A letter to prospective students of Industrial Design from Katherine Bennett, past Education VP of IDSA.
I applaud you in your decision to pursue an education in industrial design. No doubt you have heard (from Alan Webber of Fast Company magazine, for example) that "the new MBA is an MFA." Here is an interview with Webber on this topic: http://www.cdf.org/alanwebber/alanwebber.html Industrial design is the hottest thing going, and rather than focusing on one sort of design such as web design or graphic design or interiors, ID gives you knowledge of a problem solving process which can be applied to any and all of these areas. An industrial design education will provide a foundation for the rest of your life.
When you evaluate different design school programs, you should plan to visit the campuses, of course. First, look at the "top level" view: how does each program position themselves in the education "market"? What kind of designers do they produce? What is the purpose of design education, as they see it?
You could get a sense of how the school prepares the student for life as a designer: ask to see examples of student work, and discuss the types of projects that the school asks the students to do. Compare the skill levels of the work from the various schools. Ask each school: of the last graduating class, what projects did students execute in their time spent in the program? What projects were in their portfolios? How many, and what kind? Some schools specialize in high-concept, theoretical, visionary projects, and some are more down to earth and real world. Some provide a mix. What kind of person are you? Which type of project makes sense to you? The field needs both the visionary as well as the tactician. I'd consider attending a program which offers a range - the wider your range, the better prepared you will be to avail yourself of any opportunity.
Get a sense of how each program structures its curriculum and what the institution's goals for their graduates are: what types of jobs do their students typically land after graduation? What percentage of their graduates are employed in the field one year after school and five years after school? Which companies recruit at their school? One thing you might do is attend a meeting of the local IDSA chapter in your area and talk to the designers you meet there - what schools, in their opinion, best prepare designers for professional practice? You can find links to local chapters at www.idsa.org.
Designers collaborate with the disciplines of business management (marketing, finance) and engineering (mechanical, electrical, software) in practice, and good schools - both art design colleges and universities, offer collaborative projects which mix students from three or more disciplines working on the same projects. You should look for a school which offers these types of team projects - this background is rapidly becoming an essential ingredient in design education. Ask them how many of these projects a student will be exposed to in their course of study.
Internships are important to a designer's education. You should spend at least one term of study (or one summer break) working at a design office, learning what life as a designer is like. Ask each program: how do they facilitate student internships? What proportion of their students are able to complete at least one internship in their course of study? What does the school do to help the students avail themselves of internship opportunities?
What is life like as a student in each institution? If you can schedule your visits after the term has begun, you might see students working in the studios, although on a weekend, when you might be likely to visit, students might not be working in school, especially early in the term. But you want to get a sense of what life is like for the students in that department. Each school has a different culture, and although one program might be more highly "rated" than another, the other might be a better fit for you. Ratings - such as they are - are only one part of the equation. You want to find the school where you can thrive and be your best. Many schools use students as docents for their tours - you will be able to ask questions and get an idea of some of this from them. But if the student is not an ID major, be aware that the "cultures" of different departments are different, and an ID experience would be very different than, say, Fine Art or Illustration or Engineering.
Get a good look at the facilities - where will you be working, and will the school provide you with the types of facilities you need? Most important will be the workshop (machine shop) and the computer lab where you will be building mockups and models of your designs. These are expensive facilities, and some schools are better equipped than others. Also important will be the studio environment. Will you have a workspace at the school? It is not necessary, and many designers are loners anyway, preferring to work at home, but some schools provide vibrant studio space where students learn from each other as much, or more, than they do from their instructors. Regarding the technical facilities again, how extensive of a machine shop do they have? Will you have what you need to produce mockups and models of your design? How many seats do they have (vs. the number of students who need to use them) in their computer labs? What types of applications do they teach? (Be aware here that schools will use one program or another - Alias, SolidWorks, Rhino, CATIA, Pro-E, etc. - and those programs might be different than the ones used by a particular office in professional practice. You will need to get a foundation in one or more of the main types of CAD applications. Once you are accustomed to those, you will be able to switch to others like them fairly easily.) Finally, what sort of Rapid Prototyping facilities do they have? Designers are relying more and more on RP, and you should learn to use this sort of equipment. Again, these facilities are expensive, and schools will vary on the extent and availability of this sort of equipment.
As for the differences between studying at an art and design school vs. a university, at a university you will have the option to avail yourself of the offerings of related disciplines - especially business and engineering. Art and design schools might be more tightly focused and provide a deep understanding of the process and tools used in industrial design. You can get a good design education at either type of institution; I advise you to visit the schools, ask the above questions, look at the facilities, get a sense of the student experience and scope of the projects you will be working on, as well as the quality of the work and especially the thinking evidenced by the student projects, and consider everything in your decision.
If you have any further questions, please don't hesitate to ask.
Past Education Vice President, IDSA