The Anatomy of a Successful Design Engineer: Salary, Certifications, Essential Traits & Characteristics, and More

Last Updated: September 29, 2022

Whether you’re buying a pen, an engine, or an airplane, the chances are a design engineer was involved in creating it. Design engineering is a discipline that blends creativity with technical engineering concepts and involves taking a list of requirements or problems and turning them into a real, functioning product. But what makes a successful design engineer? Not all engineers have the same talents and skills, and it’s important to understand how design engineers can forge a successful career with careful planning.

In this guide, we’ll discuss:

From manufacturing to consumer packaged goods, design engineers play a role in just about everything. Read on to see what it takes to excel in design engineering.

An Overview of Design Engineers

Industrial design engineers discussing project in the office

The design engineer title can refer to engineers who work on physical or digital products. There are three main types of design engineers:

Physical product designers may also be called industrial design engineers, product design engineers, or physical design engineers. A design engineer’s purpose is to either solve problems with new products or revamp existing products to improve performance or functionality. No matter where you go, a design engineer likely had a hand in creating most of the products you rely on today, including:

  • Spatulas
  • Phones
  • Appliances
  • Engines

Today, the proliferation of the Internet of Things (IoT), connected devices, augmented reality (AR), and other technologies blur the line between the physical and digital worlds. As a result, physical-digital design teams who can address both the physical and digital design challenges are becoming increasingly common. These product design teams simultaneously establish digital and physical requirements with input from interaction designers and industrial designers. This allows for hardware and software design to move forward with compatibility — and the end user experience — in mind.

What Does a Design Engineer Do?

Design engineer working on CAD software

These professionals largely work at a desk and spend a lot of time working in software applications such as computer aided drafting (CAD) tools, computer aided manufacturing (CAM) software, or computer aided engineering (CAE) applications, but sometimes they might visit a plant or factory to test their creations. However, a significant portion of a designer’s time is spent researching and implementing new ideas.

The role involves frequent collaboration with internal and external stakeholders, so they also participate in brainstorming sessions and other meetings to review requirements, challenges or obstacles, such as regulations the product might be subject to or restrictions related to shipping in different parts of the world. After developing a prototype, design engineers are heavily involved in evaluating product performance and user experience (UX) and incorporating feedback into improvements.

They ensure that products not only solve the main problem but that they’re also safe, durable, stylish, and cost-effective to produce. But engineers aren’t just concerned with the final physical product. They can also look at processes like manufacturing to determine the best, safest, and most cost-effective way to reach a goal. For instance, a design engineer might evaluate various materials for a specific application, weighing the required properties with factors such as cost and availability. Many leading design engineering firms handle the entire engineering design and product development process on behalf of their clients.

It’s a lot to juggle, which is why many engineering jobs tend to pay salaries in the six-figure range — a good-quality engineer can easily save a company millions of dollars.

A design engineer’s duties usually include:

  • Collaborating directly with other engineers, leadership, sales, R&D, and even the customer.
  • Using CAD, CAM and CAE to transform ideas into concrete designs.
  • Reviewing design briefs.
  • Conducting research.
  • Completing cost analyses to ensure the feasibility of a product.
  • Conducting environmental impact studies, which are often required for government work or audit purposes.
  • Double-checking safety and regulatory requirements.
  • Prototyping, either with digital simulations or 3D printed models.
  • Reporting and client management.
  • Overseeing manufacturing.
  • Keeping up with design trends.

What’s unique about a design engineer’s job is the fact that they must balance creativity with technical skills. So not only do businesses need to find someone with a head for numbers but an eye for design too. It’s a rare and valuable skill set that makes any design engineer a critical part of the team.

Educational Background and Work Experience

Aside from requiring a balance of both creativity and math prowess, design engineering also requires a solid educational background. Seventy-four percent of design engineers have a Bachelor’s Degree (in addition to a high school diploma) while 12% have an associate’s degree, making a four-year degree the standard for this profession.

Some design engineers will receive a bachelor’s degree in a related field, like computer science, and then earn their master’s degree in engineering. Since 11% of design engineers also have a master’s degree, this is also common. Thirty-five percent of design engineers major in mechanical engineering, while nearly 23% major in electrical engineering.

Most common design engineer majors

Screenshot via Zippia

Pursuing a four-year bachelor’s degree is therefore the best way to get started in design engineering. It’s also a good idea to pursue internships while you’re in school to get hands-on experience at an engineering firm. After receiving your bachelor’s, you’ll need to be licensed before you can practice professionally. While state licensing requirements vary, all state licensing boards will require you to have a four-year degree from a college or university accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). You’ll also need to take two certification exams to consider yourself a certified professional engineer (PE):

For undergraduate students who are interested in a career as a design engineer, several majors will set you up for success, including:

  • Design engineering
  • Electrical engineering
  • Mechanical engineering
  • Civil engineering
  • Product design

Every college has its pros and cons, but the top 10 universities to study at for a design engineering career are:

  1. Florida International University
  2. Carnegie Mellon University
  3. Florida Institute of Technology
  4. Northwestern University
  5. University of Pennsylvania
  6. Harvard University
  7. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  8. Stanford University
  9. University of California, Berkeley
  10. California Institute of Technology

Let’s take a closer look at some of the common majors that design engineers pursue, as well as the top educational programs for those disciplines.

Design Engineering

Design engineering requires a combination of several disciplines, so it’s less common for design engineers to actually have a degree in design engineering. Sometimes universities will call this major “Drafting & Design.”

Regardless of what it’s called, many universities offer a cross-disciplinary program where future engineers learn everything they need to know about problem-solving for product design.

Some of the best institutions for design engineering are:

Electrical Engineering

Electrical engineering is a type of engineering that focuses on electronic components. It’s a popular major for people who love electronics and working with their hands. With an electrical engineering degree, you’ll learn about power generation, energy efficiency, energy storage, amplification, and other essential knowledge for building safe electronic devices.

Some of the best universities for electrical engineering are:

Mechanical Engineering

A mechanical engineering degree opens doors for engineers of all types. This discipline applies to pretty much anything that moves in a mechanical way, including machines and even the human body. Regardless of whether you want to work in manufacturing or in the biomedical field, this discipline provides an effective framework for a successful career as a design engineer.

Some of the best universities for mechanical engineering are:

Civil Engineering

The civil engineering major (also known as environmental engineering) largely focuses on roads, buildings, sewers, and other important infrastructure projects. Although it’s different from mechanical engineering, civil engineering is still helpful in design engineering, particularly at large manufacturing plants.

Some of the best universities for civil engineering are:

Product Design

Industrial design or product design degrees will set up a design engineer for success. Product design is equal parts art and science, requiring students to generate creative ideas and bring them to life with their technical skills. With this major, future engineers learn about packaging design, cost-saving measures, product performance requirements, and prototyping.

Some of the best universities for product design are:

Design Engineering Certifications

Design engineers work on important — and potentially dangerous — projects that, left unchecked, could cause harm to the general public. That’s why engineers are required to receive a professional license, much like a doctor or a lawyer would. This certification is a requirement to work as a certified professional engineer; it also comes with its own set of standards and continuing education requirements.

At a minimum, design engineers have to pass two exams to be considered a Professional Engineer (PE):

  1. Fundamentals of Engineering (FE): Depending on where you live, you’ll likely need a bachelor’s degree and four years of practical experience as an engineer to take the FE exam. You also can’t have any ethics complaints or criminal charges under your name to take this exam.
  2. Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE): You must pass the FE to qualify for the PE exam. Most states administer the PE test twice a year, in April and October. If you pass this exam, you’ll be a certified Professional Engineer.

Both of these tests are administered by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES).

Aside from these two certifications, design engineers should also consider optional certificates like:

  • PMP for project management
  • CEM to become a Certified Energy Manager
  • AutoCAD to prove proficiency
  • ASME for public safety
  • CAEM to prove knowledge of technical skills and leadership
  • CPEM for management positions

Where Design Engineers Work

So, where do design engineers work? Because this is often an interdisciplinary (and useful) set of skills, design engineers work in a broad variety of industries and jobs.

Most often, design engineers work at:

  • Consulting firms
  • Manufacturers
  • Consumer goods manufacturers
  • The biomedical industry
  • Engineering firms
  • Aerospace companies
  • Medical equipment brands
  • Automotive industry
  • Consumer goods and home goods brands
  • Utilities

The top companies employing design engineers include:

  • Intel
  • Apple
  • Qualcomm
  • Marvell Technology
  • Boeing
  • Broadcom
  • IBM
  • Microsoft
  • Texas Instruments

Let’s look at some of the major industries employing design engineers, as well as some of the most influential companies hiring in each industry.

Manufacturing

Nothing in the world happens without manufacturing. From cars to consumer packaged goods to the lights that power our homes, we rely on manufacturers for everything. But manufacturers rely on design engineers to bring their innovative product ideas to life, ensuring the products are not only effective, but safe for the public.

A few of the leading companies in this industry include:

Exxon Mobil

@ExxonMobil

Exxon Mobil

Careers at Exxon Mobil

“Join our talent community. Stay up to date on upcoming job opportunities and events that match your interest.”

Apple

@Apple

Apple

Careers at Apple

“Work at Apple. Join a team and inspire the work. Discover how you can make an impact: See our areas of work, worldwide locations, and opportunities for students.”

General Motors

@GM

General Motors

Careers at General Motors

“We are a global team of diverse and talented people – from creative design to engineering and software development to manufacturing to marketing and finance. We’re looking for adventure-seekers and imaginative thought leaders to help us transform mobility and advance an all-electric future.”

Microsoft

@Microsoft

Microsoft

Careers at Microsoft

“Do what you love. Create the future you want. At Microsoft, you’ll be empowered to work on things that you’re passionate about. You’ll be given autonomy. Your ideas will matter.”

IBM

@IBM

IBM

Careers at IBM

“Tell us more about yourself and we’ll keep you up-to-date regarding upcoming events and career opportunities that match your interests.”

Engineering Firms

Not all brands have the resources to hire design engineers internally. That’s why so many design engineers actually work at large engineering firms on behalf of their clients. These firms work with a variety of industries ranging from biomedical to construction to automotive.

There are plenty of engineering firms in the United States, but these are some of the most renowned:

WSP

@WSPUSA

WSP

Careers at WSP

“We have a wealth of opportunities available across our regions. To find a vacancy that meets your aspirations use the search function below. If you can’t find anything suitable, but are interested in working for us in the future, please make a speculative application by clicking the ‘Spontaneous Applications’ button. We look forward to hearing from you.”

Fluor Corp.

@FluorCorp

Fluor Corp.

Careers at Fluor Corp.

“Fluor offers jobs and career opportunities in engineering, procurement, and construction around the world. As a global leader in the engineering and construction industry, Fluor designs and builds complex and challenging capital projects across six continents. Are you ready to be challenged?”

Arup

@ArupGroup

Arup

Careers at Arup

“We meet our clients’ goals in many different ways. We’re a diverse community of tenacious problem-solvers, daring designers, creative coders, imaginative engineers, insightful economists, inventive acousticians, and experts in many other disciplines. Whether you’re an experienced professional, looking for your next career move, or considering your first job as a graduate, apprentice or intern, we can offer you the opportunity to shape a better world.”

Jensen Hughes

@jensen_hughes

Jensen Hughes

Careers at Jensen Hughes

“Our employees make Jensen Hughes the global leader in safety, security and risk-based engineering and consulting. We continually work to embed the guiding principles of diversity, equity and inclusion as critical parts of our business strategy. We place a particular emphasis on recruiting and developing a diverse workforce and creating an inclusive work experience. Jensen Hughes strives to create an environment where colleagues feel valued and supported as unique individuals. Inclusion and diversity fuel innovation, resilience and growth, helping us become the company we aspire to be.”

IMEG

@IMEGCorp

IMEG

Careers at IMEG

“We believe in a future built smarter, safer, and more sustainable. We are a culture of ownership and people-centered engineering. We empower team members to think beyond what’s possible — transforming environments and communities through high-performance design and infrastructure. We are 100% employee-owned and know that our incredible team is our biggest asset. For us, people-centered engineering is about more than the people we serve — it’s representative of the engaged employee culture we’ve worked hard to create.”

Biomedical

Did you know that the United States is one of the leading exporters of medical devices in the world? Demand for medical devices is only increasing, and demand has never been greater for experienced design engineers. In the biomedical field, design engineers work on medical implants, prosthetics, and other life-saving interventions that can literally change patients’ lives.

A few of the leading companies in this industry include:

Amgen

@Amgen

Amgen

Careers at Amgen

“We’re in this for more than ourselves. There is purpose behind our passion. Patients’ well-being propels our curiosity, our performance, our momentum forward. Let’s do this. Let’s change the world.”

Bristol Meyers Squibb

@BMSNews

Bristol Meyers Squibb

Careers at Bristol Meyers Squibb

“At Bristol Myers Squibb, the work you do—often in support of emerging therapeutic areas that require new methods of thinking and working—will help people prevail over serious diseases. And while our work transforms the lives of patients, it also transforms the lives and careers of those who do it. This isn’t easy work, but it is uniquely interesting. This is where you will rewrite the rules, solve the toughest challenges, and create miracles.”

Biogen

@Biogen

Biogen

Careers at Biogen

“We came to Biogen to solve the unsolvable. We stay to create new possibilities and grow together. We work fearlessly and go beyond because we care deeply about making a difference and changing lives. If you are inspired by helping others, driven to discover transformative medicines, and want a career that can make a difference, we want to hear from you!”

CSL Limited

@CSL

CSL Limited

Careers at CSL Limited

“Whether you are becoming an expert in your niche,  moving across, or upward in the organization, we believe our people can enjoy Promising FUTURES where they fulfill their individual career aspirations and are inspired by our purpose-driven company and values-based culture.”

Regeneron

@Regeneron

Regeneron

Careers at Regeneron

“Be part of something bigger. Be more than just your work. Be part of creating a future you believe in.”

Automotive

The car manufacturing industry is worth over $104 billion. There’s clearly a demand for faster, better, sleeker cars, and it’s a need that design engineers successfully fill. Design engineers in the automotive industry conduct safety tests, measure energy efficiency, and design sleek vehicle components.

A few of the leading companies in this industry include:

Ford

@Ford

Ford

Careers at Ford

“Tomorrow’s mobility opportunities call for candidates with experiences of all kinds. We’re looking for talent that wants to take us somewhere new.”

Toyota

@Toyota

Toyota

Careers at Toyota

“At Toyota, we don’t just have a vision, but a group of talented, dedicated people who work hard every day to turn that vision into reality.”

Tesla

@Tesla

Tesla

Careers at Tesla

“Solve the next generation of engineering, manufacturing and operational challenges as we work to secure a clean energy future.”

Hyundai

@hyundai

Hyundai

Careers at Hyundai

“Hyundai recognizes that the key to sustainable growth is having talented individuals on our team. At the core of Hyundai’s success is our staff of dedicated employees that represent a variety of backgrounds, experiences, ideas, and values. The future of our organization lies in the hearts and capabilities of our team members.”

Honda

@Honda

Honda

Careers at Honda

“You are invited to join Honda on our mission to create a better tomorrow. Whether you’re interested in automotive or robotics or something in between, your talents can expand life’s potential for people everywhere.“

Salary Information for Successful Design Engineers

According to Payscale, the average salary for design engineers is $70,064, but the average base salary can range from $54,000 to $101,000. For example, Salary.com says the average salary for a design engineer is $86,049 while Indeed says it’s $78,600.

Indeed salary range for design engineers

Screenshot via Indeed

According to Glassdoor, the median annual pay for design engineers is $95,669, which includes a base pay of $76,795 and additional pay (such as bonuses and profit sharing) of $18,874.

Median design engineer salary Glassdoor

Screenshot via Glassdoor

So, why is there such a difference in the average salary for design engineers? It comes down to:

  • Geography or location
  • Educational background
  • Previous professional experience
  • Market demand
  • Certifications and skills

Generally speaking, the more skilled and experienced you are, the more you can earn as a design engineer. For example, as an experienced manager, you can expect to see a 28% bump in your base pay rate. Salaries for design engineers tend to be higher in certain cities, as well, particularly innovation hotspots like Austin, TX, where the average salary for design engineers is 28% higher than the national average.

Who Are Today’s Top Design Engineers?

While knowing what educational background, schooling, and pay you can expect as a design engineer is helpful, it’s also good to learn from successful engineers who are already in the field. According to LinkedIn, these professionals are some of the most successful design engineers in the United States.

Kristen Mock

Design Engineer at BCycle

Kristen Mock

Kristen earned her BA in Math and Physics in 1992 and her MS in Mechanical Engineering in 1994 from the University of Minnesota. She’s worked in engineering roles for GE Healthcare and Datex-Ohmeda and as a graduate research assistant for Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare.

Top Skills:

  • PTC Creo
  • Design control
  • Tolerance analysis

Joshua Smith

Design Engineer at Northrop Grumman

Joshua Smith

Joshua is an accomplished mechanical engineer who earned his BS in Electrical and Computer Engineering from North Carolina State University in 2016. He’s worked at the Honda Aircraft Company as well as the MIT Lincoln Laboratory.

Top Skills:

  • Microsoft Office
  • Matlab
  • Microsoft Excel

Michael J. Fischer

President and Design Engineer at Energy Harness Corporation

Michael J. Fischer

Michael has been designing products for over 35 years. He’s a self-described serial entrepreneur and avid inventor who’s served in a variety of leadership roles. Michael has served at the helm of several companies, including Method Technologies, Pacific Code Development, Digital Telecom, and Energy Harness Corporation.

Top Skills:

  • Product development
  • Software development
  • Wireless

Dennis Isaacson

Mechanical Design Engineer | MBA | BSME

Dennis Isaacson

Dennis earned his BS in Mechanical Engineering from Brigham Young University and received his MBA from Utah State University. He’s worked as a mechanical engineer for Beijer Electronics, Tycon Systems, HX5, and OSS Suppressors.

Top Skills:

  • Product development
  • Engineering
  • Entrepreneurship

Patrick Lowry

Silicon Design Engineer at AMD

Patrick Lowry

Patrick received his BS in Computer Engineering from The University of Texas in 2008. In 2013, he received his Master’s in Computer Architecture and Embedded Processors. He’s worked as a product development engineer, design verification engineer, and silicon design engineer for different companies since 2008.

Top Skills:

  • RTL design
  • Microarchitecture
  • Microprocessors

Brian Snider

Senior Design Engineer at Intel Corporation

Brian Snider

In 1990, Brian earned his BSEE in Engineering from Rice University. Today he serves as a senior design engineer at Intel, but has worked as a design engineer for several illustrious companies, including Texas Instruments, Motorola, and Centaur.

Top Skills:

  • Microprocessors
  • Processors
  • Low-power design

Maggie Leon

Design Engineer at Burton Snowboards

Maggie Leon

Maggie earned her Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering in 2019. She has hands-on experience as a snowboarding instructor and sponsored snowboarder, so her expertise in mechanical engineering is perfect for her job at Burton Snowboards, where she’s served as its design engineer for several years.

Top Skills:

  • Leadership
  • Siemens NX
  • SolidWorks

Jamie Procter

Design Engineer at BSI, Inc.

Jamie Procter

Jamie earned his Bachelor’s in business Administration in 2019 and has worked as an engineer since August of 2020. He also has experience as an entrepreneur and is an outdoors enthusiast.

Top Skills:

  • Revit
  • Product design
  • Digital marketing

Lydia Matteson

Design Engineer at Fiskars Group

Lydia Matteson

Lydia earned her BS in Engineering Science and Mechanical Engineering in 2020. She’s worked at Fiskars since 2020, serving as its QA engineer and design engineer during that time.

Top Skills:

  • SOLIDWORKS
  • Design for manufacturing
  • Production Part Approval Process (PPAP)

Keith Larson

Physical Design Engineer at NXP Semiconductors

Keith Larson

Keith has over 16 years of experience in the semiconductor industry. He has a degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Oklahoma State University. Keith has worked at STMicroelectronics, Synopsys, and NXP Semiconductors in both team and leadership roles.

Top Skills:

  • SoC
  • Physical design
  • Static timing analysis

Traits and Characteristics of the Most Successful Design Engineers

Design engineer using 3D printer to evaluate prototype

While qualifications, education, and certifications certainly matter in the world of design engineering, soft skills and personality traits matter a lot, too. Some candidates might have the head for engineering, but success in this career requires the complete package.

The most successful design engineers in the world have traits that include:

  • Collaboration
  • Willingness to experiment
  • Curiosity
  • Patience
  • Math skills
  • Design aesthetic skills
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Eye for detail
  • Time management
  • Project management and organization
  • Recordkeeping

Because design engineers collaborate closely with other engineers, leaders, and even clients, they need to not only be great at design but also with people. The engineering process can be long and cumbersome, so a dose of patience is necessary for rounds and rounds of product iterations.

Although design engineering requires a unique blend of skills, plenty of professional design engineers show up to work every day and truly love what they do. This rewarding career is flexible enough that engineers can work in just about any field. Wherever you forge your own path, know that a future as a design engineer is bright, both for yourself and the world that benefits from your creations.

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