Becoming An Interior Designer – Should I Get A Job Or Work For Myself?
If you are just starting out in interior design or considering becoming an interior designer, you have probably been told that that the only way to get into interior design is to undertake an interior design course (or degree) and then go and build your experience by working for an interior designer for at least 3-5 years.
The next most popular route I hear is to go to university, then undertake some projects for free to build a portfolio and once again try to get a job working for an interior designer. Although this is the way we have been doing things for the past 20 years, for the majority of people who want to become interior designers, I don’t think that this is the best route into interior design.
So what is the best path if you are thinking of becoming an interior designer? Let’s start with who this typical path would be good for.
Working For Someone Else
If you are straight out of high school or have never really worked anywhere before, then this typical route to becoming an interior designer is a good one for you. Going to university for 3-5 years and doing a degree or course is a good way to learn lots of complementary skills alongside interior design which is required to work in the industry. Going to work in an office to learn how to work with other people, learn a variety of skills in a supervised environment, gain friends, learn the ropes and start from the bottom and work your way up is perfect for someone who is at the beginning of their career.
The other group of interior designers who this is also usually the right path for are those who definitely want to work in the commercial, retail or medical sectors. Getting a degree and working for someone else will be one of the fastest ways for you to gain the kind of experience you need in this part of the industry.
Once again, however, you will be starting at the bottom and the skills you will be learning in the first few years aren’t going to be high-level skills, so expect to spend the first few years, underpaid, overworked and using approximately 4% of your brain capacity. There are definitely certain things you need to know when working in commercial interiors and becoming aware of these whilst working in a group environment, is a safe, (slow ) but great way to learn the ropes, especially if you are young and love the energy of a corporate environment.
Commercial, retail and medical interiors have a lot of regulations that require a lot of knowledge and this can take time to understand and learn. Often, it can take a few years (at least) to get really confident working with all the ins and outs of specialist design and being shown how to do things by a colleague in a non-stressful way will be less risky as opposed to making costly and possibly dangerous mistakes figuring it out on your own (and no, your university degree didn’t teach you the things you needed to be able to do this on your own).
Also, most large projects require groups of people to run them, so you will rarely be working on your own to pull off a large or complex project anyway, so you will want to get really good at working in a team environment and having lots of different skills so that you can be really useful to the studio. Unfortunately, in a large office, you will most likely end up being pigeonholed into doing things you are naturally good at or fell into doing, so sometimes it can be slightly frustrating that you end up having to do the same or very similar tasks or jobs for really long periods of time without learning something new for years. This means you get really, really good at doing one thing, but your skills end up lacking in other areas. This happens in big design offices, so to get a broader range of experience, smaller to medium-sized firms are a better solution for someone who wants to gain lots of experience quickly.
Not surprisingly, this is often the reason for competitiveness in an office environment. That’s usually because there aren’t very many roles that require the skills that you learned at university (which are often the most creative and fun roles in an office) and that’s what the majority of us want to be doing as interior designers. So if you’re a junior interior designer working in a commercial or large office and really, really good at 3D rendering, guess what you’ll most probably be doing for the first couple of years? You won’t be perfecting your onsite or project management skills, that wouldn’t make good business sense.
Can you see that this path is right for some people starting out as an interior designer but wouldn’t be the best for others? Can you see that if you are young and working your way up from the bottom, this makes sense for you, or if you wanted to specialize in large or commercial projects, you wouldn’t be able to do it on your own anyway so it would make sense to work in a team environment?
So who wouldn’t it be right for?
Working For Yourself Or Freelancing
From my experience, if your end goal is to work for yourself and you feel ready, then I would just start working with my own clients straight away. My best friend and I did this many, many years ago and it was the best thing we ever did for our careers! We gained so many practical skills so that when we did actually apply for jobs, we were snapped up quickly because we had project management experience and at such a cheap rate (straight out of uni) they were hiring designers with almost 4 years on-site experience. (If that sounds like you, call me!)
If you plan on working on domestic interiors, then again, I would start freelancing straight away. I would start working on projects even before I finished my course or university degree (if you even bother to get one!)
Experience in the domestic sector is what counts when starting out in interior design and you don’t get that by working as a glorified assistant for an interior designer who has probably fluked their way through the last few years and has just landed their first big job (sorry… but that’s usually the way it happens).
Just as a side note, in case you haven’t realized yet if you do plan on working in the domestic field of interiors, it will be pretty hard for you to find work with a small interior design studio. Unless it is a large domestic firm, most small-scale interior designers don’t have the time, resources or even the want to hire or work with anyone else. That is why you didn’t get a response when you sent out 50 beautiful and highly personalized CV’s. In most cases, you are more hassle to them than the benefit you bring and to be honest, in most cases, you don’t want to work for them anyway…
There is one other group of people who I believe should go straight to working for themselves when becoming an interior designer and that is those who want a career in interior design later in life or those transitioning from another established career. I would also add into this group anyone who has a real passion for interior design but has been out of work for a while due to illness, raising a family or other (usually moving abroad and not having their qualifications recognized, therefore, unable to find work…)
If you are thinking of becoming an interior designer and you want to focus on domestic interiors, are relatively mature, have raised kids, had another career or are determined to work for yourself, there is no reason to waste your time trying to work for someone else.
There are a few reasons why this is the better option for you if you are starting out in interior design and trying to become an interior designer.
Firstly, working for a small domestic interior design studio means that you will be learning the ropes from someone who may not actually be that good at their job or even that good at teaching you. They may also have a big ego and feel threatened by you and your qualifications and may not want to share all their “secrets” with you. This happens more often than you can imagine so it becomes an awkward, weird working environment where an emotionally immature boss resents you for working for them. (Let me know in the comments below if this has happened to you).
Secondly, for someone who has raised a family or spent years working in another job, starting at the bottom, undertaking menial tasks such as filing, answering phones and taking minutes of meetings isn’t teaching them anything about the industry and how to become a great interior designer. Their role won’t be fulfilling or useful in gaining the required skills and, these people are usually very skilled (some even more than their “bosses”) and its not only frustrating but infuriating for both parties when the assistant can see smarter ways to do things and the boss lets them go because they can’t handle the well-meaning constructive criticism.
The problem with working for someone else when you are first starting out is that if you think that you’ll be going to meetings, talking with clients, choosing furniture and designing beautiful spaces you are gravely mistaken. That role is reserved for the boss and the boss is very busy, so if you’re lucky enough to be spoken to politely and have had the courtesy of someone actually explaining what needs to be done rather than mind reading, then you might wonder whether this would have been more fun (and sane) just learning it on your own, with your own clients.
Don’t get me wrong, there are times when this set-up just works, but I’m sorry to say, it is quite rare.
Unfortunately, to add to the fun, most of what you learned at university or in your interior design courses will be worthless at the time you start working for a small scale interior designer or architect. I know that that might be a surprise for you, but if you look at the skills required to work as an assistant in an office, I’d say that the majority of career changers have the mental capacity to do that before they even undertook a degree or course. So for that reason, starting at the bottom, doing menial tasks and learning very little for very little pay just to become an office clerk with a pretty title isn’t the best way to become an interior designer.
Just think about it. If you are able to land that all-important job in the first place, spending a minimum of 3 years working as a glorified office assistant (if your sanity allows you to last that long) isn’t going to be giving you the important experience you need to become a successful interior designer.
And let’s just say you do get that job with an interior designer. Will they teach you the best habits? Is the way they work giving you quality experience or like most, will you be saying to yourself “well at least I learned what NOT to do when I start my own office!”
Many interior designers (often called interior decorators in the USA) started their career because they were passionate about interior design and spent a lot of time working on perfecting their experience by working on their own projects, such as their own homes or their friends homes. This real life and in my opinion high-quality experience has been frowned upon by “educated designers” in recent years.
In my opinion, working for yourself is a much faster and smarter route to becoming an interior designer especially if you are transitioning into interior design later in life or just want to work on creating beautiful homes for people. That’s because the quality of experience you are getting is invaluable and you can grow your business and experience as your confidence with each project grows in an organic and natural way without the big egos and without the terrible pay. Also, it isn’t usually viable later in life to go back to university or drop your income back to an assistant’s wage, so it’s just crazy to assume that that is the only way to get into this industry.
So I hope that has clarified a few things for you and helped you make a decision as to whether you should work for yourself or for someone else when starting out in interior design or when thinking about becoming an interior designer.
I know that there are many “educated” interior designers who may have wasted their money and time going to get degrees and working their way up the ladder the usual way that feel that they are somehow superior to those who haven’t had a formal education in interiors. This nastiness is still very real and those designers who have gained experience without getting a degree might, in reality, have much more skill as a designer than those who got a 4-year university degree and worked for 3 years in a large design office.
It really depends on which direction you want to go down. I know first hand that you don’t learn about how to run a design business by working for another interior designer, so thinking about what is right for you at the stage of life you are in will be a huge factor that plays in which path you end up pursuing.
For the past 20 years (maybe more) everyone got into interior design the same way. We would go do a degree and then get experience working for someone else. It would take years before you felt really confident to run a project and it was rare that you ever really got a chance to design anything, especially for the first few years in an office. I hope that gave you guidance as to whether you should try to find a job working for someone else or just go and start freelancing or get your own jobs if you are starting out in interior design or becoming an interior designer.
About the author
Jo Chrobak is the founder and CEO of The Interior Designer’s Business School. She has over 20 years of experience working in architecture and interior design, across the world on commercial and domestic projects from international hotels to developments and new builds. Her vast experience transcends industries to give her unique knowledge of processes and strategies which she passes on to her students to help them succeed as interior designers as quickly as possible.
Growing up in Sydney, Australia, Jo decided to travel the world in her twenties to gain experience and education from as many sources as possible. She graduated with first class Honours, top of her graduating class and a Bachelor of Architecture in 2007 and since then has worked on projects in Norway, Oman, The UAE, Egypt, Australia, Canada and across the UK and Europe.
She currently runs her architectural and interior design studio (www.jochrobak.com) and specialises in complex projects that require both architectural and interior design knowledge.
Jo is also trained as an Ashtanga yoga instructor, a life and business coach and is a passionate artist creating bespoke artwork for clients.
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