How to Become a Design Engineer: Career Path Guide
If you’re an aspiring engineer, or an engineer who’s bored in your current role, you should consider becoming a design engineer. This career has it all. It offers you a chance to flex your creative muscles, while remaining technically challenged in your work.
Unlike many mechanical and electronic engineering roles, design engineering allows you to get more involved in the front-end design side of engineering projects, and not be so heavily focused on the hardcore technical elements. Best of all, you’ll get to see your own ideas become prototypes, and if it all lines up for you, your product could become the next “can’t live without” item.
So, if you’re passionate about design, and you love to solve tough technical problems but don’t want them to be the entire focus of your work, then read on. We’ll fill you in on the details of this career, including an overview of what these engineers do and what you’ll need to do to become one.
What is a Design Engineer?
Design engineers are engineers that design completely new products, and re-thinking older ideas. They work on all sorts of products, from smart phones, to vehicles, to vacuums. One of their key responsibilities is to ensure they create products that are not only effective, but also very user friendly, while also pleasing (or at least not offensive) to the eye.
Education Needed to Become a Design Engineer
To become a design engineer, you typically need a degree in mechanical, civil or electrical engineering. A degree in a field that’s even more specific to design engineering is ideal. Luckily, some schools offer degrees in engineering design, and closely related areas such as engineering product design, and engineering manufacturing.
Regardless of how closely related to engineering design your degree is, you should take classes in the following areas if you want to become an engineering designer:
• Engineering product design
• Industrial design
• Computer-aided design
• Engineering design
• Materials science
Success Tip: In addition to engineering-specific coursework, course in writing and communication can be very helpful for a career in this field.
Job Description of a Design Engineer
At the outset of the project, a design engineer is given a description of what is needed from them; a gap in the market that needs to be filled with a new product, or an improvement of a design on an existing product.
Based on this need, the design engineer creates a design of a new product, or-redesign of an existing product to meet the outlined need. From that point, they create manual sketches, and use computer-aided design (CAD) software to produce an initial design.
During the design process, the engineer has to keep several things in mind, including:
• How safe and strong it will be
• The overall user experience
• How much it will cost
• The environmental impact
• The aesthetics of the design
Once the initial design is completed, the engineer has to work with other engineers, technicians and craftspeople to test their design, create a prototype, troubleshoot the prototype, and put the product into final production.
Job Duties of a Design Engineer
Although the job duties of a design engineer can vary from one job to the next, they are generally responsible for accomplishing the following tasks:
• Brainstorming new product ideas, or ideas for the improvement of existing products
• May have product ideas delegated to them
• Making rough drawings and sketches of product designs
• Developing design of products, including performing necessary calculations and measurements
• Creating prototypes
• Testing prototypes
• Figuring out why prototypes didn't function as planned
• Re-configuring prototypes and re-testing
• Explaining product and its benefits to clients and/or team members from other departments, such as marketing
Experience Needed to Become a Design Engineer
Typically, companies that employ design engineers look for candidates that have experience in certain areas. This way, they can be sure the candidate will be effective and competent in their work.
Although the specific area of experience companies look for will vary, there are those that are common to all design engineers:
Design Work: Most employers look for engineers that have experience designing parts that are aesthetic, and that involve complex surfacing in CAD.
User Experience: It’s of critical importance that you have experience that demonstrates that you have the user in mind. After all, design engineering is all about making products that makes people’s lives easier, so having experience designing and developing things people touch and/or see, such as handles, buttons, etc., is key.
How to Get Experience
The ultimate catch 22: how to get a job as a design engineer without design experience, and how to get experience without having a job. Luckily, it’s not quite that complicated.
A simple way to get experience in these areas is to get involved in aspects of your current company’s work that affects user experience. This is only helpful if you are currently working as an engineer, of course.
If you’re not yet in the field (or even if you are) try designing a personal project in your spare time, like a piece of furniture, a gadget, or a tool. This will give you experience solving a real design problem, and experience designing something with an eye to both form and function.
Success Tip: To take it to the next level, see if you can get a prototype manufactured!
Skills Needed to be an Effective Design Engineer
In order to succeed in this field, you’ll need to have a certain knowledge base and skill set, including:
• Strong problem-solving skills
• A sound knowledge of various computer assisted design (CAD) software
• An excellent grasp of engineering and design principles
• Knowledge of the qualities of metals and other materials
• Excellent understanding of manufacturing processes and construction methods
• An awareness of the environmental impact of design ideas
Success Tip: Learning how to render will give you a leg-up on most engineers who don’t learn this skill
Traits For Becoming a Design Engineer
To get the most out of any career, you have to truly enjoy what you do. In order to enjoy working as a design engineer, you need certain characteristics, including:
• You really enjoy taking things apart and understanding how they work
• You enjoy blending creativity and practical skills
• You don’t mind (or you even like) working hard to solve problems
• You enjoy the idea of creating tangible products that will got to market
• You allow yourself to think differently, and try new and crazy ideas
• You’re able to stick with something that doesn’t work the first time, and make small changes in order to get it right
• You’re prepared to keep going in the face of competition
• You’re willing to learn from things that went wrong in order to make the design better
• You have an appreciation of the wider business demands involved in product design & development
• You’re willing and able to explain your product clearly and speak passionately about it
• You’re willing to convince people that your product is better
Who Creates Jobs for Design Engineers?
Design engineers are hired by organizations in many different types of industries, so your job prospects would be quite diverse. Types of organizations that might hire you include:
• Building services companies
• Colleges and universities
• Construction companies
• Consumer goods design/manufacturing companies
• Engineering firms
• Private and public research organizations
• Self-employed (as freelancers, contractors, or business owners)
• Transportation manufacturers, including shipbuilding, aerospace, railways and motor vehicles
Design Engineer Salary
The salary level you could earn as a design engineer can vary, typically depending on the following factors:
• Your level of education
• Your level of experience
• The specific responsibilities of your job
• The size and type of your employer
• The region in which you work
• Many other factors
Design Engineer Salary Canada: Unfortunately salary levels specifically for Design Engineers can’t be found from reputable sources in Canada. However, according to Service Canada, the average salary level of Canadian workers in the Mechanical Engineers occupational group is $78,000 per year.
Design Engineer Salary United Kingdom: According to the National Careers Service, starting salaries for Design Engineers are between £20,000 and £27,000 a year; experienced engineers can earn between £30,000 and £40,000, and senior design engineers can earn over £50,000 a year.
Design Engineer Salary United States: According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary of American workers in the Industrial Designers occupational group is $59,610 per year.
Designer Engineer Jobs
Our job board below has "Designer Engineer" postings in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia.
Working Conditions for Design Engineers
Working Hours: Design engineers typically work regular business hours, but due to the need to meet deadlines or to meet with clients, many have to work evenings and weekends on occasion. In addition, they may spend some of their time looking for new projects or competing with other designers for new contracts.
Work Setting: Design engineers spend the majority of their day working in front of a computer, in an office setting. They may occasionally have to travel, in order to meet clients, spend time in testing facilities, or visit manufacturing facilities.
Work Environment: Once the initial design is completed, design engineers have to work with other engineers, technicians and craftspeople to test their designs and put them into production.
Careers Similar to Design Engineer
Listed below are careers in our database that are similar in nature to Design Engineer, as they may be in the same general field, or they may involve many of the same skills, competencies and/or responsibilities.
References for this Career Guide
To find out more about what a design engineer does, what qualifications you’ll need, how much you could earn, and other details of this career, please consult the following resources:
James Dyson Foundation - “How I Became a Design Engineer” video - Retrieved September 1, 2015 www.youtube.com
National Careers Service website - Retrieved September 1, 2015: nationalcareersservice.direct.gov.uk
Service Canada website - Retrieved September 1, 2015: www.servicecanada.gc.ca
United States Bureau of Labor Statistics website - Retrieved September 1, 2015: www.bls.gov
Scholarships for Becoming a Design Engineer
The Applicable Majors section below shows fields of study relevant to a career as a Design Engineer. You can search for scholarships matched to those fields of study on the following pages:
Success Tip: Be sure to apply for any scholarships that you even barely qualify for, as there are millions of dollars of scholarships that go unused every year due to a lack of applicants!
Becoming a Design Engineer: Applicable Majors
Studying one of the university majors listed below is an excellent starting point for becoming a Design Engineer. Click on the links to find out what else you can do with these majors!