When Katie Powers was considering colleges in 2002, she knew that she loved art, but she also felt strongly that she didn’t want to go to a small arts school.
Rather, she wanted a liberal arts education, aiming to major in English and minor in art. She fell in love with the University of Notre Dame, and she was accepted. During her freshman year, she found that her AP courses from high school gave her the opportunity to opt out of several freshman year requirements. This gave her the flexibility to immediately start taking art courses. She began by taking courses in graphic design.
In her second semester, Katie took a drafting course, her first industrial design class. The last few projects were open-ended, and without thinking she suddenly found herself with a sketchbook filled with rubber ducks and Transformers. She says, “Looking back, I realize now that those were the first toys I ever designed. Once I started drawing things in 3-D versus 2-D, I enjoyed it so much that I decided to change my major from Graphic Design to Industrial Design.”
Notre Dame’s Industrial Design program trained Katie in all fields, from designing Third World water pumps to staplers to personal flotation devices. But whenever she was given the opportunity to create an open-ended project, she always chose to design products for children.
Senior year, Katie volunteered to take a corporate-sponsored class in order to participate in a project with Radio Flyer, a toy company specializing in ride-on vehicles and most famously known for the “little red wagon.” She thought this would be a great networking opportunity, and she valued the chance to work alongside engineering and marketing students to design and present a new tricycle concept to a professional client.
This class helped Katie to secure an interview with Radio Flyer, and she was offered a paid internship in Chicago, beginning the fall after her graduation. “Radio Flyer had many connections to the University of Notre Dame. Many of my colleagues had gone through the same program at Notre Dame, knew the course load and professors that I had known. This made for an easier transition from college to the design industry.”
Katie interned for three months, before accepting a position as a full-time Industrial Designer. She worked at Radio Flyer for four and a half years designing wagons, scooters, and spring horses. She participated in consumer research, product design, prototyping, and structural packaging design. Katie also re-branded the girls’ line to make it more consistent with the heritage of the Radio Flyer brand. Since the department was relatively small when she started, designers were encouraged to take on many different roles, and it was not unusual for Katie to jump from a sewing machine where she was prototyping wagon seat covers, to a computer where she was using SolidWorks to build scooter decks, to the model shop where she could be sculpting a quarter-scale spring horse model out of clay.
“I enjoyed the culture and felt they really supported my growth as a designer. Wearing so many hats sometimes made growing as a designer difficult, because I had to juggle so many different tasks. However, having first-hand experience with every step of the development process is an invaluable tool that still shapes the way I design today.”
Eventually, Katie decided she wanted to move back to the East Coast to be closer to family and seek new opportunities in design. But finding a job proved harder than she had anticipated. She found that companies on the East Coast recruited heavily from well-known East Coast design schools, such as FIT, RISD, Pratt, Parson, and the School of Visual Arts. Not many companies were familiar with the University of Notre Dame’s art program, and her alumni contacts were not what they had been in Chicago.
While Katie was seeking a position in New York, she continued to design for Radio Flyer as a freelancer. She was particularly interested in the company, Skip Hop, known for designing functional and trendy baby and toddler products, and she pursued them for several months before she was finally contacted back. She was given the opportunity to freelance, and she did so for nine months.
Finally, Katie got her big break through a Linked-In connection. She secured an interview with Fisher-Price Friends, a small satellite office of the Fisher-Price corporation that handles most of the licensed business for the brand. After freelancing for a year, Katie was eager to return to the collaborative environment of an in-house design team.
At Fisher Price, Katie did not get the first position that she interviewed for, but she did get the second one; she was hired as a Senior Designer for the Thomas and Friends team, and she helped launch and develop the Wooden Railway line. After two years of designing wood and motorized train systems, Katie transitioned to the Octonauts’ license where she continues to design vehicles and play sets based on the popular television show and illustrated book series. At Fisher Price, which is twice the size of her previous companies, Katie gained new experience in working with external licensors and dealing with a more aggressive schedule and project load.
While the process of finding an industrial design job on the East Coast may have proved more difficult than initially expected, Katie does not regret her decision not to attend an East Coast arts school. In looking back at her college experience, Katie says, “I wouldn’t change anything about my education. My professors were so focused on helping me to find success. I also like that I was able to take other classes outside of art, like Anthropology and Chinese Philosophy, and I had the opportunity to study abroad in Ireland my junior year.”
This broad education gives Katie the confidence that she could work for any company, designing kitchen goods or motorcycles. Notre Dame purposely did not structure their design classes around instruction of specific software programs like Photoshop or Illustrator, because their philosophy is that the theory of design is most important.
“You need to know what’s a good design and what isn’t and how to communicate your ideas so that they make it from conception to production.” Katie said.
“The biggest struggle in my career,” says Katie, “is continually opening up a blank sketchbook and striving to draw something that no one has thought of before. Half of the battle is often having enough patience with myself to know that the ideas will come, just not always as fast as I’d like. I love being an industrial designer because every day presents a different challenge with a new set of rules and the possibilities for design are limitless.”
Also, her desk is fully stocked with Nerf guns, miniature trains, and glow-in-the-dark slime containers, and her coworkers crash remote controlled flying drones into the light fixtures on a daily basis. It’s never boring.