Learn the Basics of Interior Design

As members of a service profession, designers work with a wide range of clients and complete both commercial and residential projects. Although most favor one or the other, many designers work at least part time in both fields, or try one field for a time and switch later on in their career. 

To succeed in the fast-paced interior design industry, it’s essential to not only be creative, artistic, and imaginative, but also disciplined, organized, and business-savvy. After all, interior design is about more than just achieving an aesthetic vision – it’s about finding clients and satisfying their need for a functional space; on budget and on time.  Interior designers must be comfortable meeting and dealing with potentially difficult clients. They listen effectively, convey ideas clearly, work collaboratively with contractors, architects, and service providers; and have excellent time management and budgetary skills. 

About 3 out of 10 interior designers are self-employed. Many more provide design services in architecture, furniture, and in home furnishing stores. Still others perform freelance design work while holding a salaried job in design or another field. 

To achieve any of these career paths, your inherent creativity and design prowess probably aren’t enough. This is an extremely competitive field, and to get noticed, you should seek a college degree in interior design, experience in the field, and professional certification. 


Learn Formal Concepts, Methods & Theory

Formal concepts are the terms and ideas that shape your design. These include color, shape, line, texture, scale, proportion, and other concepts. Having knowledge of these terms helps you figure out how to design an interior space. 

Design methods create the systematic framework for how you implement your designs. Perhaps one designer’s method includes hand-drafting and space planning while another prefers to walk around the space to be redesigned and make changes on an iPad they carry with them. It’s common for two designers to use the same design methods and come to completely different conclusions on how to design a space. That’s what makes interior design specific to each individual, and individually distinct. 

Design theory attempts to attach a reason to why some designs work and others don’t. Certain colors, shapes, lines, and textures evoke different feelings. Other principles of design such as balance, symmetry, contrast, and repetition make a space desirable or undesirable, depending on how they’re used. 

Interior design technique is all about “how.” How to use CAD and Google SketchUp to create floor plans, how to render drawings by hand, how to find the right furniture, and ultimately how to please the client.


Build a Strong Portfolio & Personal Brand

While still in design school, take high-quality photos of every completed project to start building a strong portfolio from day one of your training. Include pictures of hand-drawn sketches and drafts, sample boards, CAD and SketchUp drawings, models, as well as your resume. 

An impressive portfolio is the key to landing a job after graduation, where you can continue to build your portfolio and achieve your career goals.

Get involved in career-related extracurricular activities to start crafting a personal brand. Participate in art, architecture, language arts, and other programs. Take business classes that teach you the basic fundamentals of how to run a business. The goal of self-branding is to highlight your talents, interests, and accomplishments. 

A great way to start making industry connections is to become an American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) student member while still in school. Participate in a local chapter or organize your own if your school doesn’t have one. Then, participate in ASID chapter events to meet future colleagues and employers, receive additional training, and get your name out there.


Continue Growing Your Skills

Get Certified & Seek Continuing Education & Training

To certify your professional status, you must sit for the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) exam. To qualify to take the exam, you must have six years of combined education and professional work experience. 

Technical skills, design prowess, and business knowledge aren’t learned all at once and continuing education can keep a designer's competencies and skills up-to-date. You can also participate in life-long learning through the Interior Design Continuing Education Council (IDCEC), or receive training for established interior designers through a variety of nonprofit organizations. This training and business support is especially helpful for self-employed and freelance designers looking to better market their skills.

Get to Know Our Experts

Jenna Pizzigati-Coppola

  • Title:
  • Company:
    Pizzigati Designs
  • Where:
    New York, NY
  • Experience:
    12 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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.


    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

  • Title:
    Associate Professor of Interior Design
  • Company:
    Kendall College of Art and Design
  • Where:
    Big Rapids, MI
  • Experience:
    20+ years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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.


    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

  • Title:
  • Company:
    Sweet Spot Style
  • Where:
    Brattleboro, VT
  • Experience:
    5 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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.


    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.

    Interior Designer Infographic