineer must master in order to design things for people as opposed to machines.
 
CAD, CAD, CAD …. and did I mention, CAD?
Get good at building in multiple CAD packages.  For engineers, Solidworks, and Pro Engineer are a must.  We look for things like advanced surfacing, including how to build and tweak curvature continuous surfaces.  Also, try to learn at least one rendering package (like Hypershot or V-Ray).  Learning how to render will give you a leg-up on most engineers who don’t learn this skill and learning isn’t that hard.   
 
Read the Bible
Read Making It or, better yet, Manufacturing Processes for Design Professionals cover-to-cover.  These are great books on how to make things and having a comprehensive understanding of manufacturing process can help you make designers’ dreams come true.
 
Make it personal 
Design a personal project in your spare time, like a piece of furniture, a gadget, or tool.  Try to solve a real problem and to design something with an eye to both form and function.   Figure out how to get a prototype manufactured on a site like MFG.com.  If you need extra motivation after a long day of work, print this out and stick it on your wall.
 
Meet people 
Go to design events wherever you live and rub elbows. The odds of a job coming from a friend or a friend of a friend are much higher than applying blindly.  Also, get on design boards like Core77’s and follow people on Coroflot who you think are interesting.  Design is a small world and the more people you meet, the better.
 
Take one step back, to take two steps forward. 
This next one is going to be rough, so I apologize in advance.  Be prepared to take a job at a lower level (and pay) than you’d like.   A CEO once told me, don’t think too much about how much you’ll be making at the next job, think about where you want to be in 3-5 years.   You may even need to take a (paid or unpaid) internship.  Even at a full time position, most MEs take a small pay cut when they move into design.  It is the tradeoff one makes for loving one’s job. 
 
Move 
Like many career decisions, you have to follow the work.  If you are living in Omaha, you may not have the number of opportunities as you will in a place like San Francisco or Seattle.  Being immersed in a design community is key.  

Good luck.

Cormac Eubanks is product development director at frog San Francisco.