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So, You Want to Be an Interior Designer. Now What?

So, You Want to Be an Interior Designer. Now What?

By McKenna Heck | October 31, 2017

You love interior design, but you’re trying to decide if it is your future career. Or, you’ve already entered into the industry but have some questions. Either way, you’re in the right place! This article dives into what interior designers do, the variety of job options one might have, and the best and busiest places to be.

Design by: Alan Tanksley, Inc.; Residential, Triplex in Gramercy Park, NYC – Click the image for more info.

First Things First, What is an Interior Designer?

Interior designers do a lot more than just make a room look beautiful. They create functional, practical and aesthetically pleasing spaces for a variety of clients. There are multiple design verticals to work in, from residential and hospitality, to commercial, retail, and government. Designers can freelance their work, get hired at a firm or open their own. But it isn’t all just fabric, colors, and furniture — while interior designers may select things like lighting and materials, they are also responsible for designing accessible spaces that meet building codes and procedures. Here are some tasks that an interior designer might perform:

  • Working with clients to come up with a design concept, project goals, and requirements
  • Determining how future users of the space will use it and move through it
  • Creating a timeline for the project and a budget with cost estimates
  • Sketching preliminary layouts by hand, redline, and repeat
  • Selecting furniture, lighting and finishes including materials, wall covering, and flooring
  • Utilizing computer-aided design (CAD) technology to finalize and render designs
  • Placing orders for the above materials and furnishings and supervising installation
  • Constantly coordinating and communicating with contractors, building architects, and the client
  • Upon completion, confirming that the project is indeed finished and the client is happy

As Nick May always says, an interior design business is only 40% design and 60% business. If you want to run a firm someday, you need to know the business side of things as well, like marketing, budgeting, staffing, etc…. or hire someone who does ;). 

Steps to Becoming an Interior Designer

Becoming an interior designer takes more than creativity — it usually helps to have some formal education under your belt. There are both Bachelor’s and Associate’s degrees related to interior design, and a few schools even offer Master’s degrees. Interior architecture and interior decorating are other related majors.

Interior design students generally study computer-aided design (CAD), hand drafting, building codes, drawing, architecture, ergonomics, spatial planning, furniture design, and other related subjects. Are you wondering if interior design school is right for you? This article by Nick May talks more deciding whether or not an interior design degree is right for you.

Some schools require that you receive a Bachelor of Fine Arts whereas at others you might acquire a Bachelor of Science. Be sure to note this difference and ask to see a potential schedule of classes. A Bachelor of Science might focus more on the technical side of interior design, and the psychology behind it. A Bachelor of Fine Arts is usually interiors-focused, and you might be required to take other art studios like drawing and painting. But every interior design program is unique, and taking the time to talk with someone at a school is going to be the best way to determine if their program is right for you. Also, the Council for Interior Design Accreditation accredits certain interior design programs. This means the school undergoes a rigorous review every few years, and having a degree from an accredited school looks good on your resume.

Sketches by: Garrow Kedigan – Click the images for more drawings.

If you decide not to go to school it is important to note that some states require interior designers to be licensed and others do not. In some states, you must be licensed to do design work. In other states, both licensed and unlicensed designers can do interior design work, but only those who are licensed can use the title “interior designer.” And in some, anyone can be an interior designer.

In the states that require licensure to use the “interior designer” title, designers must pass a state-approved exam. This exam is most often the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ), but it varies by state. These exams usually are a combination of a college degree, a written exam, and work experience. This file from the International Interior Design Association (IIDA) lists states and provinces with required exams, the name of said exam, and what the regulated title for an interior design is in that state.

Design by: AJC Design; Residential, Private Residence, NYC – Click the image for more info.

What Are the Qualities of A Good Interior Designer?

Creativity. While it takes more than just an artsy eye, creativity is essential to being a successful interior designer. Understanding color and having the ability to imagine what a space will look like (as well as communicate it in words and drawings) is important as well. Spatial arrangement, textiles and texture, and balance all fall under this category.

Multitasking. It’s unlikely that you will only have one project at a time. Interior designers are often tasked with handling multiple projects and the clients that come along with them. That’s where this next skill is really useful.

Organization. Handling multiple projects at the same time, especially all at different stages, takes an organized individual. Layout and arrangement of furniture and décor is a large component of this job as well.

Being a People Person. You will be working with clients, contractors and coworkers. This requires you to be a good listener and clear so that you can relay information to others you work with. You also need to know when to set your personal preferences aside and let the client choose. Being outgoing and personable will help make you stand out and make clientele excited about working with you.

Problem Solving. This comes into play most with the timeline and budget. Unexpected bumps come up all the time — for example, the tile the client loves is discontinued or their plumbing needs to be replaced. You can imagine the variety of issues that arise. It’s your job to find the solution. 

Design by: Virserius Studio; Hospitality, Marriott Charles de Gaulle, Paris – Click the image for more info.

So, What Kind of Interior Designer Do YOU Want to Be?

Great! You’re still here! That means you still want to become a designer. I bet you thought the decision-making process was over. Well, it’s not: now, it’s time to think about what you want to do in the industry. There is a wide variety of employment opportunities for interior designers. Do you want to design full homes? Or focus specifically on kitchens and bathrooms? Do you want to work with systems and furniture in commercial offices? Improve the environment in a healthcare setting? Create luxury hotels and restaurants? Maybe you don’t even want to be a designer but a home stager! Or photograph interiors like Alyssa Rosenheck, do PR, or work on the business side of a company. You never know, and the options are endless… so it’s okay not to know RIGHT now. What is important though is to do some research, call some firms, talk to employees, intern at a couple places, check out who is on the team and figure out the right fit for you! It’s SO important to intern or shadow at a firm, specifically while you’re still in school. (Listen to Nick and Julia Buckingham talk about how crucial it is to pick a school with an internship program here.)

The great news is, most firms do a variety of work. For example, you can stay at some companies for years and work on residential, hospitality, healthcare — AND if you’re like Francesca Bucci, cruise ships too! It is important to research the place you want to work, and see what kind of design they do. Don’t apply for a position doing residential design if your passion is designing retail stores and restaurants. You can always ask for an informational interview with the company or to take an informal tour.

Design By: Chip von Weise Associates, Commerical Office, Cards Against Humanity, Chicago – Click the image for more info.

Location, Location, Location!

Another important question to ask yourself is: where do you want to work? Lucky for you, it’s okay to be picky. Every single state supports some kind of interior design, and it’s up to you if you want to be in a rural area designing lake homes or a huge city space planning offices. You’ve also got the option to go international. Learnhowtobecome.org has a map comparing interior design salaries by state. It also has a fun feature where you can select two cities within the same state and compare how salaries may differ just a few hours away. The website lists the following as states with the highest mean interior design incomes:

“4 Years Later”….

After you’ve gained some experience in the industry, you might want to plan your next move. Who do you want to work for? Do you want people to oversee what you do? Or do you want to be your own boss? Interior designers can work independently or be a part of an existing firm. They can work as an interior designer, an independent consultant, or an educator — the list goes on and on. It is all about you as an individual and what excites YOU. Maybe the firm you interned at offers you a job! That’s amazing. Just remember if you want to open your own firm someday, then you’ve got to work your way up to the top: Learn all there is to know first.

The average salary of an interior designer is around $47,000 — but keep in mind it is unlikely that you’ll make that fresh out of school. Salary also varies by what kind of interior design work you do and where you’re located. An entry-level designer should expect pay around $40,000 per year. With more experience comes more pay: junior level or mid-career designers make an average of $50,000-60,000 a year; senior designers make even more than that; and principals can make $100,000+ per year.

Home stagers typically make their money per job. This includes an initial consultation and the staging project. Everyone charges differently depending on the client, location of the project, and how much staging help the space needs. Payscale.com has a calculator that shows average interior design pay but allows you to customize by entering your experience level, the city you’re in, your employer, and more.

Design by: Drew McGukin Interiors, Residential, SOHO loft – Click the image for more info.

Does Interior Design STILL Sound Like an Awesome Career?

Yes??? Yay! Because it is. Interior design is a wonderful field that combines art, numbers, people, color, texture, travel, visualization, and a lot more into one amazing job.

I hope you found all of this information helpful. Please leave a comment if you have any questions or suggestions, and check out my E-Book here! I’ve interviewed a panel of interior designers, employers, and educators about portfolios, gotten tips on what to expect in an interview, and learned the do’s and don’ts of design.