Design lessons from a former engineer

The skills that weren’t lost after a career change.


Elle Marcus

3 years ago | 6 min read

A year ago, I shared how I made the leap from engineering to experience design. This career change was such a profound moment in my life, it wasn’t until the adrenaline settled that I did feel some resentment for spending 8 years of my life studying and practicing engineering. It felt like such a waste striving towards a goal that in the end didn’t suit or fulfill me.

After I announced my career change, many people reached out saying they too were thinking of a change. They also worried about starting at 0 again after being so invested in their current career. My advice at the time was that the lack of fulfillment and anxiety of not liking my role made starting over worth it.

While my responsibilities as a designer are vastly different than an engineer, I’ve learned that knowledge is a lot more universal than I thought. You may have heard the story of how the inspiration for Apple’s typography came from Steve Jobs’s love of calligraphy. Or how Soichiro Honda drew inspiration for a gas tank design after gazing at a Buddha statue while meditating in a temple.

Knowledge is a lot more universal than I thought.

As an engineer, I felt like some of the problems I was trying to solve seemed impossible. I would think, if only we had more budget. Or maybe if I could use a different material. THEN I could solve it. But at the end of the day, those constraints remained and I had to keep searching for a solution.

This mentality was something I carried to my design roles — even when you think you’re out of ideas, you have to keep going. That feeling of being stuck means you’re right around the corner of discovering more ideas.

So I wasn’t at a loss as I began my design career and started grad school. In addition to the above, there are three main lessons I learned as an engineer that helped me as a designer.

Lesson #1: Imagine the full journey of your product in the hands of your user.

How will your product integrate into your user’s lifestyle? How will they continue to use this product 10 years down the road?

I worked on a machine. I can’t show you the machine, so I will just show this box I illustrated.

This box machine, like many boxes, has a front (if you’re facing the machine). It also has a right side.

The right side of the machine is actually a door! This door swings wide open to allow repair technicians, engineers, and customers to easily access the inside of the machine for troubleshooting purposes.

Now imagine an engineer designing some parts on the inside of the machine. To allow for even easier access, they may remove the front panel.

And then they will load the machine with the necessary parts.

Once the parts are installed, perhaps they’ll try to affix them with a guard rail.

And then they’ll reattach that front panel.

Now we have a problem. What if the customer needs to access those parts? There’s now a guard rail in the way.

The obvious answer is to move the guard rail to the front. But perhaps that space is already taken up by other parts? Or there may not be a proper place to put the hardware to secure the guard rail.

This is obviously a simplified example due to my illustration capabilities. But this issue of perspective is easy to forget. Perhaps with a digital product, it’s easier to fix, but imagining the full user journey can save a lot of time down the road.

Shifting perspectives also forces you to think about the day-to-day interactions your customer will have with your product. Let’s take a digital example: Slack.

Slack is a great tool for communicating with your team. However, Slack took this a step further. Instead of just being a good communication tool, they thought, how could we integrate it into the daily workflow of our users? So they integrated their app with Google Drive, Office 365, Zoom, etc. They thought about how their product could fit into their user’s overall life.

It’s similar to the Gestalt theory: the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. The standalone usability of a product doesn’t matter if it won’t work within the overall system.

Lesson #2: If you can’t find the answer, it may be because you’re not solving the right problem.

Let’s take the right side door on the same machine I used in my previous example.

I was tasked with making this door cheaper. It was made out of sheet metal and various pieces of hardware. I tried redesigning the flanges of the sheet metal and eliminating/changing some of the hardware. I was only shaving off a fraction of the cost.

I was struggling to find other areas of cost savings until one afternoon I brought up this problem to a co-worker. He said, does it have to be a door?

That question stopped me in my tracks. I looked at him, “Does it have to be a door?” In a flash, we whipped out scraps of paper and started sketching dozens of new designs. Maybe it doesn’t have to be a door. Perhaps it could be a lift-off panel instead. The wheels were turning. If it was a lift-off panel, there didn’t need to be a hinge. If there was no hinge, you wouldn’t need hinge hardware. Parts started getting knocked off and the cost of the door went down.

Reframing the problem allowed me to think more broadly. Instead of thinking, “How can I make the right side door cheaper?” I was now thinking, “How can I make the right side of the machine cheaper?”

Sometimes it’s worth taking one step back and generalizing your problem. This prevents you from ruling out helpful solutions.

Lesson #3: Storytelling can help stakeholders understand the big picture.

Emotion plays a huge role in storytelling, and it’s this emotion that can help persuade your idea.

Back to the same door.

When I suggested to the upper management team that we should make this door a lift-off panel instead, it didn’t get that much traction.

I was back to the drawing board. How could I make this door cheaper?

One day I brought this problem up to another co-worker, a repair technician. I briefly mentioned how I thought of doing a lift-off panel but the idea wasn’t sticking. And then his face lit up.

“If you made that door a panel instead, we wouldn’t have to worry about having the clearance to open the door.”

Sometimes customer sites had limited space, and technicians found themselves in tight spaces trying to repair the machines. The door, being rather large, could not be opened all the way in some of these tight spaces. The technicians had to spend time shifting the machines around in order to get enough space to access the machines.

I mentioned this to upper management, and now I saw the wheels turning in their heads. The repair technicians can arguably be the face of the company. They visit our customers more often than other employees, and during a critical time: when the machines aren’t working.

The customers may be upset, and this frustration may grow if billable repair hours are spent shifting around machines. In addition, a panel will not only make the technicians happy. It will also make the customers happy because they too won’t have to shift around machines to perform regular maintenance.

At the end of the day, the company truly cared about the customer experience. In this situation, framing the customer and our customer interfacing employees as the main character allowed management to see the big picture.

We were no longer focused on the engineering department trying to save money on manufacturing this door. We were now viewing this problem more holistically, and focusing on the full customer experience.

It becomes harder to knock an idea down when your values are behind that idea.

In a way, this was a problem that was reframed as well. We were no longer just focusing on a cost savings for the company. We were focusing on a cost savings for the customer since they theoretically weren’t paying for the extra time needed for repair technicians to shift around the machines.


Created by

Elle Marcus







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