Top Industrial Design Schools

Industrial designers, also known as commercial or product designers, bring both artistic and engineering principles to bear on product development for markets. Whether the product is a physical commodity like an automobile or toy, or a marketing product that only exists in digital form, industrial designers work to make it safe, effective, compliant and desirable all at once.

Students who go on to become design professionals become proficient in creative problem-solving with a special emphasis on commercial production. The field’s targeted industry focus underscores the importance of a practical, hands-on education en route to a product design career. Product designers are typically expected to have at least a bachelor’s degree in industrial design or engineering, plus a professional portfolio showcasing their work. Some students additionally pursue an M.B.A. for added expertise on the business side of the field.

Reputable industrial design (ID) programs are accredited by the National Association of Art and Design, or NASAD. The following five institutions of higher learning were ranked the top industrial design schools in the U.S. for 2012, according to U.S. News & World Report. All are NASAD-accredited.

1. Rhode Island School of Design220px-Rhode_Island_School_of_Design_sealFounded nearly a century-and-a-half ago, the Rhode Island School of Design, or RISD (“Riz-Dee”), is noted for its challenging coursework, diverse student population and vibrant arts community. Offering U.S. News & World Report’s top ID program for 2012, RISD is located in the notably artist-friendly community of Providence, Rhode Island.

RISD’s Division of Architecture + Design offers a Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.) in Industrial Design, a Bachelor of Industrial Design (B.I.D.), and, for graduate students, a Master of Industrial Design (M.I.D.).

RISD is a leading design school whose graduates are fodder for top firm recruiters. The school and its students takes this reputation seriously, and the caliber of most of its faculty reflects it. In an increasingly crowded field, a RISD degree could prove a competitive advantage for serious product designers.

2. Art Center College of Design

Art Center College of Design's Hillside Campus
Art Center College of Design’s Hillside Campus

The ID program at the Art Center College of Design (ACCD), located in sunny Southern California, was ranked number two in the nation for 2012 by U.S. News & World Report. The Pasadena-based Center is an intimate learning environment with a modest student-to-faculty ratio and diverse student body. There are twelve students for each faculty member, and about one-fifth of ACCD students hail from countries around the world.

ACCD offers undergraduate students a Bachelor of Science in Product Design. Graduate students may obtain a Master of Science in Industrial Design. The Art Center creates an immersive experience that requires great commitment. Rigorous, large-scale projects are continuous and the coursework is demanding, but the professors are supportive and the quality of education endorsed by students and reviewers alike.

That said, ACCD is considered expensive by some students’ standards. The per-term tuition for Fall 2013 is nearly $18,000 for undergraduates, and about $19,000 for graduate students. A portfolio is required for admission at each level. There is no on-campus housing available.

3. Cranbrook Academy of Art

Cranbrook school quad
Cranbrook school quad

The Cranbrook Academy of Art, located in Detroit suburb Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, is an award-winning leader in graduate architecture, fine art and design studies. It is the only American institution exclusively devoted to graduate-level study in the arts. Here, ID students may acquire a Master of Fine Arts in 3D Design.

The graduate curriculum is based on studio praxis, as opposed to a formal, graded structure. Most of students’ time is spent in the studio doing hands-on work. Individual departments are largely free to customize their own requirements as needed. The school’s academic culture promotes a balance of creative expression and critical, intellectual engagement, while emphasizing team-based collaboration.

Cranbrook’s innovative approach to learning has earned it widespread recognition. U.S. News & World Report considers the 3D Design program a mainstay of one of the best industrial design schools in the United States. Seasoned industry professional and Designer-in-Residence Scott Klinker heads the 3D Design Department. His work has been featured in trade publications and festivals, as well as the New York Times, Fortune and Newsweek magazines.

4. Carnegie Mellon University

Carnegie Mellon School of Design
Carnegie Mellon School of Design

Carnegie Mellon is an esteemed undergraduate and graduate university, located in historic Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that regularly ranks favorably on U.S. News & World Report lists. Its School of Design enjoys a similarly elevated status, making admissions to the industrial design program fairly competitive. Approximately 9% of some 500 annual undergraduate applicants are granted admission.

Carnegie Mellon’s ID undergraduate curriculum follows a systemic approach emphasizing the broader sociocultural context in which products are mass-manufactured. B.F.A. candidates must complete a core sequence of classes with other Design majors during their first year. The fourth year is dedicated to two semester Senior Projects conducted on behalf of actual clients.

Carnegie Mellon’s School of Design maintains a 3D lab with well-equipped machine, assembly, spray and materials rooms for class projects. There is also a large graduate design studio, a popular social space for outside-of-class learning and community dialogue. The graduate degree for ID students is a Master of Product Design.

5. Pratt Institutepratt_institute_sealOne of the top educational institutions in the Northeastern U.S., Pratt Institute is a private school based in Brooklyn, New York. It offers a BID to undergraduates and an MID to graduate students. U.S. News & World Report has rated Pratt’s graduate-level industrial design curriculum number five in the nation for 2013, while DesignIntelligence ranked the undergraduate program third on its annual list.

The school is ideally situated in New York City, an international capital for the designing community. New York has more practicing designers, from urban architecture to industrial design, than any other U.S. city. Pratt’s main Brooklyn campus, however, is relatively small at 25 acres.

Internships are encouraged for undergraduates and graduates alike. Exposure to many of New York’s world-famous museums, galleries and design events is often available for free or at a reduced cost. A state-of-the-art Rapid Prototyping Lab gives ID students the chance to develop product ideas with professional-level equipment.

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