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What does it REALLY take to be an Interior Designer?

Recently I was sent a letter from a young design student in Australia who needed to interview someone in her chosen industry, and learn the truth about what it means to be a designer.

Of course I was happy to help since I'm a huge believer in telling the truth (good and bad) about what it really takes to make a successful career as an Interior Designer.

I thought you might be interested in my answers, so here they are:

1. What were your early career goals before you wanted to pursue interior design?

I was interested in becoming a science teacher. I love biology and physics so much.

2. What made you choose the career you have now?

I fell into the subject by accident, and now know that it was a blessing and fate taking my by the hand. As soon as I took that first design class, actually the very first day of class, I knew that I was meant to be a designer.

3. Did you have to do some kind of formal study before getting this job?

I have a four year degree in Interior Design and Merchandising for Western Washington University.

4. What is a typical day like for you?

I always check my email first. I’m looking for emails from clients and responses to questions that I’ve asked my vendors the day before. I’m also looking for acknowledgments from furniture orders that I’ve placed like, “has it shipped, is it back-ordered, and when can I expect it?”

I try to get my paperwork out of the way, because it’s my least favorite part of the job. I have to invoice clients or pay vendors for orders that I’ve placed. I may be talking to a drapery workroom or re-upholsterer about a current job, and getting quotes for labor or materials needed to create what I need.

Then I either have appointments with my clients at their home to walkthrough a new project, or to present a design that I’ve created over the past few weeks. I may visit a job site to check in with the progress or meet with my contractor to go over the specifics of the design.

I spend a few hours a day shopping for furniture online, at furniture stores, and in design centers that are only available to the trade (that means to interior designers or architects). I will spend some time in my studio if I have a presentation to put together or a rendering to finish drawing.

And all through the day, I am answering phone calls and texts from my team and my clients so that everyone is on the same page. Installing a design is a bit like conducting an orchestra. You have many trades people involved, and pieces from all around the world that need to come together at the same time, to create this design that you’ve dreamed up and sold to your trusting client.

5. Has there been any enriching experience during your time working?

Absolutely! If you ask any designer what the best part of our job is, they will unequivocally reply that it’s seeing the look on your clients face when they see their beautiful new room. We have the privilege of creating designs for people where they not only live their daily lives, but where they share love, experience holidays, and create memories for generations to come. I’ve had clients hug me with tears in their eyes, and say “I can’t believe I get to live in such a beautiful home!” It’s moving. We are changing and improving people’s lives more than most realize.

6. What have been some of the bad experiences if any, and how did you overcome them?

When you’re working with such a personal part of someone’s life, they can get scared and difficult to work with. Emotions will run high, and not only the positive ones. What most people (clients in particular) don’t realize is being a designer is SO much more than creating a pretty space. You have to know that furniture takes a long time to build and ship around the world. Creating the right design takes patience, and they can get frustrated with the unpredictability of our industry.

We’re trying to collect the best pieces for their taste, budget, and timeframe, and then make sure that everything gets to their home in perfect condition on time, fit’s and is the exact color that you had ordered, and works with all of the other pieces that you decided on 3 months back when you first came up with the design.

There is so much that goes on behind the scenes; like dealing with a fabric that’s been discontinued at the last minute, and you had spent 2 weeks going through thousands (yes thousands) of fabrics and checked the status of it, before you took great care to convince your client that this little fabric sample will make the perfect piece for their room. They are putting a great deal of trust in you, spending their hard earned money on a design that was created in your imagination, and that they may only see in a drawing or catalog page before you order it. Oh and custom furniture can’t be returned unless it’s damaged during shipping. That can be scary for anyone.

7. What keeps you motivated and what do you do to continually keep up with the newer ideas?

Design is truly a passion. If you have what it takes to be a designer, you will know it, and nothing else will feel quite right. I talk to so many designers who start their career later in life, and it feels like a relief to finally be doing what they love. If you are a designer, you read every interior design magazine that comes out, and you never get tired of looking at furniture. You could talk for days with other designers about favorite furniture lines or amazing wallpapers that you’ve discovered. You spend hours on the web looking a beautiful design and you’ll actually get excited when you see a room that you love. Personally, when I walk into a furniture or fabric store, my heart quickens and I compulsively have to touch every fabric that I can. Like I said, if you’re meant to be a designer, you will just know.

8. Is coming up with new ideas a challenge?

No, not at all. Almost all designers will tell you that they can walk into a room and “just know” what would look great. Of course it takes a while for the entire design to evolve, but a great design comes from within. It’s almost like the space speaks to you.

9. Do you think interior design has grown bigger and better?

Absolutely! Interior Design used to be only for the wealthy and privileged. When HGTV first came out, everyone thought that you could transform a room in 48 hours, with only 4 people, and under $1000. That was more fiction than anything else on TV. Since then, real design has become more mainstream. Famous architects like Michael Graves are bringing high design to the masses at affordable prices. Beautiful furniture is everywhere.

It’s easy to run a successful design business on the internet thanks to advanced “to the trade” buying options, easy to use drafting programs that are free, and the ease of communication between you and your clients.

When the housing market crashed here in the US, our industry took a bit of a dip. Then people realized that they may not be able to sell their house and move, but they could change their current home into a fresh new space with the help of a designer. The market is finally on the upswing, so we now have new clients popping up everywhere. It’s a GREAT time to be a designer.

10. What advice would you have for anybody who is studying in this field?

If you have the passion for design then don’t be afraid, jump right in. Be aware that creativity is only a small part of your success and that it rarely is paired with the gift for organization. You can create the most incredible designs imaginable, but if you can’t run your business properly, you will never see those designs come to life. So take business classes when you can, and be meticulously organized even though that may be the most difficult thing for you to do.

Remember it’s more important to be a good listener than a creator. You’re not designing for yourself, but for someone else regardless of their taste. You need to know how to be gentle and empathetic with your clients when they’re scared or just plain difficult. A happy client in the end is the greatest reward, and it may take some work to get them over that finish line.

I promise you, the first time you see a room that started from within your creativity and imagination come to life, and you see the look of gratitude on your clients face because you’ve helped them to have the home they’ve always dreamed will be like nothing else you’ve ever experienced.

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