What Does it Take to be a PCB Layout Designer?

Created: December 15, 2017
Updated: September 25, 2020

In the movie “Men of Honor,” Robert De Niro portrayed Billy Sunday, a Navy diving instructor with a challenging pedagogical method. He motivated his student divers by describing how hard their job would be to prepare them for the difficulties of their tasks. He concluded his speech by saying, “I don’t know why anybody would want to be a Navy Diver.” His honesty, in this case, wasn’t intended to be demotivating—sometimes a job takes a certain type of person, one who is willing to do work that others won’t.

There have been days that I’ve thought the same thing about my own career: “I don’t know why anybody would want to be a PCB layout designer.” But even with the adversity, I only have to remind myself that I can and am doing things with my skills that most other people can not. My experience and visually-oriented mind can imagine how components need to be arranged on a circuit board in order to create an efficient design. Furthermore, I know how to use the tools at my command to connect the components and make the circuit board function as it should.

The job can be challenging and demanding at times, and most of the people you know and interact with won’t have much of a clue as to what it is that you are actually doing. But on the other hand, you will get to experience an incredible feeling of accomplishment when you see your design working as it was intended. I don’t know why you would want to be a PCB layout designer—only you can know that reason, but I imagine that you’re here because you’re interested in pursuing and finding creative solutions for difficult designs. So dive in, and if you find your treasure then you know you’re in the right field.

Common Confusions Over PCB Layout Designers

It never ceases to amaze me how often people misunderstand what it is that I do. Especially when I describe myself as a “PCB Designer,” it is not unusual to get a blank stare in return. Even my coworkers don’t always seem to have much of an idea as to what it is that I do, or am doing when I complete my work. There are others who have point blank demanded I tell them why in the world anyone would want to do something like this.

Much of my job appears to just be moving lines and shapes around on a computer screen, to the untrained eye; however, I promise, to anyone wanting to know more about what the PCB designer they work with does, this is hardly a game. We’re not ‘creative time wasters,’ and we’re not relics from an older system. Being able to effectively assuage these concerns, too, is part of the job expectations for a PCB layout designer.

Constructor wearing equipment making confused or wondering gesture with hands
Most people have no idea what a PCB Layout actually is

The Attributes of a PCB Layout Designer

Unlike in video games where you can minimize and maximize your attributes to focus solely on the skills you need, being a PCB designer requires some of the most diverse combinations of skills that I know of. A large part of the designer’s role is to utilize their creative thoughts to problem solve board design challenges; however, this creativity is only enabled if a layout designer has the technical capacity to enact their ideas. Here is a list of what I find to be important traits:

  1. Great attention to detail: When your job entails trying to map solutions to minor adjustment changes, or has you working with materials that don’t fill your whole palm, you need to be able to focus on the details.

  2. Keeping up-to-date on industry trends: In an industry where new technology is constantly popping up, and new software is enabling more efficient and smart design solutions, ignoring industry trends will mean more work for you down the line.

  3. Learning new design techniques: While this seems to be one of the most common-sense needs for a PCB Layout Designer, it can be easy to make a habit of your layout designing by finding a few techniques which work and applying them to your layouts. But this may encourage continuous errors, or enable new errors to pop up as your layouts become more complex.

  4. Long hours: Just like with any job, it is good to keep a strong idea of what you need to get done, and when it needs to get done. But sometimes, even with the best priority management, you will have to complete designs and work extra hours to meet deadlines.

  5. Common ground problem solving: The biggest wrench in many of these plans is the amount of time a layout designer will spend managing others and managing design demands from multiple sources. As a designer, you will need to manage and balance those that you work with. Often you will be the rope in a tug-of-war between engineering and manufacturing, and it will be up to you to find a solution that will satisfy both sides.

Illustration of cartoon diver
Some of the largest challenges you'll face will feel like the most rewarding to complete.

Here's the Treasure at the Bottom of the Ocean

After everything that I’ve said so far, you may also be wondering why anyone would want to be a PCB layout designer. It still might not be for you, but these are some reasons why I love PCB layout design:

  • Your work will challenge you: Designing a circuit board so that it meets the manufacturing specifications and works as it is intended will keep you on your toes.

  • You will be exposed to new ideas: Technology is constantly changing, and you will always looking at better ways to accomplish your task.

  • Decent working conditions: More than likely, you won’t be designing boards outside in the rain or snow. While that might not be everyone’s goal, it certainly is one of mine.

  • Good salary: Most PCB layout designers make a good salary, and it isn’t uncommon to make a great salary. While I can’t give specific numbers, I hope these superlatives can offer some guidance.

  • Seeing what you create come to life: One of the greatest joys that I have is in seeing the designs that I create come to life in the products that my company markets. There is nothing better than seeing an appliance, computer, or cell phone work because it contains a PCB in it that I’ve designed.

  • Creating hardware: Although most people won’t understand what it is that you do, most everyone will be impressed when you can show them what you’ve created. I have a wall at home where I’ve hung examples of some of my PCB designs, and I always get questions about what they are and what I do. It is no small joy of mine to tell their stories.

I am a PCB layout designer because I love it. I get to do something every day that is challenging, fulfilling, and rewarding. How about you? Are you ready to step into the world of PCB design and enjoy the same experiences that I have described? If you are, then you will need to work with design tools that can enable you to be successful from the start. When you need to access an easy-to-use PCB layout tool that includes everything needed to build high-quality manufacturable circuit boards, look no further than CircuitMaker. In addition to easy-to-use PCB design software, all CircuitMaker users have access to a personal workspace on the Altium 365 platform. You can upload and store your design data in the cloud, and you can easily view your projects via your web browser in a secure platform.

Start using CircuitMaker today and stay tuned for the new CircuitMaker Pro from Altium.

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