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According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the field of industrial design is expected to grow in the next eight years, and with an average salary of $64,000 a year (closer to $90,000 a year in San Francisco), the field is promising, with great job security and financial stability. Design thinking is taking center stage as a creative way to solve problems in the corporate sector and in people’s personal lives.
Product designers inhabit a versatile career field with multiple paths, but which one should you choose? The three career paths most industrial designers take are:
These three paths can result in significant differences when it comes to personal fulfillment, depending on your goals and aspirations. Let’s take a look at each path and explore the different considerations, challenges, and perks related to each.
Many industrial designers spend their entire careers working for companies in a salaried position, often at some of the most successful companies in the world, like Microsoft, Nike, and Sony, or at a design firm, like IDEO or Whipsaw. According to Fast Company, in an article about a report the National Endowment for the Arts conducted on the health of industrial design in the U.S., most salaried industrial designers work in manufacturing or in professional, technical, or scientific services.
For those who have worked for a large organization for several years or prefer the flexibility and variety of working with multiple clients, freelancing can be a great way to leverage your design skills and control your own time and projects. According to the NEA report, 30% of industrial designers are self-employed, and we expect that number to increase. Whether you work for a design firm as an individual contributor or as a consultant for a larger company, or even run your own design studio, working on your own gives you immense freedom.
You can take your desire to work on your own to the next level and go through the process of identifying a market and designing a product that meets its needs. You could form a startup company around your product and manufacture, market, and sell it.
Industrial design is a thriving and growing field, full of exciting opportunities. The best way to decide which path is right for you is to think about what you want most from your job situation right now. Once you’ve got a list, compare it with the pros and cons we’ve included here and see if you fall into one category or another. Then, think about what you would need to do to take a specific path: build a great portfolio, seek financial advice, find a business partner, develop stronger marketing skills—and take courses, do some reading, or network to develop those skills or find people to help you.
In all likelihood, you won’t remain in one role forever. Plenty of designers leave companies to launch their own products and then grow those products into a business, or freelance for years and then join a design studio. The key is to take the pulse of where you are at this moment and where you want to be, and then take steps to move into a new role, if that’s what you feel is the right path for you.