How Do You Get Interior Design Clients Without A Portfolio?
This is one of my favourite topics! How do you get interior design clients without a portfolio? I built my own business and helped hundreds of interior designers get their first clients without a portfolio (and typically, without any prior experience in the industry). So why does everyone think they need a portfolio? Why are people still teaching that you need one, and why do universities aim for you to graduate with one?
If you ask your university lecturer, course instructor and what seems to be everyone teaching interior design all over the internet, they all say that you need a portfolio to get clients. They believe this to be true because they know that clients want proof that you’re qualified for the job or that they want to see if they “gel” with your style before they invest their money into you.
What if your style isn’t visual, or you’re selling a skill (like I was) rather than a style? What if you can prove that you’re qualified another way? Creating a portfolio is helpful if you have loads of completed projects, have a specific design style or are straight out of university and are trying to get a job. But what if you’re like the hundreds of thousands of designers starting in this career who don’t have any examples of work, let alone completed projects?
You’ll be pleased to know that this is a common problem that all new designers and most start-up businesses in the design industry have. The majority won’t have a portfolio at all. Some will be highly qualified designers with many years of experience (like I was) who cannot use past work to prove their abilities thanks to copyright over the material.
So let’s firstly dispel the myth that a portfolio is the best way or the only way to get clients when you’re just starting in your design career. And let me be clear, I’m not saying that it isn’t one way to get clients later on once you’ve established a brand, got some projects under your belt and are ready to filter clients – I’m saying that, trying to build a portfolio isn’t the right way to get a client when you’re first starting out.
Why? Because your projects probably have a much lower budget than what you’re used to seeing in Elle Décor, House Beautiful on Pinterest or even on Instagram! Also, suppose you’re a new interior designer (or architect). In that case, the reality is that you’re going to make mistakes (not like killing people mistakes but just obvious beginner kind of mistakes), and you don’t want those haunting you and turning off potentially better clients once you’re ready for them.
If you still want to start building a portfolio, know that it takes time, but it is worth understanding your aim. Once again, this is a very confusing and misleading topic, so I have written another post to clarify everything about portfolios here: (Make sure to watch the video and get the downloadable which contains 50 ideas to help you build your first portfolio!) How To Build An Interior Design Portfolio (When You’ve Never Had A Client) – CLICK HERE.
If you’re still here, you’re open to the idea that you don’t need a hundred finished, beautifully photographed projects to get your first client. You’re probably the type of person that says:
- “I just want that first opportunity to get my foot in the door!” or
- “I’m a practical, not an academic person” or
- “I’d rather work on a project than study” or
- “If given a chance, I’d prove that I was capable”
And you’re right! There are novice or start-up interior and architectural designers getting this opportunity every day. There’s no reason you can’t if you’re motivated, driven, and passionate (note – talent doesn’t come into it!) Let me show you how!
How Do You Get Interior Design Clients Without A Portfolio?
There are an endless number of ways to land a project or get a client without a portfolio! I’m proof of that, I’ve been running my interior design business since 2016, and I still (at the time of writing this post, almost five years later) have not got a single image of my work on my website. I’ve had hundreds of clients and projects and made hundreds of thousands of pounds in my interiors business alone.
I’ve now also helped hundreds of start-up interior designers and architects with no previous experience, portfolios or degrees to get paying clients too. So please know that’s it’s not only possible, but designers are getting clients without portfolios every single day, and so can you!
Since Covid, I have seen an increase in people asking to see portfolios. I cannot figure out whether that’s because there are just more people searching for designers or whether there is now less trust online since the explosion of content on the internet. Either way – if you get asked, it’s not the end of the world.
So how do we do it? Without rewriting my interior design course for you here, I’ll give you five of the easiest and most effective ways to get interior design or architecture clients without a portfolio to help you on your way.
- 1 | Tell People You’re Open For Business | But no one will hire me without proof of my experience or a portfolio, you scream! – Well, have you tried or do you simply stop at the “no-one is going to hire me” hurdle? Tell me truthfully? Have you told people that you’re an interior designer/architect, that you’re open for business and that you have space to take on clients? And telling one person isn’t enough! Just think about how many McDonald’s adverts you see each day, and then compare that to your teeny tiny announcement to your friends or mum. Do you think that McDonald’s has to advertise repeatedly, and yet your one peep is going to ripple the waters and send millions of clients fighting for your number?
You need to tell everyone multiple times. If you’re not confident calling yourself an interior designer yet, tell everyone you know you’re looking for your first design project instead.
- 2 | Hang Out With, Get In Front Of And Contact People Who Might Be Potential Clients | Once again, I hear you say, “but they won’t hire me without a portfolio!” I don’t mean yacht owners silly; I mean everyday people! Those who would love to hire you and for whom you’ll do a fantastic job right now in your early career.
I know you would love to land the five-bed mansion (that you believe you can do all on your own) as your first project (and some people do, just saying, it’s rare). But in most cases, you’re not qualified for that large, long-lasting, expensive and high-value project that might get you sued (are you mad?)
Go and find clients that have projects at your level of experience. If you’re straight out of architecture school, well, then you probably could handle that five-bedroom job if you were taught project management and have some onsite experience. But most of you probably don’t have that level of knowledge or skill set, but don’t worry. There are still millions (milllllions) of projects that you can take on! Just think; decorating a bedroom or organising an open plan layout, choosing the right style for a space or combining existing items to create a new look. Don’t downplay your current skills – highlight them and build on them.
- 3 | Ask Your Friends And Family To Recommend You To Anyone They Might Know Who Might Be Redoing A Bathroom, Bedroom Or Building An Extension | Your friends and family will probably sell you better than you can market yourself at the early stage, and your friends often believe in you and will do anything to help (give them a chance to show you), so at the start-up stage, pull all the strings you can and ask them for help.
I suggest reaching out to people who are potentially already redecorating, renovating or extending because they probably didn’t hire an interior designer or architect because they thought their job was too small or that designers are too expensive. Us experienced designers are costly! BUT, one of the main benefits of a fresh, eager designer is that you’re much more affordable in comparison, and the project isn’t too small for you… it’s probably just right! Also, those small projects aren’t suitable for us more experienced designers anymore. I stopped taking on small projects a little after making my first £100K in my business. The good news is that those smaller projects still need a designer – it’s just not a good match for those of us who need the more significant fee through the door or who are pitching for those larger projects.
So get out there – homeowners need your help, precisely at your experience level, and probably the cost you’re at too!
- 4 | Share Your Knowledge | Even if you don’t have practical experience or too much knowledge, you probably have a huge passion and interest in architecture, interior design, decorating, styling, decluttering, organising, sustainable design or biophilic design. So use that passion to spread the word (whilst also further educating yourself) about what you’re interested in. At the beginning of my business, I would advise on forums and write blog posts about things that I knew my clients wanted to know.
You’ll be glad to know that this is one of the easiest ways your first few clients will see you’re qualified for their job. It does, however, require you to make an effort! I wrote a blog post every single week for years and continue to write to my mail list each week, to this day! If you want a real example (and to laugh at my early blog posts – you’re welcome), have a peek at what I used to write here: CLICK HERE
- 5 | Speak To Someone New Every Day | I’m not going to say this was easy for me, and I find this still isn’t particularly easy for many designers who go through my program. Speaking about yourself/what you do and how wonderful your services are can be really hard – but if you stop thinking about yourself and think about how you can help someone else, then this is a great place to start learning to overcome the fear of speaking to potential clients.
Reaching out on social media is probably the easiest and less queasy way to talk to potential clients or to expand your trade relationships and network each day. If you don’t do any of the other steps, know that this one step alone will bring about results! Teamed with at least one other item on this list, you can speed up the process of getting a client exponentially!
If you do everything on this list this week – I dare you to tell me that you don’t have a client. Yes – it’s that easy; you can have a client by the end of the week (sometimes my mentees get one by the end of the day!)
It Will Not Work For Me Because…
If you read through these and think – “it can’t be that easy” or “it won’t work for me because…”, know that the main reason for failure at this stage of your career is failing to act! Much of what I do in my mentoring is helping people feel ready, gain confidence, and increase their skills to get them to take these simple steps. Making money and getting clients isn’t rocket science – but we’re human, and we often avoid taking action due to hidden beliefs or fears. So if you hear yourself saying:
“They will know I’m not qualified” or “I’m an imposter” – know that the voice will always be there – it can come along for the ride, but it can’t steer the wheel on your career journey.
What If You’re An Experienced Designer?
What if you’re not a newbie? What if you’re trying to start your interior design or architecture business, but you’re an experienced designer (like I was) when I was first starting my business? In most cases, you’re in the same boat as the inexperienced start-ups because you can’t use examples of any past work (typically because those projects belong to someone else). That’s even worse than not having any experience at all because you have to get creative to sell yourself and prove that you’re qualified and competent!
You’ve got experience working on amazing projects and years of experience, but you can’t prove it. It’s ok when you’re looking for another job because you can usually show your drawings to the new boss as they know what they’re looking for, but try attracting a client with that same pack of drawings – not the same (and not an easy way to get clients either).
So what do you do instead?
In my case, I sold myself with my services and my skills rather than a visual portfolio and then proved that I was qualified for each job with individual examples that exceeded the project requirements. In each case, it was different; sometimes, I needed to get references from a past boss or send samples of work from my cv or in a few cases, I spent a few days building a design project concept that showed my ability. I think it’s also important to note that I made the client know that I wanted the project and that it meant something to me. I secured the project in 99% of pitches, and you can too if you want the project or client – so find a way and don’t give up.
Other designers enter design competitions to build up their own body of work. In my case, I only ever entered competitions that were going to give me the portfolio images I needed to land a specific project or push me to learn a new skill or software. If you’re an experienced designer or architect who is trying to start your own business, fast forward to the professional portfolio section in this video I did. It will provide you with answers and ideas (the blog post also includes ideas to pimp areas of your portfolio that are lacking): CLICK HERE
What To Do When A Potential Client Asks To See Your Portfolio (And You Do Not Have One)?
So you’ve done the hard work, and you’ve managed to speak to your first potential client (yay). One thing to know is that this question only pops up if that client has found you in a way that’s considered a “cold lead” – which is typically the most challenging way to find a client (so pat yourself on the back!) You usually won’t get too many cold leads at the start because, to attract clients this way, you’ll typically be working through a marketing strategy. So if you’ve stumbled across a client that is reaching out as a cold lead, they probably haven’t seen you sharing any examples of work or even spoken to you or someone who knows you yet, and that’s why they are still asking to see a portfolio.
If you’ve been speaking to clients through one of the routes I mentioned above (in the five points) – it’s improbable that the potential client will still ask to see a portfolio. But if you’re getting cold leads, those potential clients will not know anything about you and so will go back to the basic idea that they need to see a portfolio (because most people don’t know any better – and also don’t want to look like they don’t know what they’re talking about!) Most people think that an interior designer or architect has a style, and so they believe the only way to hire one is to make sure they see that style (can you see how harmful all of those innocent blog posts/tv shows can be to a start-up – people don’t know what they don’t know!)
So when a potential client asks to see a portfolio and you’re just starting out (so obviously don’t have anything to show) – ask them what they’re specifically looking for or what they are hoping to see. This gives you a chance to prepare something and also gives you time to build rapport with the client (if it’s the first time they’ve reached out to you).
Here are a few standard scenarios and responses to help you respond most professionally and hopefully secure the client anyway:
- They Want To See Your Portfolio Because They Don’t Know Any Other Way Exists | Most clients believe the only way to hire an interior designer or architect is to ask them to see their portfolio. Just put yourself in your client’s shoes – they’ve probably never hired a designer before. They’ve searched “what do I need to do before I hire an interior designer”, and every single post they read says, “you need to check their portfolio to see if you like their work or to prove that they are a good designer/qualified designer/the right designer/the best designer… And so that’s what they do!
If you’re confident, you can say that you don’t have one, but you can prove that you’re capable of doing the job another way if they’re open to it. Of course, then you have to do what you can to prove that you’re capable! Don’t forget that eagerness and passion, plus a great personality, will get you partway and, in my experience, can be even more convincing than an impressive portfolio (that’s how I landed some of my biggest jobs, even when I was up against famous design firms!)
- They Want To See Your Portfolio Because They Want To Know Whether They Like Your Style | If they want to see your style, then find a way to express your style to them. Whether that’s pointing them to your Instagram or showing them a previous project/current project or example project (if you haven’t got one started – go and read this blog post and start working on your first project straight away so that you aren’t stagnant – you should always be doing something or working towards building your skills and gaining experience: CLICK HERE
If the client is open to having a chat or if you’re open to educating the client a little (this is part of what we do as designers – no one knows what a designer actually does!) You can suggest that interior designers/architects do more than just create a particular “look”. The reality is that what we do as interior designers or architects is much more valuable than that!
We have so many skills such as 3D modelling, drawing, visualisation, specification, project management, sourcing and, in some cases, construction and install experience. So the services that we provide far surpass the simplistic idea that you’re just selling a look or style. Try to go the extra mile and prove what you’re capable of, especially if you’re like me and don’t have a visual style. My office sells itself as a studio that works on complex projects requiring both architectural and interior design knowledge. That’s a problematic visual aesthetic to convey, but we’ve been successfully fully booked year after year without needing a portfolio. So find a way to sell yourself and what you do.
- They Want To See Your Portfolio Because They Want You To Prove Your Skills | If they want to prove that you have the skills to do the job, then once again, you need to find a way to convince them you have the skills somehow. I typically sent through a project example document (not a finished project). I followed up by saying that they can get in touch with a referee/past client or someone I’ve worked with before (not necessarily a designer or architect!) If the client is open, this might satisfy their worries and help you know the client better.
- They Want To See Your Portfolio Because They Want To See A Similar Project | If all they want is to see a similar project, then show them what you have, even if it requires an explanation or didn’t turn out the way you had hoped. If you haven’t done anything similar (which always happened to me as I was always chasing bigger and better projects), I used to say something along the lines of: “I haven’t done a project like this before, but I’ve done something similar” (get creative) and then prove that you’re capable of taking on this type of project.
Sometimes you aren’t qualified for the job, and that’s ok. Know that you were able to pique the interest of this person at the start of your career and use that to boost your confidence – not to demoralise yourself. If that’s the type of project you want to secure, then work on building your knowledge in that area or undertake an imitation project (and don’t feel turned off by doing that – the result is often better because you haven’t had to conform to someone else’s brief!)
- They Want To See Your Portfolio Because They Want To Know What It’s Like To Work With You | If the client isn’t fussed about the style or your experience and they simply want to know what it’s like to work with you, ask them to give you a call or if you do have past clients or employers that are happy to provide a reference/review for you – get them to write you one. Don’t be surprised; some people don’t need you to decorate their home – they want you to help solve a design dilemma or problem that doesn’t require a style or previous experience. It just requires a creative solution or response! In this case, you might even offer a money-back guarantee or propose a solution to their problem for free – but agree that if they proceed with your solution, that you own the designs, and they will need to pay you the previously agreed fee to progress.
- They Want To See Your Portfolio Because They Want To Know That You’re Experienced | I’d always be honest with your level of experience. If you’ve never had a client before – tell them they’d be your very lucky first, and of course, you won’t let them down! If you’re an experienced designer but can’t show your past projects, then pass on references instead (you can follow up with a list of past projects and the level of experience required to complete those types of projects successfully. Remember, there’s always a way, and if they have reached out to you – there was something they liked about you, so be creative to secure the job (and believe in yourself!)
If you’re a newbie, remind the potential client that there are benefits to not having years of experience! You’re typically much more cost-effective, more motivated, willing to do what it takes to get the job done and will go above and beyond to complete the project to the best of your ability and give the client the best results- because your future career depends on it!
A Few Final Things To Note
If you try the above tips and the client isn’t interested or doesn’t get back to you, know that it’s pretty hard to convert this type of cold-lead into a paying client and that you tried your best! If someone has messaged you on a social platform and hasn’t bothered to check your feed (and you’ve got examples of some work on there), remember that this person isn’t prepared to go out of their way to research you, and they’re probably just comparing you against other people. This might not be the type of client you want anyway; maybe they’re very fussy, needy, demanding or very critical or high maintenance (you don’t want one of those clients… so move on!)
Don’t forget that there are many reasons why an architect or interior designer won’t have a portfolio, so you shouldn’t feel alone. Often it’s because they are just starting in their business, but it doesn’t always mean they aren’t experienced. Many experienced designers cannot show their past work because it belongs to their previous employer, or the client hasn’t permitted them to share it (a real pity, but it happens pretty often).
Some types of projects are not allowed to enter the public domain and are confidential. These could be copyright projects, commercially branded projects, naval/armed forces or government projects. Also, some projects genuinely take years to complete! A typical large project can take 2-3 years as standard from concept to completion – and that’s if everything goes according to plan. I worked on projects for many more years; one of my favourite projects lasted five years!
In my case, I spent my first years predominantly working on E-Design projects. This work was still relatively new back in 2014, and many people didn’t know that this was even possible (seems impossible now in a post-Covid world!) Typically, E-Design projects are small, can take a long time to come to fruition (as people work on the project in stages as and when they can afford to) and are project managed by the client themselves. For this reason, the projects are often too small to hire a professional photographer and aren’t impressive in terms of “design” (even though the client loves the job you did for them!) So even though I had loads of projects, I didn’t have many photos that I wanted to share because, as an experienced designer, I had worked for 15 years on unique projects that I was proud of – but obviously couldn’t share as part of my work!
So you see, there are so many solutions and so many different ways to progress; there is no need to go round in circles or get upset, thinking there is no hope.
To give you one final confidence boost – remember that there are hundreds of thousands of interior design and architecture graduates that graduate with a portfolio each year, and their portfolio can’t land them a job – let alone a client. There are also interior designers and other designers who are supposedly “unqualified” who land fantastic jobs/clients/projects every day! So stop making excuses and start working on what you need to do, to land that client without fussing over the fact that you don’t have a portfolio.
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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