Industrial Design Degrees: Bachelor, Associate & Online Course Info

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What kind of job can you get with an associate or a bachelor's degree in industrial design? Find out program requirements, online options and info on courses.
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Studying Industrial Design: Associate and Bachelor's Degrees at a Glance

Industrial design is an applied science that combines product and service development, human needs and our constructed environment. Utilizing data from disciplines such as marketing research and engineering, industrial designers engage in the design or re-design of products and services, solving design problems to enhance their intended form and function. Industrial designers train to tackle design issues in any phase of the product life cycle, including product development, packaging, placement and space planning.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) anticipated that industrial designers would see a 10% increase in employment between 2010 and 2020, which is about as fast as the national average. Certain specialties within the field, such as medical and precision instrument design, may experience even higher growth. However, if you study this field through an associate degree program, you may be confined to working as a design assistant, drafter or model maker - although specializing in particular materials can improve your marketability.

Studying through a bachelor's degree program, you may opt to focus your efforts towards product research and development within emerging technologies in order to increase your competitive edge. All students should seek computer-aided design exposure in addition to traditional 2-D and 3-D design and modeling.

Associate Bachelor's
Who is this degree for? Students interested in basic training to enter the design field as design assistants or model makers Students who want to pursue entry-level work as industrial designers
Common Career Paths (with approximate annual median salary) - Model Maker, Plastics and Metals ($45,000) *
- Model Maker, Wood ($29,000) *
- Drafter ($49,000) *
- Commercial and Industrial Designer ($61,000)*
- Product Development Manager ($116,000 - this salary is more common for experienced professionals)*
Time to Completion 2 years full-time 4 years full-time
Common Graduation Requirements Roughly 30 classes encompassing general education and design-related coursework - Roughly 65 classes, most of which focus on the technical and laboratory aspects of industrial design
- Research project/portfolio development
- Internship
Prerequisites High school diploma or GED equivalent High school diploma, GED equivalent or associate degree in design-related field
Online Availability Limited, typically in hybrid format Rare

Source: *May 2011 from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics


Associate in Industrial Design

Programs at this level may also be called industrial design technology and provide students with two years of concentrated design-related classwork. You will study topics like materials and manufacturing, model making and product design to learn how to assist engineers and designers in creating prototypes of new products for market testing.

You can also gain hands-on experience with the technology and materials of new manufactured products. Through critiques of classmates' work, you'll gain strategies for assessing the viability of new product design. Although uncommon, some associate degree programs assist you in portfolio development in order to prepare you for the job market.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Shorter time to completion than the bachelor's degree program
  • Prepares you for design-related entry-level positions
  • Opportunity to complete the basic art and design courses required for entry into a bachelor's degree program

Cons

  • Employers generally prefer to hire industrial designers with bachelor's degrees*
  • Online programs may not offer as much hands-on training
  • Accredited associate degree programs aren't as common

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Courses and Requirements

The core courses for an associate degree program have a two-fold focus. Roughly half of the courses are lab-based, and train you in all aspects of new product fabrication, including structures, materials and prototyping. The other half of the core emphasizes traditional and computer-aided drafting techniques.

Common courses available at the associate level:

  • Model making
  • Materials
  • Product design
  • Computer-aided design

Online Degree Options

There are options for fully-online and hybrid programs. However, online programs that are offered entirely online may lack the cooperative laboratory component that is essential for work as a model maker or product fabricator. Therefore, online programs are more appropriate for those students who aim to work in graphic design or drafting after completing their degree.

Similarly to its traditional and hybrid counterparts, the online curriculum of associate degree programs may be equivalent to the first two years of an industrial design bachelor's degree program wherein students gain exposure to the fundamentals of design and creative problem solving. There are online associate degree programs accredited by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD); however, these programs are less common than accredited bachelor's degree programs.

Getting Ahead with This Degree

Most employers prefer to hire bachelor's degree holders for entry-level work as industrial designers. However, a strong portfolio of your design work could help in positioning yourself for an industrial design job after several years of experience at the assistant-level.

Many employers require prospective designers to have experience in design and presentation software like Adobe Creative Suite and Microsoft PowerPoint. Since industrial designers often work within cross-functional teams, familiarity with marketing, consumer behavior and engineering trends can also better position you for career advancement.

Degree Alternatives

Although job opportunities are expected to increase within the industrial design field, graduates of an associate degree program may find themselves limited to entry-level or assistant positions. You can find associate degree programs that prepare you for a career with higher earning potential.

One alternative might be an associate degree program in mechanical engineering technology. Mechanical engineering technicians assist engineers in designing, developing and testing of tools or devices. This career path is anticipated to have similar job growth potential to that of model makers or drafters, while providing a higher lifetime earning potential. As of May 2011, the BLS reported that the median annual salary for mechanical engineering technicians was about $51,000.

Another viable degree option with job growth and earning potential similar to that of mechanical engineering technicians is an associate degree program in industrial engineering (IE) technology. IE technicians typically work within the operations departments of large manufacturers to increase the efficiency of manufacturing supply chains.


Bachelor's Degree in Industrial Design

During the four years of an industrial design bachelor's degree program, you will gain experience prototyping new products, improving your drawing skills and assessing the viability of a product's design. Most classes will be smaller studio or laboratory classes, and the curriculum of each class may be project or product oriented.

Interdisciplinary casework and student design competitions are options offered within most programs to supplement the classwork and help build your portfolio. Additionally, you may take classes in public speaking, marketing or business in order to enhance your presentation skills and design business acumen.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Internships, portfolio development and design events are essential aspects of most programs
  • Design programs can offer broader training than art programs*
  • Many programs offer specialization in a variety of materials and product segments

Cons

  • Graduates of a bachelor's degree program may compete for jobs against industrial designers with MBAs**
  • Industrial designers may have to adhere to stricter technological specifications than other design professionals
  • Product segments tend to be located regionally, which may require relocation to attend school in closer proximity to a particular segment

Source: *iSeek.org, **U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Courses and Requirements

Industrial design bachelor's degree programs cover many fundamental aspects of design, from 2-D and 3-D design to materials and manufacturing. Programs typically include design history courses, providing aspiring designers a firm design knowledge base to aid in future projects.

Common courses available at the bachelor's level:

  • 3-D design
  • Materials and structures
  • Design history
  • Computer-aided design

Typically, students need to complete a research project and portfolio review. Also, most bachelor's degree programs require an internship as a graduation requirement.

Online Degree Options

Accredited online bachelor's degree programs in industrial design are available, but uncommon. NASAD maintains strict accreditation requirements, particularly concerning studio classes, team projects and program time to completion. In this particular design field, students may find it beneficial to pursue hybrid or traditional programs due to the advantage of having classmates and professors to provide feedback on assignments, design work and projects. Hybrid and traditional programs also afford students greater access to networking with design professionals, which may prove to be beneficial in their job search post-graduation.

Stand Out with This Degree

You may find it beneficial to take advantage of professional networking opportunities afforded through internships while completing your degree. This allows you not only to garner work experience in industrial design, but also to further develop your design portfolio. According to the Industrial Designers Society of America, the following are a few other ways you can get ahead with this degree:

  • Specialize in a product segment (e.g., medical, apparel and auto)
  • Specialize in a particular material or group of materials (e.g., acrylic, tile, leather and textiles)
  • Specialize in a specific industry (e.g., retail, signage, exhibit and packaging)

Degree Alternatives

The BLS notes that a growing number of industrial designers are pursuing a Master of Business Administration to gain additional training and business skills. If you aren't interested in pursuing a master's degree and would like alternatives with a higher salary potential, them you may consider a bachelor's degree program in engineering.

The BLS predicted similar potential job growth for industrial designers and mechanical or materials engineers during the decade from 2010-2020. As of May 2011, the median annual salary for mechanical engineers was approximately $79,000, while materials engineers earned about $85,000 in the same year.

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