How to Become an Interior Designer

Contrary to popular and naïve belief, your mother, as much as she may try to convince you otherwise, is probably not an interior designer. She may claim to be an interior designer, and she may, in fact, do some interior design work for your house, but to call everyone who dabbles in decorating their home an interior designer is insulting to real interior designers. The reason it is insulting is because while some think interior design is just about choosing the furniture and color scheme for a particular room or space, it is actually far more complicated and nuanced than that. Professional interior designers and decorators don’t just have a knack for picking aesthetically pleasing chairs and drapes, they usually also boast a bachelor’s degree in design from an accredited institution that comes with a solid foundation of design principals, an understanding of how to use space, tons of experience in the design studio, and technical skills and knowledge that are often forgotten about in the world of design.

Interior design is considered to be a hobby by many but for the talented few willing to sacrifice time and effort, it is a full-blown career and it can be an exciting one for those lucky enough to get their foot in the door. Aspiring interior designers may be drawn to the profession by a love or passion for design, but it also might make them feel pretty good if they knew that the industry was also growing rather rapidly. According to a State of the Industry Report done by the American Society of Interior Designers, employment for interior designers is growing and even outpacing the average growth for other occupations. The number of interior design firms is also growing and, thanks in large part to a sharp uptick in residential spending, industry sales eclipsed $6 billion again in 2014. Of course growing industries, especially ones tied to incredibly popular industries like design, can be both a blessing and a curse. There is nothing more exciting than working in a growing field and understanding the impact you are having on the economy, on yourself, and on others around you. But success and potential wealth bring out competition, and the fact that interior design firms and interior designers are multiplying rapidly means that aspiring interior designers can expect stiff competition not only for placement in a degree program but also when it comes to finding gainful employment.

The professional interior designers we interviewed will all tell you that there is no hard or fast path to success in the industry and that each interior designer is going to have unique educational and professional experiences. There are some who prefer to work in a large-firm setting, but they have to deal with corporate structure, office politics, and the potential censoring of their creative expression. Other interior designers prefer to strike out on their own and create their own business, only many underestimate the marketing and public relations work that comes with running your own business and others struggle to enjoy the more technical and financial side of the business as it impedes on their ability to spend time doing design work. There is no right or wrong way to approach your career in interior design as even the experts we spoke to all came from different walks of life and all took different paths to arrive where they are now. But all of them will tell you that it is best to get your feet wet in the industry before committing to it as a career, and that if you do commit to it, you should be prepared to work very hard and you shouldn’t expect to get rich right away.

None of this is meant to dissuade interested parties from pursuing a career in interior design. The interior designers we spoke to all glowingly talked about how much they love their job and how much fun it is to pursue a passion like design as a career. Many also talked about the impact of creating a lasting piece of art and how, no matter how superficial it sounds, interior design can make a meaningful impact on people’s lives. We just merely want those interested in the career to have a good idea of what they are getting themselves into. In the interest of helping aspiring interior designers find all that information, we not only asked professionals to share their experience and advice, but we also created a handy visual to serve as an overview of what the industry looks like now.

WHAT THE EXPERTS ARE SAYING

Jenna Pizzigati-Coppola

Pizzigati Designs – Owner

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I graduated from a community college on Long Island with my Associate Degree in Residential Interior Design and then went on to graduate from a top design school in New York City, School of Visual Arts, with a Bachelor’s Degree in Commercial Interior Design. I’ve had an exciting journey in the interior design field filled with great opportunities and a fun array of projects along the way. I’ve done it all- from high end residential to hospitality, health care to retail… I’ve covered every aspect of design and enjoyed every minute of it along the way!

It was four years ago that I took a confident leap into opening my own firm. I wanted to satisfy the need for eco-friendly and eco-chic interior design right here in NYC by use of my distinct eclectic aesthetic. I typically start the day early to comb through emails, which takes anywhere from 1-2 hours depending on how busy I am. Then, I always devote the rest of my morning to marketing, spreading the word about my company and gaining the interest of prospect clients. I blog, guest post, tweet and pin my way into the public eye which I feel is the lifeline of my business. The afternoon is strictly devoted to clients and their project needs. This ranges anywhere from putting together design plans, meeting with clients, sourcing for great furniture options, and receiving deliveries and overseeing installations of my final creations on job sites.

I know this might sound cliché… but I LOVE every aspect of my job and what I do! I have no dislikes or ever dread anything I do in a day’s work… It’s my passion and I consider myself very lucky to actually have a 9-5 that I enjoy and truly love.

Advice

Don’t be afraid to take the leap
Success does not happen overnight, all good things take time. But still, go for it! It’s an exciting and rewarding career that I highly recommend to anyone who is creative.

New York City is a great place to start
If possible, I suggest to get your education right here in New York City. It is the design capital of the United States, and the city is lucky enough to not only have the best schools in the country but also to be the home of most of the top interior design firms in the country. You can start a career somewhere else and still be successful, but it never hurts to surround yourself with the best and brightest of the industry.

Get experience before you commit
Before you dive into the pool, be sure to get your feet wet first! I highly suggest starting with an internship position so you can learn all aspects of the interior design industry from start to finish with an experienced professional to guide you. This is also a great start because an inside tip is that a majority of the big name firms will hire their interns for full-time positions after they earn their degree.

Lee Davis

Associate Professor of Interior Design at Kendall College of Art and Design

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I received my Bachelor’s Degree from Kendall in Interior Design (KCAD) and practiced contract design for more than 20 years. As I made the decision to join forces with another interior designer and create a small design studio, I was also afforded the opportunity to try some teaching at KCAD –and discovered that I loved it! So after many years as a designer, I found myself also as a student again as I went back to school for an advanced degree in Environmental Design from Michigan State University, so that I could pursue teaching full-time. For anyone thinking about teaching in a design field, I would highly recommend working in the field for a number of years before moving into teaching full-time because there is so much that happens out in the field that simply can’t be replicated in a classroom.

The experience I bring to students helps me to give more concrete examples of effective design and share insights that can only come from the work I did before moving into my current role. I am still a partner in a small design studio: Lake Affect Design Studio, and continue to do some work as I’m able to fit it around my academic obligations.When you’re in design, there isn’t really a “typical” day. And when working with many other trades, the day starts quite early! There can be many meetings –with contractors or clients or reps, and getting focused design time usually needs to be scheduled into the calendar so that work can be done! The best part of the days are working collaboratively. When working for clients, there needs to be collaboration with other designers to brainstorm ideas and try out new thoughts –test different approaches to solving problems. And as an educator, the best part of the day is working with the students – seeing how ideas are taken in and interpreted as they learn design skills and processes on their school projects. So collaboration is what I like best about my job –both as a designer, and as an educator.

What I like least is what I refer to as the “paperwork”. In design, that tends to be the time sheets and the billing aspect of the work (and in a small firm – designers are doing all of that work!). As an educator, it is the grading – having to attach a grade to work that I know took many hours of time still gives me a great deal of pause. I often wish that I could give grades on effort; however, ultimately the work has to stand on its own as good design regardless of the time it took to put together. And only great design should get the great grades.

Advice

Get an understanding of the current landscape of the industry
I wish I would have had a better sense of how diverse the design field is and how flexible an interior design degree can be. There are graduates who are working in the textiles field, in product design, as client liaisons and as trend watchers for large industry clients. The field is vast and fascinating!

Formal education programs are great, as long as they are accredited
To pursue an education in interior design, first look for accredited schools. KCAD has been continuously accredited since an accrediting body was formed in the mid-1970s. What was once known as FIDER (Foundation for Interior Design Education and Research) is now CIDA (Council for Interior Design Accreditation) and this accrediting body reviews schools, their curriculum, the student work and the community to determine if the program is meeting the rigorous professional standards that have been set by their board.

Potential students can find accredited schools at the CIDA website, and accredited schools will note this on their own websites. KCAD finds itself situated in the Grand Rapids area surrounded by furniture manufacturers and great design influences. We partner with our community resources and bring in many design professionals, as well as visit these firms to see what is new and innovative in our design world. The furniture manufacturers produce and use great research that advances the field of design, and KCAD is often privileged to work with these researchers and designers on projects that go into our students’ portfolios.

Have fun!
For those looking into interior design, I would say “congratulations!” It is a very rewarding career option, and if you love people and can grasp the incredible impact – psychologically and physically – that interior design has on the occupants of a space, then you’ll absolutely love the work you will have the opportunity to do as a designer. Always know that a designer helps a client live and work better, more efficiently and more comfortably – which makes those clients more successful. So the saying might be re-phrased as: behind every successful person is an interior designer!

Any time a student has an opportunity to work in a studio as an intern, that is a fantastic time to see the world of design, meet clients and contractors, see projects come together, and decide if a career in interior design is the right move for them. But fair warning! Once you see how you have the power to transform space there’s no going back! You’ll be hooked for life!

Desha Peacock

Sweet Spot Style

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I am what you would call a multi-passionate person, and thus, have a very colorful educational/professional background. I tend to lead with my heart and intuition, which means that it hasn’t been a straight and narrow path for me for sure but definitely interesting! My first passion was around international travel, so I received an honors degree in International Relations and Spanish from the University of Arkansas. Later, I received my Master’s Degree in Service, Leadership and Management from The SIT Graduate Institute. I worked in that field for a while but always craved doing something more creative.

I’ve had over 40 jobs in my life, and it seemed I was destined for spending my entire life trying to find my higher purpose, which was very much related to a career for me. Because of that, I was always curious about what people did for a living and had a natural talent for helping others discover their ideal career path.

For four years I worked as the Director of Career Development at Marlboro College in Southern Vermont. Ironically, it was during that time that I discovered what my own ideal path was. I started to take my own advice and began seriously exploring what other creative people did for a living. I started a local TV show (The Desha Show) to document the stories of people who were living in their Sweet Spot (a self-defined place of success). During my first interview, I met Author and Book Shaman, Suzanne Kingsbury. She introduced me to an agent who was meant to help me grow the TV show, but I ended up with a contract to write my first book called Create the Style You Crave On A Budget You Can Afford.

The book has launched my creative career. I quit my academic job and started my own business as a Lifestylist, helping people find their Sweet Spot in the areas of home, career and personal style. I believe in creative expression and the power of creating a life that is meaningful and fulfilling and that your career, home and personal style should reflect the essence of who you are. When that happens, we are in alignment and are able to attract more of that goodness into our lives. So, that is my job. That’s what I help people do and I LOVE it!

I love setting my own schedule. I love being able to work around my daughter’s schedule instead of leaving her in after-care all day. I absolutely LOVE that my work is not just work –I’ve finally found work that I love and that is meaningful, fulfilling, creative, and allows me the freedom to create the life I crave. What I dislike is that I’m on the computer a lot. I think that’s not super healthy. That’s why I walk and bike my daughter to school and mediate daily.

Advice

Find a mentor; they are important
I wish I would have had a mentor who could help me think outside of the box and help me get to this path faster. I knew I wasn’t going to find my job listed in some career book. I needed one-on-one help and encouragement to help me feel ok to explore more creative venues.

Make sure to do a lot of your own research
Do your research. Talk to other people in the field. Do informational interviews (like I did on my show). Look at how others in your chosen industry live beyond the actual job. Think about and ask yourself if you like the lifestyle that goes with the career. Also, you could take the Myers-Briggs and think about what career best matches your personality. You can also hire a lifestyle coach with career development experience like me!

Don’t let formal education get in the way of your dreams
I have had no formal studies in interior design. I also have had no formal studies for most of my jobs, but it didn’t stop me from doing work I love and making a fine living at it.

What Kind of Education Do I Need to Become an Interior Designer?
  • Pratt Institute
    One of the best design schools in the country makes a logical home for one of the finest interior design programs in the country. Located in New York City, the aforementioned interior design capital of the world, Pratt offers students access to incredible resources, networking opportunities, and employment opportunities all in their backyard. The program is designed to be not only rigorous but also comprehensive as students will learn the ins-and-outs of design, as well as design history and context before moving on to more complicated topics such as spatial design, architecture, computer-aided design, technical design, and composition. The school understands the program’s reputation, so it staffs the program with some of the finest faculty in the country and offers students the opportunity to work in some of the finest innovative design studios anywhere in the world.
  • The Ohio State University
    The Interior Design program at The Ohio State University is rapidly becoming one of the school’s most popular and most prestigious programs, and they have the numbers to back it up. Students in the program get a crash course in design thinking and strategy as well architecture and spatial design, and the school has even put a strong emphasis on sustainable design strategies as well. Students ping back and forth between hands-on experience in the studio and lectures from members of the world-class faculty. Students are also expected to complete a final project that demonstrates their understanding of the subject material and skill as a designer. As we said, the numbers back up the reputation as the school doesn’t struggle to place alumni in jobs, graduate school, or anything else.
  • California College of the Arts
    CCA has earned a reputation as one of the best art and design schools on the West Coast, and programs like interior design are a big reason why. The program challenges students to think outside the box and embraces all forms of design learning, including study models, digital renderings, and full-scale installations. Students not only learn design methods, they test their efficacy and are encouraged to put their own spin on the more traditional strategies. The faculty consists of some of the most accomplished interior designers in the country and the resources available to students are second to none. Graduates have plenty of opportunities thanks to the school’s active alumni base and working relationships with potential employers.
  • School of the Art Institute of Chicago
    This program combines nearly every aspect of interior design into its curriculum. Its emphasis is on architecture but is also intensive training into the world of interior design. The program includes studio work for conceptual orientation; seminars framed in reading and discussion; case study labs that develop technical skills and real world proficiency; and every day lectures delivered by some of the most accomplished professionals in the space. As students’ progress, the coursework becomes more demanding, and the program asks a lot out of its students through extensive studio work. But all that hard work pays off in the end as the school also has one of the best placement rates in the country for programs of its kind.

GETTING MY FOOT IN THE DOOR

Our experts couldn’t agree on much, but they did agree on one thing –-get your feet wet in this industry before you make the commitment. In interior design, getting your feet wet means utilizing all of your connections or your programs’ connections to land an internship. These internships are helpful in two ways. The first is that they give aspiring interior designers an opportunity to learn about the industry from the professionals. They learn what a day in the life of a professional interior designer is like, they learn how to deal with clients and manage expectations, and they learn design techniques and tips from people already doing it. The other big reason to get an internship is that most employers tend to look to their interns first when they are making hiring decisions. It may not seem like a great opportunity, but to get your foot in the door internships are the way to go.