How I Got My Job: Variety is the spice of industrial designer Elisabeth Kooi’s work life

Elisabeth Kooi, industrial designer at Herbst Produkt, stands in front of products designed by the Santa Cruz consultancy.
Elisabeth Kooi, senior industrial designer at Herbst Produkt, stands in front of products designed by the Santa Cruz-based consultancy.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Local industrial designer Elisabeth Kooi spoke with Lookout about what it takes to enter this line of work, her personal experience in the field and advice she would give to someone who is looking to join the industry.

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Elisabeth Kooi is a senior industrial designer at Herbst Produkt, on Potrero Street in Santa Cruz, where she also manages the consultancy’s internship program. Kooi has a bachelor’s degree in industrial design from the University of Cincinnati. The program required Kooi to do five internships — the final one in Santa Cruz. Kooi fell in love with the Bay Area, and after discussions with her boss, she accepted a permanent position in 2019. She has been here since.

An industrial designer develops concepts and products for companies. Kooi has worked on a wide variety of projects, each one different from the previous. One of Kooi’s most recent projects is Brewbird, which is a whole-bean coffee maker for corporate offices. She has also worked on surgical tools for heart valve replacements and repair for Edwards Lifesciences and created a water-filtering water bottle for Brita.

Kooi says she thoroughly enjoys working with companies that are creating high-impact products designed to help tackle bigger issues — for example, Loona, a device that helps women who have urinary disorders, or Bedrock, an autonomous submarine that can map the ocean floor to find areas best suited for offshore wind farms. Besides her current work, Kooi is looking forward to being a mother and to eventually going out on her own as a freelance industrial designer.


  • University of Cincinnati College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning, bachelor’s degree in industrial design

Lookout: How did you get your job?

Elisabeth Kooi: I attended college in the Midwest for a bachelor’s degree in industrial design. In order to graduate, I was required to complete five internships in my work field. Luckily, my college had established relationships with corporations and consultancies throughout the U.S.A. so that students could be connected with high-quality paid internships with good mentors.

Lookout: What does a typical day on the job look like for you?

Kooi: Coming into the office at 9:30 a.m. and getting started with a project brief on a new client or new project. We like to kind of regroup as a team and figure out what we need for clients. We like to meet with clients, maybe with a new concept. There is a lot of brainstorming, a lot of sketching and generating lots of ideas. The second half of the day is working with CAD [computer-aided design] software and generating 3D models of sketchings. Last thing on a typical day would be to take those 3D models and turn them into realistic images. All clients come to us to get a physical product. We solve problems for them and the end result would be some physical, tangible object.

Elisabeth Kooi, senior industrial designer at Herbst Produkt.
Elisabeth Kooi, senior industrial designer at Herbst Produkt, looks at a prototype of a submarine she designed for a client, Bedrock Ocean Exploration.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: What do you love most about your job?

Kooi: Every month, I get to talk to people from different backgrounds, and they dump their best ideas on us. I get to meet with interesting experts from a different industry so that they can teach me everything they know about their newest discoveries and their biggest obstacles. So we are always learning new things on the job.

Lookout: What are the biggest challenges?

Kooi: Solving the problem. Clients come to us with different problems, from the medical field or outdoor gear. The big challenge is coming up with ideas that will make it in today’s market and coming up with the solutions.

Lookout: What’s the typical career trajectory like for your job?

Kooi: My university had really good job placements. Ideally, a student would choose to apply to a consultancy where you can work on various projects, or someone could work for a single corporation and consistently design. At a consultancy there is more freedom, but they expect more personal responsibility.

There is less freedom as a single corporation — if, say, you did an internship that was exclusively for cleaning products, every day would be designing that product. It’s a great fit if you really like that product and stability. I definitely recommend students to try both. Some people like things changing all the time and other people like to know exactly what they’re doing. Where you want to go is a senior designer position; from there you can do a lot. You can keep working at that company, but this position makes it easy to freelance, which means you can start taking on your own clients.

Lookout: What type of person is best suited to this type of job?

Kooi: Someone creative, willing to think outside the box, teachable and can take criticism. In this job it’s super normal to take criticism and feedback, so you definitely need to be thick-skinned. This job is at the intersection of art and engineering, so for this career you have to be technical and creative.

Elisabeth Kooi, senior industrial designer at Herbst Produkt.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: What advice would you give a new graduate or career-switcher interested in pursuing this job?

Kooi: I recommend internships; there are a lot of them in the design field. I learned the most in internships, with every single experience being different. A degree is required for this field, but an adjacent field would be prototype-making.

Lookout: What are the job prospects like for your field?

Kooi: You can come in having a mechanical engineering background, as long as you can bring that creative side, but you definitely don’t need it. If anything, you would have created on your own time a portfolio of your work that speaks to your ability. Industrial designers want to look at your portfolio, and rarely look at résumés. They want to know if you are someone who can make new ideas and if you can use CAD. There is no specific prior experience.

Lookout: How much does it pay?

Kooi: It depends on the location. In the Midwest, the entry-level position was $45,000, whereas in the Bay Area, which is a hotspot for design and product development, an entry-level position could be between $60,000-$65,000. As you work your way up, you can get close to $100,000, but not many designers go beyond that unless they own a firm.

Lookout: Where do you see your industry headed and what kind of jobs might be needed in the future, or might disappear as time goes on?

Kooi: More and more often corporations are wanting new sustainable designs. Big corporations are seeing the demand for more sustainable products, which means making things more durable and high quality.


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