I’m just going to put it out there: if you have a choice between the two, choose Industrial Design. Here’s a few reasons:
Keep education broad first; specialise later
It’s pretty well established that as you proceed up the academic ladder, your field of interest narrows — so a PhD thesis is usually based around a very well defined field of study, allowing the student to demonstrate a great deal of knowledge of about a particular subject. At the start of the higher level academic journey however, I would agree it’s important to try and keep a broad mind about what you might wish to pursue: with automotive design, there will be a several options that you can pursue after graduating, but these will be in a reasonably limited field. There’s only so much you can learn in 3/4 years of a bachelor’s or masters in any case. But what you can learn, is what you really like, and what you really don’t like. This is pretty fundamental to ensuring you have a decent start on your career (although career swaps are becoming pretty common these days).
Industrial design is one of the broadest subjects that I know of at bachelors level – depending on where you study and the course in question you’ll likely cover everything from fluid dynamics to CAD, workshop to electronics, graphic design to mathematics. You probably won’t enjoy all of it (I know I didn’t). But it will give you a good sense of the area you wish to focus on, and you can pursue that at the end of the degree.
Availability of jobs / career prospects
I’m not going to lie — industrial design is a tough, competitive industry. Every year, thousands of graduates come out of uni, but there aren’t thousands of grad jobs available for them to go in to. Companies like Dyson in the UK are improving things, but the problem is still pretty apparent. However, if the industrial design industry is competitive, it’s got nothing on the automotive industry. There are fewer courses around, so fewer automotive graduates coming out than industrial grads, but the jobs are much more sparse.
So, you graduate and can’t find a job in your specific field of study. What then? Well, if you studied industrial design, you can go into one of the many side industries (graphics, digital, CAD, model making, electronics, sustainability, etc) without too much of a leap. Automotive design will provide some of these opportunities as well, but I’d argue not nearly the same range, which is comforting when you’re coming to the end of your degree and weighing up prospects.
Industrial designers can become automotive designers
…but it’s less likely to happen the other way around. In my year alone at Brunel (studying Industrial Design, in case you hadn’t already guessed), I had peers who went on to Bentley, Jaguar / Land Rover and McLaren. Each of these places does decent grad schemes I believe, so anything lacking from the industrial design course would have been made up in that first year (and you learn far more useful stuff once you start work than through academia anyway — IMHO). It’s also interesting to note that these places all hired Industrial Design students – the ability to study a broad field to a high standard does make one a valuable asset.
It’s who you know
(As well as what you know).
If you study Industrial Design, you will have peers who go on to work in a wide range of fields. I have friends who work in lighting, sustainability, product, automotive, digital, and graphic design. These are all people from the same course as me! And these connections provide a great source of help as your career progresses – they may help you out if you need to make a career shift or you might end up working with them later if your business needs their services.
If you choose automotive, the chances are your peers are more likely to be in the same or similar industry to you. Whilst this can be helpful in some cases, the competitive nature of this means it is less likely that your peers will help you out and more likely that they will take the perfect job you saw advertised, that seemed like it was written with you in mind.
I’m clearly heavily biased! I studied industrial design, but side stepped the obvious career path and have instead been working in digital and film for the last 10 years after making a jump into freelancing immediately after graduating. I learnt a lot about myself through the degree, spent a lot of time questioning what the heck I was doing (especially in maths lectures), but realised soon afterwards how well it had set me up for work in the real world.
Whatever you end up doing, I do wish you the absolute best in it. I know it’s tough choosing what to do (I was actually torn between design and music when I was applying), but at the end of the day I’m sure you’ll find something decent at the end of it. For industrial design in the UK, I’d recommend both Brunel or Loughborough — I’ve seen excellent grads come out of both.
Other universities (and courses) are available.
This answer first appeared on Quora.