So you want to be an Interior Designer?
I get 2-3 emails a week from eager design hopefuls, each of them with a similar story, wanting to learn more about how to break into the industry. Most are unsure if they should do a 4 year degree a two year diploma or *GASP!* face-palm! …. an online course. I am always more than happy to answer the doe-eyed emails of people at the beginning of a new career but, I am sadly running out of time for responses and can’t stand “copy-paste”… so here goes:
My OFFICIAL “I want to be an Interior Designer… now what?” Advice
Its time you started to really do some research so that your next step is to apply for an Accredited University Interior Design degree program. Following this blog post you should at the very least be prepared to take on your education. Please, Ask yourself the following… and honestly answer each one before skipping ahead to the answers,
- Do I really know what an Interior Designer is?
- Let’s dive deeper… what is the difference between an Interior Designer and an Interior Decorator?
- Do I want a desk job, all day client interaction, spend my time hands on in a workshop, color pretty pictures, paint walls and fluff pillows or be on a site with a hardhat?
- Can I use both sides of my brain for creative and practical problem solving?
- Do I want to love what I do or do what makes me the most money?
Don’t go back to Google just yet desperately searching for answers to avoid failing my test… it’s not a test; it’s a confirmation for you to check off that you are ready to take the leap. Keep reading and I will help you answer some of the above and share with you some valuable advice that the design schools didn’t let you in on.
1. Q.What is an Interior Designer? A. to be technical, According to the American Society of Interior Designers… “The professional Interior Designer is qualified by education, experience and examination to enhance the function, safety and quality of interior spaces. Interior Design combines knowledge of building codes, critical and creative thinking, communication and technology for the purposes of improving the quality of life, increasing productivity, and protecting the health, safety and welfare of the public. Interior design includes specialties in residential, commercial and institutional interiors, including: homes, hotels, restaurants, schools and universities, dormitories, office and industrial interiors, health care facilities and nursing homes.”
2. Q. What is the difference between an Interior Designer and an Interior Decorator? A. in short… a degree. Often commonly referred to as “cushion tosser’s“, “pillow fluffer’s“, “paint picker’s” and “pencil pushers” by our Architectural and Engineering peers. Interior Designers are adamantly opposed to being referred to as decorators. It’s no surprise really as the relatively new industry of Interior Design started out as a basic decorating job and over the years has moved more and more into an architectural and interior engineering role. *insert Architects and Engineers rolling their eyes*. It is however true… Designers are spending less and less hours “decorating” a space and more time coordinating MEP (Mechanical, Electrical and Plumbing), working alongside Architects and spending countless hours drafting details, reviewing shop drawings, answering RFI’s (Request for Information) and issuing SI’s (Site instructions). That being said, there is no shame in becoming a decorator, some people do have the gift of taste and a little business savvy to have a go at a business that focuses on residential fluff and color. The job even includes occasional home staging and tv opportunities talking about the color of the season and how to organize your desk and make the most of your spring cleaning…in fact I would say most home design bloggers are just that, stay at home moms who start up a business, savvy entrepreneurs and crafty home bodies. That’s great and I love it…. But it is NOT Interior Design. Don’t let Trading Spaces and other junkfood tv shows throw you… you cannot design and execute a space that achieves all of a clients goals, longevity, sustainability and comfort in 7 hours. Think Sarah Richardson, Candice Olson, and many episodes of Home Time, This Old House and Bob Villa to get a better idea of what the industry is about more realistically (on a residential level anyways).
3. Q. How do you see your work days? A. I would say I have been through a few design firms and have a pretty good understanding of how a typical designer’s day is spent. I spend 70-80% of my time in front of a computer answering emails, drawing in CAD or Revit, sourcing materials or inspiration, typing up project briefs or pulling together a concept report. There is no such thing as hand drafting anymore…. There is sketching and then there is CAD or Revit… Hand drafting, while a great skill to learn to understand line weights and your own personal level of anal retentive obsessive compulsive disorders… is no longer the industry norm. Depending on the Project I can often times be spending hours upon hours in client and consultant meetings working out the design details, coordination and components that will pull a project through to completion. This of course followed up with a few more hours in front of the computer doing meeting minutes. And then there are the visits to site where you learn how to really grow as a designer and as a person. It is on site that you will learn all the little things that made the details you did wrong, why fine print means everything, why your coordination meetings were so critical and how to speak to contractors and trades people. It is on site that you will learn your mistakes… always take every opportunity to visit! The most fun 10% of my job is Design… making pretty pictures and renderings to wow my clients, picking furniture, lighting, hardware, sanitary ware etc. Collaborating with a 3D renderer or doing renderings and hand sketches on my own is one of the most exciting but typically fastest paced processes in the Construction process. Is all of the above what you expected? Me neither, but its fun and challenging anyways!
4. Q. Can you use your Right and Left brain? A. As I mentioned in Answer 3, most of a Designers day is spent coordinating details, emails, research etc. Some of that uses a bit of a creative approach but for the most part it is pretty analytical and dare I say sometimes mathematical. The other portion of the job is creative, envisioning a 3 dimensional space and filling it with complementary things to make it function. Interior Design is a great balanced workout for both sides of your brain!
5. Q. Do Interior Designers make a lot of money? A. I am sure you have guessed it by now… While most Interior Designers (particularly on TV and in Magazines) look like glamorous elite must of them actually do live on tighter budgets, if they were lucky enough however they were smart enough to marry an engineer to compensate for their financial disposition. If you work for the man and earn your stripes up the big corporate Interior Design and Architecture firms you will eventually start making some decent money.. If you open your own practice you will probably be able to make more (granted you have some business skills) and if you work in sales the sky can be the limit depending on what kind of products you are representing. You have to love what you do to be successful in interior design so don’t choose a direction specifically for a money goal…. being the best at your niche will surely accelerate your career growth.
So… You applied to a good college or university. Don’t twiddle your thumbs until the first day of classes… get active. Here are my TOP 10 pieces of Advice for succeeding in Design school and scoring the best Internship:
1. Write your Christmas and Birthday wish list. You are going to need it as design school has a million hidden costs. Top items on the list? 1.) Interior Design Graphic Standards (book) by Kelsey Krus, 2.) Any book about design written by Francis Ching, 3.) A large drafting table – useful for more than just 2 semesters of drafting class this bad boy will keep you at home for your all nighters rather than stuck in the studio. Scan Craigslist, the classifieds, ask graduating design students or call up design firms to find one cheap or even free. 4.) a sketchbook, bag of pencils, scale and a measuring tape and every size of fineliner marker… brands to look for include Stadler, Fiber Pentel, NEVER ball point…. 5.) Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, AutoCad and Revit… (for most you can get a student edition or *cough* nvm) get any/all installed on your computer, while you are at it increase your RAM, get a good size usb stick and get a hard-drive for backups. (that little piece of advice will costs you your sanity in design school) 6.) Buy a large cutting mat, straight edge and exacto knives…. Most cities have stores dedicated to drafting and art supplies, or you can find what you are looking for online on stores like Colours.
2. Get Schooled before School. If you have the time/money/resources available apply for a class or two. If you can learn even just the basics of Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, AutoCAD or REVIT you will most likely be leaps and bounds ahead of your classmates. If you need to spice up your creativity level try taking some art classes, hand sketching, the art of perspectives, water color etc. can all help you unleash a more creative and well presented portfolio and school projects.
3. Collect imagery. Get on Pinterest…. Save every image that inspires you. Cut your favorite images out of magazines and file it in a binder by subject type. Stand in Chapters/Virgin and flip through ALL of the interior design/architecture magazines… if you know what design products and trends are out there you will be more successful in broadening your capabilities as a designer. Read blogs! Blogs are another great resource for finding products and inspiration images.
4. Attend Interior Design Shows. Meet every product rep. Get to know what products are on the market. Photograph everything. But be warned… don’t take everyone’s brochures as you likely will never look back on them. Rather, photograph each booth, take notes and business cards. Always keep a file on your computer of each design show you go to so you can reference back to the images at a later date when you need to recall certain companies or products. Its great to go to local “home and Garden” or “interior Design” shows but know that generally they are really far more targeted at home owners. If you want to get down and dirty with REAL interior design content try to attend the open to public day at The Merchandise Mart/NeoCon in Chicago, Greenbuild, IIDEX/NEOCon Toronto, Architectural Digest Home Show NYC, ICFF NYC, ISaloni Milan, Maison & Objet Paris or Imm Cologne.
5. Stop Caring about grades. Design school is like art school… every teacher will have a different grade, opinion and critique of your work. Fortunately for you this is a good preparation for the real world where clients are the same. Stop thinking about grades and start focusing on doing your best, believing in yourself and understanding the difference between constructive criticism and jealousy of your ideas! At this point it is also good to maybe try and prep your parents… your A+ and D- grades are going to make them go mad.
6. Save some money. Design School costs $$$…. but more importantly it costs a lot of time. In any university you are far more likely to see an entire class of interior designers in the studio at 1am than 4 business students. It is unfair but it is the nature of the beast. Working part time during design school can be difficult for more than 1 day per week.
7. Get a part time job or volunteer work. If you need to make money before or during design school you are best off working somewhere that will benefit your education and ultimately career. If you can do without maybe some volunteer positions can help you climb a few ladders. A few options for you: 1) Do minimum wage or free work for a design firm cleaning their sample library a few times a week. This will introduce you to some product reps, some designers, a ton of products and make you more familiar with how an office runs. 2) If you can work full time before design school maybe consider becoming a representative for a company that supplies to designers…. fabrics, furniture, flooring, lighting etc. This will give you in depth exposure to another side of the industry but most importantly will expose you to almost EVERY interior design firm in your city. Great way to meet with future bosses. 3) Work retail…. I mixed paint at General Paint during design school and loved it. Selling flooring, working at a hardware store, furniture store etc. are all other great ways of meeting professionals and learning more about products.
8. The Internship. Hopefully after completing all the above you are able to pull together a good portfolio…. Your portfolio has to stand out from the pack so make sure it is well done, thorough and represents who you are. Do your research to know what Design firms are in the city you want to do your internship. There are huge differences between Multidiscipline large scale firms and 2 person studios as well as established vs. new practices. Read up on each firm to learn who the head designers are (you never know where you may run into one of them…). Know that your first internship is NOT about designing a palace or the next Google office. It’s about learning what it’s like to be in a design office…. What the lay of the land is and if you like the atmosphere. You will learn a lot just from sitting and watching and asking a ton of questions. If you are lucky with a good internship you will have a good mentor and will have some time in the sample library (learning about products), sitting in a few meetings and maybe visiting a few construction sites. You may end up doing CAD libraries and stapling paper but the most important part is to make the most of the environment and people around you.
9. Advanced thinking. The sooner you can decide on a niche in the design world that interests you the better. Do you want to do Residential/Hospitality/Commercial/Healthcare/Retail/CruiseLine/Yacht etc. design? Do you want to work in a Multidisciplinary or Interiors only office? Do you want to work in a large scale or small scale firm? Do you want to start your own thing? Could you be a product representative? An interior design teacher or instructor? Do you want to do the business or design side of the industry? Do you want to branch off into furniture or textile design? Maybe you want to continue on to architecture school… there are hundreds of avenues that you can take your degree and the sooner you can narrow it down the more prepared you can make yourself for success.
10. Lighten up. I have a tendency to make things sound far bigger than they are…. Don’t be overwhelmed by all I have said and don’t try to do it all. If you can do any of the items I have mentioned your chances of getting into and succeeding in Interior Design school will be increased. But live a little, this is a fun industry J
And if you don’t like my advice… John’s advice works too:
A few people have asked me if now is a good time to get into the profession. My answer is ABSOLUTELY! If you are just getting into design school by the time you are out of school the economy will be very different than what it is now and most likely in your favor. Lucky you, as I know a lot of people who have graduated in the last few years and are struggling to officially enter the design workforce in the direction that interests them. But like I said, give it a few years and things will catch up again. Build yourself up slowly but make strategic moves that will make you stand out from the crowd.
Keep in mind…. once you finish design school you will consider Edna Mode from the Invincibles your icon. You need a personality like hers at least 3 days a week to make it in this industry. So have a martini and purse your lips when judging poor workmanship! (Side note: Not going to lie but Edna Mode is a dead ringer for one of my Interior Design professors from school…. name omitted)