Interior design is an intriguing field that requires a unique mix of skills. On the one hand, you need to be a creative professional with an artistic eye. On the other, you have to be a business person with excellent communication and organizational skills. The job is about so much more than picking pretty colors and fine furniture. If you're wondering how to become an interior designer, start by looking at all the job entails and how to best prepare for it.
What is Interior Design?
Interior design is one of those fields that everyone thinks they understand until they look into it. There's a surprising amount of material and subject areas covered in the field, and professionals who make their careers here tend to be exceptionally well educated.
At its core, interior design makes the interior spaces of buildings more attractive, more functional, and safer. This means that the designer needs to have a basic foundation in human psychology. They need to think like their users; they need to envision the space and lay it out so that future visitors will find it helpful and useful. It also means they need to be well versed in the laws and regulations, ensuring that their designs meet codes and accessibility standards.
It's important to differentiate between an interior decorator and a designer. Some people use the term interchangeably, but in reality, they are two completely different career paths. Designers are in charge of assembly a space from scratch. They are generally educated and accredited, and they have studied the art and science behind how humans interact with spaces.
Interior decorators, on the other hand, focus on making existing spaces more aesthetically pleasing. This is one component of what the designer does, so a home decorator focuses on just this one area. Both designers and decorators need to have a strong foundation in color theory and basic design principles. But the designer also is concerned with more legal and business matters.
Designers often talk about the "design eye," a version of the "artistic eye." It's merely a way to encapsulating the idea that some have an innate natural sense of design when it comes to spaces. Like good architects immediately connect with the subtle designs of a building and how they interact with the viewer, good interior designers immediately connect with the spaces they visit. They notice if a particular color affects the room's mood or notice how a particular piece of furniture is designed for practical purposes. These are often subtle things that go entirely unnoticed by nearly everyone who visits, except for those with an eye for it.
What Does an Interior Designer Do?
Designers work carefully with everyone on a project. Their jobs are only partially creative. They spend a lot of their time managing other team members, planning, researching products, overseeing construction, and executing their designs. In other words, designers are one part creative professional and another part project manager.
It isn't easy to pin down an exact list of the things that an interior design professional does on a daily basis because their projects vary so much. Designers can specialize in many different fields, which means that they do many different types of jobs requiring different tasks. They also work in various employment situations. A freelance design professional, for example, might spend a lot more of their time networking and marketing than an employee at a design firm would.
All designers must work with builders, architects, and businesses to get their projects completed. A lot of their time is spent coordinating with the different parties to get timelines finalized and make sure everyone is on the same page. Their clients, be they private homeowners, corporations, or government agencies, must be kept in the loop and ensured that the project will be completed on time and within budget.
It's a big job, and it's not for everyone. To become successful in this field, a lot of schooling and licensing is involved. It takes years to get started. But design professionals are rewarded with one fact that might make it all worthwhile—compared to other creative jobs, interior design professionals have a more stable job outlook and a higher salary potential.
Here are just a few tasks that an interior design professional might complete on each project.
- Listen to what clients need and create an overall set of project goals
- Sketch designs and rough ideas, selecting concepts that meet goals while looking beautiful with the space provided
- Use CAD or other computer programs to put together a presentation and project plan
- Present these concepts and plans to the client for feedback
- Research products and furniture to find items that meet goals and are within the project budget
- Calculate a total budget and projected cost, along with a timeline for completion
- Manage and supervise the installation of all the different parts of the project
- Follow up with clients to ensure the project has met their needs
- Continue to grow business through networking and marketing
Skills and Training Needed to Become an Interior Designer
Design professionals need three separate yet codependent skill sets. First, they need to have creative and technical skills. But they also need to have strong interpersonal skills, as well as being able to manage various elements of a big project.
The creative and technical skills are the most obvious. Designers need to have a keen sense of style and an innate design eye. They must be able to envision how space could look and weigh the legal and budgetary considerations while doing it. Most designers also need to use some digital tool to put that idea and that vision on paper. CAD or other 3D rendering tools are great for this, and those programs make up the technical skills you need to have.
The underestimated skills necessary to be a successful designer are interpersonal. A designer could be a genius, but if they can't communicate their vision to the clients or other team members, then they can't succeed. Such a massive part of the job involves verbal, non-verbal, written, and visual communication. A designer's work does the talking for them, that is true--but only if they can get a finished product. No design project happens alone; there are always teams of people involved.
Many people want to know if you need a degree to become an interior design professional. The truth is, it depends. If your goals don't go beyond a home decorator's skillset, you can probably get by without a degree. But if you want to become a designer and work on complete projects within the industry, a degree is beneficial. Like many other professions, a bachelor's degree is generally considered a minimum qualification.
As is the case in many other professions, you don't always have to have a degree in design to work as a designer. Many professionals change their minds over the course of their career or their course of study. A good degree program gives you options. Still, there are some specific advantages to a degree focused on interior design. For one thing, the program will prepare you for certification tests and help you land good jobs.
5 Steps on How to Become an Interior Designer
Step 1—Go to School
Going to school looks a little bit different for every designer. Picking the right school is a matter of where you are in your life and what you are looking to do. You could follow a traditional route and enroll at a liberal arts college, many of which have interior design programs. You could also look at trade schools that are more individualized and suited for students looking to focus entirely on design.
If you already hold a four-year degree in another field, you can easily get by with seminars and certificate programs. There's still a lot to learn, but chances are it's not worth going back to do an entirely new degree.
A key component of going to school not only lies in the foundational knowledge you'll attain but also in the career preparation provided. A good design program will give you a leg up in preparing your portfolio for getting real-world jobs. You should come out of school with some case studies already completed and some work to show off.
Step 2—Start Building a Portfolio
Still, no one graduates from school ready to make the big bucks. After school, you usually spend a few years as an apprentice or in an internship. These aren't necessarily unpaid positions, but they are entry-level. The goal is to provide you more learning opportunities, along with the chance to keep adding to your portfolio.
During this time, your fundamental goal is to take whatever work you can get. Many designers wind up doing some work pro bono or for free. This isn't bad because you need to consider that a portion of your pay comes in the currency of getting future, better-paying jobs.
Networking is also vital when you're right out of school. Keep in touch with your friends, classmates, professors, and the school's alumni program. Most colleges have some formal structure to help you do just that, like a career center. These provide a resource for you; they're a place where you can go for job help and advice. They can help you polish your portfolio or help connect you with mentors or possible gigs.
No matter whether you have access to a good career center or not, networking is a massive part of the job at this point. You've got to get your name out there while establishing yourself as a professional in the field. Job boards and social media can help, too. Most designers spend this time working for a design firm, at a home remodeling center, or working under a mentor.
Even if you don't have an extensive portfolio, feature projects to help you get noticed online. Your interior design portfolio website need to go beyond just showcasing your designs. You also need to think out of the box, uncover your creative genius, find your expression, and present your work in the best way possible. Treat your portfolio website almost like your Instagram feed - your visitors want to see something new every time they visit. Your professional portfolio reflects your style and creative expression, so keep it up to date. Change your site design, showcase new work, and tell new stories. Here is an article with tips on how to take aesthetic pictures, to showcase your style and "look" to the places you visit or the products you use.
Make sure that the portfolio website builder you choose offers the flexibility, features, and ease-of-use you need to put together a professional website without requiring any coding knowledge. That's where a bit of inspiration comes in handy.
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Your portfolio will give viewers an idea of your aesthetic and your style as an interior designer. Add your biography and contact information, so that interested people can contact you. Here is a Complete Guide on how to build your portfolio website, and what are the factors that go into building a great portfolio website. We have rounded up a list of the best interior design portfolio websites built on Pixpa. Have a look at these examples and get some inspiration to create your portfolio.
Step 3—Get Your Credentials
To work as an interior design professional, most U.S. states require you to pass a certification exam. The most common exam by far is the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) exam. The exam consists of three sections. To take the exam, you must have completed your degree and have a minimum of two years of working experience in the field.
It's essential to research and understand your state's laws before getting this far. Some states require you to take the exam before you can advertise your services, and others say you need to take it before you can do any design jobs. Each state, county, and the city may have slightly different licensing and testing requirements.
Step 4—Market Yourself
Hopefully, by this point, you've developed a serious portfolio of your unique style. At this junction in your career, it's all about marketing and selling your service.
Step 5—Continue Your Education in a Specialization
As you complete more and more projects, you will invariably find that you have a knack for one sort more than others. Some designers thrive when working with homeowners, while others are much happier working with business clients on commercial projects. Other designers have a passion for restoration and historical preservation. Whatever your niche is, as you get more experience under your belt, it becomes time for you to start choosing the projects you take on.
As part of your master plan, you should maintain a vision of the sort of designer you'd like to be. Work on creating your legacy, and do what you can to pursue that specialization. It might mean going back to school for a master's degree with a specialized focus. Or it might mean getting more certifications. Whatever you can do to set up your niche in the design world, take steps to do it. Only by becoming the best in a particular area can you truly master the art.
Picking the Best Interior Design Schools
There are all sorts of home decorator and design programs available. Certificate programs can help get you ready for specific job elements or just for the certification exams. Degrees are available at the associate, bachelor, master, or doctorate level. Most firms require a bachelor's degree as the minimum requirement for entry-level work. The licensing exam also requires one.
Bachelor's programs vary between Bachelor's of Fine Arts (B.F.A.) programs and Bachelor's of Science (B.S.) programs. The difference is in the coursework. Generally, B.S. degrees are more focused on the professional outcome, whereas B.F.A. degrees will focus on the history and foundations of the art. Both programs will include standard core college classwork as well as specialized design curriculums.
Many programs allow you to choose between traditional or online learning. Some degree programs may be online only, which is an excellent option for working professionals.
Typical coursework includes classes in modern architecture and design, history of building types, color theory, and drawing. More specialized programs also include design theory, textiles for interiors, the business of interior design, and materials assembly. A good degree program should get you well versed in CAD computer drafting software and any other technical tools you might have to use for the job.
Some programs will allow you to pick a specialization, though this is a challenge when you're still in school. It's best to try to get a solid sampling of each type of work since who knows what you'll find success in doing later on. The main design specializations include residential, like kitchen, bathroom, or accessibility design; restoration and preservation, like landmark preservation, historic residentials design, and museum work; and commercial design, such as healthcare facility, corporate office, or government building design.
Things to Look For in Design Schools
It's often difficult to pick a school. If it's your first college experience, the entire experience is often overwhelming. Here are a few things to keep your eyes open for if you're shopping for an education.
Various organizations accredit colleges and universities. The school is accredited as a whole, and smaller organizations accredit individual programs. Proper accreditation is vital for several reasons. For one, it ensures that your degree is as meaningful as the next guys. It means that academic programs have a somewhat consistent level of rigor.
In a specialized area like interior design, an accredited program means that an agency, like the Council for Interior Design Accreditation, has reviewed the program and found that it meets the industry's standards. For the student, that means that you have a greater assurance that the program will meet your needs as a professional. All of the faculty and staff must meet specific standards, as do the courses and assessments.
Whenever you look at learning a new skill, the quality of the instructors will make a big difference in your experience. You must, of course, possess a desire to learn the material, and you must see value in doing so. But it's the teachers who will guide your learning. You want to find a school with a group of faculty members with experience relevant to your goals. Most teachers at higher-education institutions have worked in their fields for decades. There are plenty, though, that have never left the walls of their institution.
The best thing to do is to meet with a faculty member and discuss your goals. Let them know what you want from the program. Then let them lead the conversation and see if it is in tune with what you have in mind. Find out how many of the faculty are working professionals and how many are career teachers. You can learn plenty from career teachers, but professionals already in the industry are possible mentors and networking goldmines.
Any program that helps prepare you as a designer also needs to provide you with the proper certification preparation. You should be able to take the exam after your program.
Likewise, any artistic program needs to focus on building your portfolio. There should be entire classes in it. Most design programs end with a capstone course that helps you set up your portfolio and gets you ready for the job market.
Career Services and Networking
On-going career support is an integral part of the college experience. Most schools offer an alumni program that helps place their graduates in good jobs. They don't do it out of the kindness of their hearts; having a large percentage of their graduates placed successfully in the field of their choice is the best marketing a school could have. Most campuses have entire offices set up just for this one task.
Interior Designer Jobs
Interior design jobs follow a simple formula. Skill at design plus credentials and knowledge of the tool and technology equals success. It takes at least two years of full-time, on-the-job training and employment before you can even think of setting out on your own. Most entry-level jobs are internships or apprenticeships that you begin while you are still in school.
Most designers specialize in one of the main focus areas of the trade—residential, commercial, or restoration and preservation. Throughout your career, you will likely work on some projects from each of these areas. But most people often have a knack for one or the other, and they tend to find their niche based on which one they have the most success in.
Interior design jobs tend to fall into four main types. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, four in ten designers work at retail and furniture stores. These are often a starting point for design professionals, so it's no surprise that there would be a lot of them available.
Secondly, three in ten designers work as freelancers. This is quite a bit more than other creative professionals, which indicates plenty of opportunities for experienced individuals who have found their niche. Freelancing is a tough gig in any field. Remember, freelancers have to run their own business, including everything from marketing and customer sales to accounting and management.
Design firms employ two in ten designers, while one in ten work for architectural firms. Keep in mind that only the biggest firms will have interior designers on staff, so while these numbers don't look great at first, they are in line with what occurs on the front-lines in the industry.
According to several sources, including Salary.com and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, interior design professionals' median salary is between $47,200 and $56,000. The lowest ten percent of earners make between $25,670 and $27,000, while the highest ten percent make around $90,000.
In terms of other artistic professionals, this puts interior designers ahead of the pack. But remember, compared to those other professionals, the designers' knowledge and specialized skillset are far more significant. Designers are responsible for any legal obligations as well as many certification standards to maintain.
Building Your Interior Design Portfolio
A designer's portfolio is the key to success. It's an integral part of your sales pitch, and it's going to be viewed by potential clients, the competition, coworkers, bosses, and everyone else. You want to be proud of your portfolio.
Besides being your primary marketing tool, a portfolio is related to the rate at which you can charge clients. With a few projects from school, a beginner's portfolio will not fetch the same rates as the portfolio of a seasoned veteran will. Keep this in mind, and try to keep your collection full of excellent projects that show your abilities and vision.
While a portfolio is a showcase of your best and favorite projects, you must always remember that it is first-and-foremost a marketing tool for your business. Try your best to see it through your future clients' eyes. Design is competitive, and you compete with your portfolio.
Here's a look at the steps you should take to make sure your portfolio has its maximum impact.
- Find a website builder that has templates that make your work look good. Sites like Pixpa have dozens of templates to choose from, and they make designing a beautiful portfolio easy.
- Spend some time picking the template you want to use. It should match the style and aesthetics of your work. Remember, a good portfolio should emphasize the work, not distract from it.
- Take your time when picking the images you use. Choose very carefully. You want images that show your best projects. It would help if you also made sure that the photos are the best they can be. If photography isn't your forte, hire a professional, or tap a friend who has the skills. Bad photos will detract from good projects.
- Be sure to spend some time creating your personal brand. Brand your website, and yourself, like the successful business that you are. Get a logo professionally designed and pick a color palette. Make it all look good, and get business cards to match.
- Be sure to include some written case studies within your portfolio. Use them to explain all the work that went into the project. Why did you do what you did, and how did you meet the challenges that arose? If you don't have any real-world case studies build up yet, don't be afraid to use school projects.
- Do your market research—don't hesitate to study what your competitors are doing. Look at them for inspiration, but don't copy them. Think like your potential clients. What are those other guys lacking that you can offer? When you know the answer to that, make the answer obvious in your portfolio.
- Don't forget to keep your portfolio updated. Include all sorts of work that you do, especially the types of jobs you want to do more. On the same note, be sure to cycle out old projects to keep your site looking fresh.
Interior design is a varied and exciting field. It's competitive, too, which makes having an outstanding portfolio essential. Pixpa can help you build a world-class website in no time, and the professional templates will make your work look outstanding.