DISCLAIMER : This is a post for people looking to get into the design industry working for themselves as interior designers. It is extremely long. I've written it late at night, all in one sitting, because I know it's the only time I'll have to do it. I'm sure it's full of typos and not my finest writing work, but I hope you get the general idea. Here is the one and only picture, obviously taken on an iPhone, because we need something decent to look at for the landing page:
One of the most frequently asked questions we get, whether by email or social media, isn't related to product or paint color. It's something like "I don't have a design degree, but I want to be an interior designer...what do I do?"
I didn't start out with a design degree, so this is my story. And I share it with so many other amazingly talented designers like Nate Berkus, Lauren Liess, and Jonathan Adler to name a few. There's so much to say on this topic and I while there simply isn't enough hours in the day to respond to everyone that asks, I hope that this post is helpful. This is probably the longest post I've ever written, but if this is a question that you've asked, I think it's going to be instrumental in guiding and inspiring you to take your next steps. So grab some coffee or a glass of wine and settle in.
First, a few disclaimers:
1. This isn't about degree vs. non-degree designers. I think many of us would choose a different major if we had college to do over again. For me personally, I don't know if I would have. If I was writing this post even a year ago, I would have definitely said yes- I should have absolutely studied design. But I'm realizing now that skills I learned with my journalism degree and my previous job in publishing were, for me, what got me out there.
2. This is straight talk advice. I am not telling you any of this to discourage you. If you've got a talent and want to turn into a career, you should go for it, but understand how to go for it and understand that it's a lot.
3. This is a lot of info. You can probably find it on a zillion podcasts. It's also all info I wish I would have had spelled out for me when I first started. I absolutely love talking shop and business, so I'm happy to share, but please understand that to be successful in this or pretty much any other professional pursuit, you cannot rely on things being handed to you. I'm not saying you have to relentlessly hustle and ignore all else, but you do have to work for and seek out what is needed for your business specifically. If you're looking for someone to do it for you, you're not ready. That's not to say you can't work in the industry. In fact, there are plenty of cool ways to work in the design industry without working for yourself as an interior designer. But if this is what you want, understand you have to work for it, and that might look like a lot different than what you see on Instagram or elsewhere.
So with all that being said, if you're starting out without a degree, you have to accept a few realizations from the get-go:
Working in clients homes is not like working in your own home.
This sounds obvious, but there's a lot we can gloss over when we're sitting in our kitchen or living room, looking around, thinking "Hey, I'm really good at this." Accomplishing beautiful things in your own home or space is amazing and a good gauge for talent and taste, but you're not your own client. In your own space, you have the luxury of whatever timeline you want and actually living with the space, making organic tweaks and lots of trial and error without ever being afraid of firing yourself. Often, you're not working within a framework of professional design process or presentation. This is an important distinction to make in deciding if you really want to pursue this professionally.
Become a student of design first.
When I first got my feet wet in design (meaning I was thinking about it, but hadn't taken on any clients), the internet wasn't the booming resource it is now. And while you absolutely should take advantage of resources like podcasts and blogs relating to the trade, I think it's important to really study the elemental facets of design. Your design intuition should be a given. This means, you should have some sense of what your aesthetic is and what you can do. But it so important to really, truly study design work. Become a student of designers and work that inspires you. Do a deep dive into studying the composition of space, how symmetry is or is not achieved, what objects are used to style, how color is used. These are the innate aspects of design. I can't speak from 100% experience, since as we've established, I didn't go to design school, but these are truly the things I just don't think you can teach. They have to be felt, deeply observed, and put into practice instinctively. Yes, there are guidelines and theory. But at the end of they day, I really believe design work is about the designer's intuition and talent. That's not all, but that's the baseline. And studying design in this way will help you begin to channel your own creative instincts.
Get yourself together.
This is the business side and I'm just going to hit some bullet points here.
Settle on your legal business name.
Be mindful of what's already out there, trademarks, and establishing your own trademark. Trust me on this, do your research and protect what you're establishing. And if you fall in love with something but it already belongs to someone else, don't push it. Move on to something else. It's always better to be original. Plus, it would be no fun to have to rebrand after finding out the hard way that you're infringing on someone else's brand. Once you've done this, get yourself set up legally. At minimum, that's establishing a tax ID, securing your domain name, and I highly recommend establishing your trademark with the help of a trademark attorney (you may want to wait on this only until you have your logo). It's up to you to find out what other requirements there are in your state.
Establish your brand identity.
This is not the best time to DIY if graphic design isn't your thing. If you are not able to put together a professional-looking logo, website and business card, invest in your business and hire a professional. This is unbelievably important. While your portfolio is a showcase of your work, these elements of the presentation of your business establish your taste and level of professionalism. If your website, logo or business cards look janky, you will attract either no clients or janky clients and you will hate your job. If you need help deciding if you should be hiring a graphic designer, you should probably just hire a professional. It is amazing what a well designed brand identity will do for how you see yourself professionally and the momentum it can generate.
Get photographed + social.
Maybe even before you launch your website, get your Instagram going. Think about what you are presenting and how you are presenting it. To this end, it's really important to team up with a photographer to shoot any work you want to share. If you don't have a lot of work under your belt, which you probably don't, get creative. I'll be honest, when I first started I bought and returned so many things to style and stage for the sake of portfolio material. A photographer can help you to get the max content out of these spaces. Get some head shots and of you in action.
And I'll say this too: be careful about posting work that isn't yours. It's easy to build an Instagram account filled with other people's work that inspires you, but false advertisement is a fine line. If you have to do this in order to fill your feed, do so minimally and always, always ALWAYS give credit to the original source. It also personally irks me to no end when someone will put their own hashtag or even tag themselves in other people's work. This isn't about competition. It's about integrity. And if you're re-posting the work of another designer in your market, don't. First, because it's definitely infringing. Second, even if you're doing it purely from a standpoint of admiration, just ask yourself if Chick-fil-A would ever advertise how good another restaurant's chicken sandwich is. Obviously bad business. And if that sounds harsh, being in business for yourself might not be the best path for you.
Make sure that your bio is presenting you clearly and setting whatever tone you want it to set. Consider your hashtags thoughtfully. Don't expect growth over night. But do research best social media practices and put thought here. It's the best way to get your work out to the world, find your voice (do your captions portray your business as fun? Edgy? Luxury? What's consistent with your brand and how are you showing it here?) and show what you have going on. One of my favorite social media tools is Planoly because it allows us to plan and review our social media in advance so it doesn't take up more time than it needs to but also prioritizes its value to our business.
Research processes and establish your own.
You can google this and find chatter about it on so many podcasts. You might not have any clients yet, but run through these processes like they're a game play and be ready to pivot when you do get to put them in action if needed. This is crucial to your professionalism and gaining the trust of your clients. It also allows you to trust yourself and as you begin to fine tune these practices you can begin to trust your process too.
Set your rate or fee structure reasonably.
There's no formula for this, but it helps to know what others in your market are doing. Be realistic about your worth and keep track of your hours if you are billing hourly. Bill on time.
Get a contract.
Every single job should have a contract. Link up with an attorney for this and make sure you have one. This is your protection, your guide and your legitimacy in so many ways.
Figure out who your clientele is how to get to them.
This is crucially important, but I don't feel like I'm totally an expert here and I don't think it's one-size-fits all. I can tell you for an hour who our ideal client is. This is step one and spending some time thinking about this and writing it down will help you focus. But in terms of marketing, in all honesty, we don't put a lot into that anymore. We're basically word of mouth and have, I think, done a lot to put out what attracts who we want to work with.
I gained momentum with Houzz when I first started ten years ago, but today I would not recommend partnering with them to anyone. And honestly the kind of projects you are looking to attract depends on what you are truly able to take on professionally. This is also where I tell you to be honest with your clients about where you are professionally. It's ok for your clients to know that you're just starting out. So when things go well with them and they continue to call on you through the years, they'll understand why you've raised your rate from "I'm just starting out" to "Established industry powerhouse."
I think you have to be patient in this and believe that what is meant to be yours will be. One of the best things to do is to pitch work you've done for publication, which is essentially free advertising. Amy Flurry is amazing resource for this process. Also be wary of any cold calls for advertising opportunities. I promise you, you'd be better off lighting cash on fire. The return on investment is very likely 0%.
Set up your accounts and get ready for High Point!
If you don't know what High Point Market is, Google it and get yourself there. Take as many educational events as you can. I've found that the most helpful events have been the ones with designers who's careers are truly inspiring. Sometimes the "trend reports" or "marketing gurus" are a bust. But sitting in on talk with Bunny Williams for an hour? You'll get more out of that than anything. Don't worry about the designer's aesthetic. Focus on their career success. That's who you want to learn from. And set up your accounts. You don't have to wait for High Point to do this and it's definitely a time investment you can make on the front end. Learn how to purchase as a wholesaler and protect your profit margins! Also, learn how to manage logistics like a wholesaler, which means freight, receiving, claims processes, etc.
Ok, if you've made it this far, you're showing promise. I'm writing this in one sitting because I'm afraid if I don't I'll never post it. So I'm just going to throw out a few good, bad and ugly real life scenerios of the job for your consideration.
Let's start with ugly because I want to end on a high note:
Here's an ugly scenario we've encountered and one that's a drop in the bucket of the design community as a whole:
Work with client to design and build beautiful house that you can't wait to complete and shoot. Client sells house before completion. Client begins another house which you design and build and it is incredibly awesome. You have put your heart into every amazing interior architectural detail, kitchen design, etc. Progress shots get rave reviews. Client wants to sell house. You stage house for free to at least get some pictures of your hard and amazing work. Client cannot sell house, and asks to furnish on a very low budget to rent. Client keeps house and wonders why furniture that they approved looks low budget. Client wants to refurnish, does not pay invoice for weeks, meets only once to discuss, and does not understand when it cannot be furnished, high-end, in two weeks. Client threatens to fire you and potentially allow another designer come in and have the final photoshoot and credit for house you designed after you have been with them for years. Client is not satisfied with blood sweat and tears you have put in to reach unrealistic deadline that you only agreed to because you want so badly to complete the house that you started. Client wants to return almost half of what they approved to put in the house. Client does not pay final invoice for almost two months and tries to contact your wholesale vendors directly regarding items they have not paid for.
Furniture arrives damaged. Furniture arrives with no/incorrect assembly hardware. Furniture arrives in the wrong upholstery. Furniture does not arrive. This is the dark side of earning a profit margin. This is your responsibility to your client. And it happens. All. The. Time.
Projects come together beautifully. You communicate clearly and often, setting realistic expectations, and when things do go wrong you build equity with your client that you will handle them. You make clients lives easier and their spaces beautiful. They really love you and you really love them. Your work gets published. Your team grows. Your creativity flows. You're fulfilled doing something that puts order and beauty into the world while being your own boss and building something you love.
One last thing: don't get into this or let yourself be lead by ego. Do everything for the sake of the good design that your clients hired you for. It's ok, necessary and smart to promote your business. When you get into the ego high, you're in it for the wrong reasons. And it will show in your work, which will slip. Stay focused and do what you need to do to stay creative so that you're putting out work that speaks for itself.
Wow. If you made it this far, you deserve some kind of college credit or something. I truly have never written a post this long. I really do hope it's helpful and informative. There's so much more to be learned and shared, but I think this will push you in the right direction. For more, I'd recommend the podcast A Well Designed Business. And in terms of self-education, I'd leave you with this last thought. You're not alone here. There are many people who want to get into design and there are lot of people capitalizing on it. I'm NOT saying that everyone who offers a paid-for course is a scam artist. But I have 1000% been blown away by some really bad advice given from people trying to sell something (I'm looking at you "Ivy University"). When taking your next steps and gleaning guidance, always look at the source. How experienced are they? Do they have a career or design company you'd want to emulate? Are they putting out this material because they aren't making it as a designer and why do think that is? Just saying consider the source.
Be inspired. Believe in yourself. Don't be offended easily. If I had a dollar for every time (usually a man) told me to "just look on Pinterest" I'd be able to retire. Know your value. Stay humble and always be willing to learn from what goes well and what doesn't (hello...I learned a lot from my "ugly.")
The truth is, I think a lot of people have good taste. I don't think a lot of people understand how to make a career out of it. But if you work at it, if you believe in your talent and are willing to develop it, you can. With or without a degree.