• Interview Excerpt: Thomas Degn, Program Director for the MFA in Advanced Product Design Program, Umeå Institute of Design, Umeå, Sweden

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    AH: Industrial design is such a broad field with many options. How would you suggest students best prepare their portfolios for the jobs they want? How should a portfolio for someone applying to a design consultancy such as frog be different from a portfolio for someone applying for an in-house design position?

    TD: Even though most of the designers’ skill sets are necessary both in-house and at a consultancy, I do believe that in-house designers should be able to display a higher level of consistency in understanding of brand values and the importance of research, continued development, and refinement of both a brand and its products. On the other side, many design consultancies rely on fast-paced teamwork qualities and designers who can think on their feet and quickly understand their different clients’ needs and generate concepts where the value proposition is clearly defined and understandable, both in text and initial concept visualizations.

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    AH: If an industrial design student came to you looking for advice on how to prepare their portfolio to get an internship or a job, what would you tell them to do? What should be in their portfolio?

    TD: I would advise them to display, as truthfully as possible, their present tools, skills, and mindset. Ideally each designer should master being a thinker, a decider, and doer, as well as being the unique individual person they are. All of that doesn’t matter if they are not able to portray it in an understandable way.

    AH: When you say “to portray it in an understandable way,” what do you mean?

    TD: They should try to display their tool-, skill-, and mindset by visualizing their work, thought, and decision process with sketches, graphics, short texts, timelines, and photos. The portfolio should been seen as a help to the potential employer to assure that the candidate applying is a reflective, efficient, and professional industrial designer. I personally appreciate if an applicant has the ability to answer and include the following in the portfolio: What was the starting point/problem or design opportunity of the project? And who were/are the stakeholders? How was this addressed? (Methods, conclusions, and decisions.) The result of the different phases and the final designed solution, and final reflective conclusions. How did (or might) the designed solution solve the initial problem?

    AH: What kinds of student portfolios are getting attention from employers these days? What’s the emphasis placed on?

    TD: Different employers put emphasis on different skills depending on their present needs and the focus of their company. As an absolute minimum one has to be able to display and communicate the basic creative skills of producing quick, understandable, and inspiring ideation sketches, the ability and wish to work in a team, and the professional and social skills required for this.

    We want our students to prepare and be able to display their work for employers who truly understand and appreciate the industrial designer as one who, through a structured and thereby quality ensured process, can design the best possible solution to a given self-identified problem or design opportunity textually, digitally, and three-dimensionally. The pedagogical strategy and studies at the Advanced Product Design program have been designed for this specifically. We teach and enable our students to communicate and show that they can enter an organization and contribute from day one as productive designers and team players.

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    AH: What kind of feedback do you hear from employers about the content of students’ portfolios? What are they doing well, and what are they lacking?

    TD: It is my impression that some design managers are experiencing that the digital tools of design have made their way too far and too early into education, in such a way that the basic understanding of the form and even construction can get lost. In a 3D digital environment everything is possible; there are hardly any limits, including the things you would realize are impossible or at least not logical if it was tried out with quick mock-ups or physical proof-of-concept models.

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    AH: What characteristics or qualities are necessary to be a successful industrial designer?

    TD: There are three overall qualities I believe should characterize a successful industrial designer. These are empathy, understanding, and communication. A designer should be able to feel empathy for the client and in particular the present and future users for which the best possible solution should be made. A designer has to understand what the problem or challenge really is, how it could be solved and the various consequences of the same in terms of usability, costs, production, environmental impact, etc. Finally, a designer has to be able to communicate this and the proposal for the final design in a verbal, textual, visual, and even physical form.

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    Thomas Degn, with Rector Anna Valtonen, of Umeå Institute of Design.

    Thomas Degn, with Rector Anna Valtonen, of Umeå Institute of Design.


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