What promises to be a fascinating discussion about life as an industrial designer is currently taking root on the Core77 Boards. The original poster, presumably a student on the verge of making a crucial decision, started out with a vague (and impossibly broad) query on whether industrial design is a financially lucrative profession. In our members' efforts to answer, the topic is beginning to veer towards the quality of an industrial designer's life.
We would need to identify some parameters in order to ballpark your average ID'er's quality of life. As mentioned before, industrial design is an impossibly broad field, since you can loosely define it as designing anything produced from a factory (and these days, even that is changing). Our readers work everything from plastic widgets to automobiles, appliances to furniture, environments to user interfaces. Some are one-man or -woman studios, others work in consultancies, still others at large corporations.
So what are the commonalities? For one thing, because we often design things that will be produced by machines whose cost far exceeds our own means, we're often at the mercy of others with larger pockets or a firmer hand on the pursestrings. Which is to say, we are not in positions of absolute power, generally speaking. (Kickstarter and low-cost RP are changing this somewhat, but I believe the impact is fractional.)
Secondly, we work in a fairly obscure profession; when a child talks occupations they want to be a firefighter, a doctor or a police officer when they grow up, not the junior designer on staff at a structural package design firm responsible for low-cost cleaning solution bottles targeted at the Latin American market. Because most people don't understand what we do and why it's necessary, there is a degree of skepticism and don't-get-it-ness that the lesser-established among us are used to dealing with, from engineers who don't take our profession seriously to marketers who feel our primary task is to change the CAD model into a color of their choosing. For every famous Behar, Starck and Rashid that have earned the power of sway, there are thousands of us who understand we will continually deal with conflict and opposition. To an industrial designer, it's not a strange sensation to design some cool feature—then instantly start thinking about how you're going to justify and defend it to others involved in the process.Thirdly, there's the question of talent. Design schools graduate students by the dozens or hundreds, and it's not like the Navy SEALs, where the vast bulk are weeded out to create a numerically-tiny super elite force. If you are gifted with prodigious talent that you have honed into elite skill, and are in a position to exercise those things in defiance of the two paragraphs above, I'd say your quality of life is going to be good. If your talent is mediocre, or if you are good "in the room" (i.e., pitching) but have a knack for underdelivering, I'd say you're in for some misery.
Fourthly, there's the question of what I call the two P's—passion and patience. Passion is what fortifies you to overcome the manifold obstacles in our profession; it keeps you up at night, refining, perfecting and preparing. Patience is what enables you to do these things repeatedly, project after project. If you don't have these two things, I suspect you do ID for a few years and then move on.
Lastly, satisfaction is relative, is it not? If we put design snobbery aside for a moment, we realize it's possible the inventor of the USB-powered coffee mug warmer was just as satisfied as Bill Stumpf signing off on the final tool drawings for the Aeron.
I'm sure there are other commonalities specific to the field of industrial design, and I'd love to hear your takes, particularly from those of you in the furthest-flung fields of ID. Please sound off either in the comments, or add to the original discussion.
If the original poster's question about finances was really all they're looking for, well, we put together that Industrial Design Salary Survey for that very reason. But I will point out one thing: People go into finance, real estate development or bounty hunting for the promise of its paydays. No one, I think, goes into industrial design for the money. (Though you may enjoy looking at "Loewy Lived Large.")