We’re constantly told that the best way to get started as an interior designer is to do an interior design course, then get work experience or shadow a designer to learn the ins and outs (A.K.A as “all the things you need to know but they don’t teach you in design school”).
This method of becoming an interior designer can work well for school leavers or those with a lot of time on their hands. For most career changers, however, this method to get started as an interior designer is outdated, especially considering, in most cases, no formal qualifications are required to practice interior design anyway.
But then, on the other hand, we’re seeing inspiring success stories of interior designers who made it big using their own homes as example projects (think Shae McGee, Athena Calderone, Amber Lewis), most of whom are self-taught interior designers.
This route into the industry is how interior designers began careers for as long as the profession exists, so why is everyone saying the only way to get started as an interior designer is to waste years of money and time getting a “qualification” when it’s simply not true?
Even architects use their home as their exemplary project (albeit well into their careers rather than at the outset). Their own home is usually the dream project where they can finally express all of their ideas without the input, mistakes or value engineering of clients and builders, therefore representing their true ethos and style. In many examples this is the catalyst for the architects skyrocketing success because they’re finally creating what they want, with complete control.
If you haven’t read our post called Should I Get A Job Or Work For Myself you can check it’s a must read before moving on: Becoming An Interior Designer | Should I Get A Job Or Work For Myself
Your home is the best first project to get started as an interior designer, and here are ten reasons why:
That’s right, we all make mistakes, but we make a lot of them when we are first starting, and that is ok; it’s part of the process of learning and growing as a designer; however, making mistakes on your property rather than someone else’s is likely to keep you out of severe legal and financial trouble!
The biggest mistake interior design degree and diploma graduates make is undertaking work without any previous experience believing that their piece of paper qualifies them to do so, finding themselves in lots of trouble. They mindlessly take on projects without knowing what’s involved because their lecturers have sheltered them outside the real world. Also, academic studies are designed to be undertaken with essential work experience, which never happens because the jobs are not there. (If you want to know why you can’t get a job as an interior designer, check out this video:
The critical element is always experience, which you’ll get plenty of managing your project first-hand. So know that you’re going to make mistakes and that you can do that safely in your home with no one to judge or sue you.
Getting clear on what you like and don’t like in interior design is an essential step to getting started as an interior designer. It is critical to differentiate yourself from other designers and position yourself in a niche, creating a unique selling point to attract clients. The best way to form an opinion on design is through experience by undertaking projects as the lead designer. When you do this working on your own home, you’ll not only be making the final decisions but also live with the consequences.
One of the most challenging things for interior designers is making confident design decisions quickly. Working as a designer, you’ll be required to make fast, confident decisions, and you will need to back those up with practical and knowledgeable reasons beyond your design idea.
Designing your own home is the best way to get started as an interior designer because you can test ideas and have the luxury of time to learn to make decisions. You can practise making the big decisions (without leaving them to the boss or knowing it’s a fake project) and seeing the knock-on effects of your decision further down the line. This experience is invaluable and difficult to get working for others or simply undertaking a typical design course.
Think of the home renovators, DIYers, craftspeople, interior designers, builders, and stylists all over the internet on social media, writing blogs and selling products and books. They document their process, ideas and work, making what they do interesting to others. This is one of the ways to market yourself for free in the modern world. It creates credibility, fans, and potential clients and is one of the easiest and fun ways to get started as an interior designer.
Documenting your home renovation or design gives you something to post to social media (or write about in your blog), creating endless content that helps you research and learn as you work. Content creation is usually a massive problem for designers because they have nothing to post. Academically trained designers end up sharing their school portfolio, which is pretty much useless – to find out why, watch my YouTube video about Interior Design Portfolios: How To Build An Interior Design Or Architecture Portfolio (When You’ve Never Had A Client) ). Still, suppose you get started as an interior designer by designing your home. In that case, you’ll have something to talk about daily, helping you grow your confidence, skills and potential client base organically.
My mentees are always surprised to hear that most design graduates working in offices have NEVER been to site on a project or gained site experience beyond attending a meeting as an observer (not actively participating besides taking notes). Why does this happen? If you’re lucky enough to get a paid position in the first place, then you’re going to need to become profitable to that company as quickly as possible; that usually means doing one thing efficiently and well, which, as a new designer, is never going to be onsite or client facing but more likely to be administrative, drafting/modelling and putting presentations together.
Hands-on learning (something we do in our mentorship program Online Interior Design Course | 90 Days To A Freelance Life) helps you to retain information more accurately and efficiently. We all know how hard it is to memorise lists without context, but putting that same information on a building site when you’re in the hot seat will never leave your memory (and usually makes for a great story)!
Nothing helps you get started as an interior designer or feel qualified to undertake a project for someone else, like practical experience. It is a crucial part of learning any skill. Architects (and other professionals like pharmacists, doctors etc.) spend most of their qualifying exams documenting their practical experience because they understand the importance of it, so why do interior designers feel that the piece of paper carries more weight? It doesn’t.
Also, practical, onsite experience is required to join ANY interior design membership body. Some will put weight on a degree, but ALL require experience, so designing your own home is the best way to get started as an interior designer.
In one of my favourite books, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell states that becoming an expert in any field takes around 10000 hours (or approximately ten years) of “deliberate practice”. If you’re someone working on your home project full time, you can clock up those hours easily, as you’re likely working all day and into the evenings and weekends, compressing your timeline. If you were working 90 hours a week on your project (it sounds wild, but it’s very likely), then you could compress that timeline ten years to two years!
Think of the 40-hour work week; even if you did spend 40 hours a week working in an interior design office, it’s unlikely that the quality of those hours adds to the 10K, but assume they do for the calculation, it would still take you over four and a half years to achieve the same result! So, if you want to get started as an interior designer, your own home is your best first project!
As interior designers, we propose furniture décor finishes and provide advice on the quality of things (including workmanship!) Unless you spend a lot of time on project sites, you’re unlikely to gain the knowledge to deeply understand how well things are made or installed (because a well-made item can be installed poorly, and a poorly-made item can be installed well).
Unless you’ve been onsite or worked on your project where you get to experience the ins and outs of installation and real-life use, it can be challenging to express intangible things such as quality and product performance to the extent required for delivering high-value projects.
This kind of learning through observation is almost impossible to match in a formal working environment, so the importance of getting this type of experience shouldn’t be ignored if you’re trying to get started as an interior designer.
When you’re working in an office, undertaking an interior course, or doing a project for a client, someone else is dictating the interior style they want you to provide. This means that although you’ll likely appreciate a broad range of styles, it’s not always easy or enjoyable designing interiors in styles that aren’t favourites, especially if a client has a lot of input, makes lots of alterations to your scheme or has existing furniture in the style that is difficult for you to work with.
So, unless you have complete control over a project and a very open brief from your client (which is unlikely), you will have to work with someone else’s decisions. Some will be great, and others will feel like Armageddon. But if you want to get started as an interior designer by working on your project, you can design what you want and not what someone else wants, which results in you doing your best work and enjoying every part of it at the same time!
If you’ve been following me for some time, you’ll know it’s rare for me to talk about the benefits of portfolios, especially regarding getting started as an interior designer, but if you’re working on your own home as your first project, I believe this is the BEST type of portfolio you can create. Why? Because you have endless time to make it look just right, get the right light, fix issues, hide things and make every photograph perfection, something that might be difficult when you’re limited to shooting a finished project with a photographer in a couple of hours!
It also means that your portfolio will likely be on-brand rather than full of projects that didn’t turn out how you had hoped. Creating a high-quality, on-brand portfolio is the ONLY reason you should publish photographs of your projects on your site, and the majority of aspiring designers working on their own homes as their first project publish their projects with pride, setting themselves up for success from the outset!
Designing your own home is the best way to get started in interiors. It’s also how some of the best interior designers got known for their work and why the “portfolio start-up” model still exists in the industry. It removes the chicken and egg problem of onsite experience and even provides better quality education regarding the quality and performance of materials, furniture and products and helps you to become a better designer faster! I could have added another ten (such as budget control, creating trade relationships, project managing, networking, experimenting and personal satisfaction), but I will leave it there!
Can you add any more reasons why your home is the best first project if you’re an aspiring interior designer? Let me know below.