When it comes to your career path, Ian Schon (ENG’12) advises students to think like engineers – formulate a hypothesis, map your trajectory, and think critically.
Being a product designer came naturally to Schon, who always liked to make stuff since a young age. “My grandfather was an engineer, and he has this great shop in his attic. When I’d visit him, I would see him making things I wouldn’t quite understand, but I knew he was a maker and a builder,” he says. At the age of 13, Schon’s grandfather gifted him a Dremel, which he used to “invent” stuff. Over time, projects started becoming a little more complex, and without a clear direction in mind, he took a friend’s advice and began his journey at BUMechE.
For Schon, however, the experience was different from what he anticipated. His highlights? Learning about the CAD Lab and understanding how to model things. “I was more intrigued by the thought of building things than classic mechanical engineering. I enjoyed working on building the Tinker Lab and being part of the first batch of students to head the team, which, in some ways, was a last hurrah for me at BU. That community, building that shop, and having a space where we could really build stuff, work on our ideas, and do a little applied engineering, was so important,” he emphasizes.
“I enjoyed working on building the Tinker Lab and being part of the first batch of students to head the team, which, in some ways, was a last hurrah for me at BU.”
Schon continued his practice outside the classroom, having worked as a consultant all through his undergrad for local companies in the Greater Boston area. From sophomore to senior year, he worked with cycling companies, a pedal-powered delivery service, and a biomedical laboratory in Baltimore, all of which helped him figure out what he did and didn’t like to do. He elaborates, “As I worked with the other companies, I started to think it would be cool if I got to make parts all day, figure out how to design them in clever ways, and save people money while manufacturing products locally. I started getting involved in the community, and that pushed me towards product development. That’s when I learned about product design and found that there are people who do that for a living, while consulting with companies to show them how to make products.”
Upon graduation, he worked with the product development firm, Essential Design. He credits his extensive portfolio for helping him land that role. When asked about his skills, he was able to show recruiters what he was capable of building, and how he was able to apply his engineering skills to make useful products. According to Schon, portfolio development should be an essential part of any mechanical engineering curriculum. “It’s hard to get a job without a portfolio, because then you’re just another engineer,” he stresses.
“I started to think it would be cool if I got to make parts all day, figure out how to design them in clever ways, and save people money while manufacturing products locally.”
Following a three-year stint at IDEO, Schon launched his own small business, Schon Dsgn, selling pens and watches he manufactures himself. His interest piqued when he wanted to find a pen that not only wrote really well, but was also aesthetically pleasing without breaking the bank. “While at BU, I was inspired by a friend who had a metal pen that he had bought from a store, but it had some shortcomings in its design and I thought about designing my own version,” he explains. When he started riffing on pen designs, he decided to machine a portfolio pen out of metal for fun, and would use the shops in MIT to test his skills. After purchasing a lathe from Craigslist during his summer back home in Baltimore, he started working on machining more parts, until he was able to figure out what tools he needed, how they worked, and perform a lot of experimentation.
Slowly but surely, people were interested in the project because Schon was talking about his work and showing them the pens. To kick the project into high gear, he did a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds, and was able to scale the project, producing a batch of 1,000 pens. “That was how I could prove that I could design products, engineer, produce things repeatedly, and make a product that people could use – it was a proving ground for myself as a product designer,” he says. Over time, he was able to build a little shop in his house with some tools he had purchased, and followed up the success of his pens by working on designing watches. He began the same process – design, engineer, iterate, and build – and was able to figure out how to manufacture watches at a very high level. It spun off into something that was the early stages of where he is right now (schondsgn.com).
“That was how I could prove that I could design products, engineer, produce things repeatedly, and make a product that people could use – it was a proving ground for myself as a product designer.”
Schon, who has been a guest speaker in Prof. Dan Cole’s portfolio class for about four years, enjoys sharing his industry experiences with wide-eyed students, many of whom may have never met a product designer before. “It’s always a really good talk because it opens up this world to these students, and it helps get everyone’s gears going about the work they have to do to catch up and be ready for the next step. A lot of them don’t realize that out of school, it’s very hard to get a job in product development right off the cuff, and have the skills to start there, since most consulting firms are looking to hire seasoned people,” he says. He uses his talks to encourage students to practice design, improve their sketching skills, and work on being good communicators and problem solvers.
“Get out of the classroom, and get your hands dirty in the industry.”
His biggest advice for students? Get out of the classroom, and get your hands dirty in the industry. Schon says, “As early as possible, start trying to visit manufacturing facilities, shops, and companies, and understand what life is like as an engineer after school, and think about whether it’s the right fit for you.” He adds, “Develop a hypothesis, use your engineering skills to determine what you are meant to do with your life. Formulate a hypothesis, and then test it. Get a job in the field to use the skills that you think would make you happy, be critical about it and keep reflecting back on your hypothesis. Think of your career path and your happiness as an engineering problem, because if you don’t, you won’t have the foresight to set goals and expectations, or reflect on your feelings, lessons, and experiences over time.”