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How To Start An Interior Design Business Without A Degree

One of the biggest myths in the interior design world is that you need a degree to get into interior design. There are instances where you will …


How To Start An Interior Design Business Without A Degree

Table Of Contents

Table Of Contents

One of the biggest myths in the interior design world is that you need a degree to get into interior design. There are instances where you will require a degree (some states in the US, for example), however, most of the time, you don’t. The only time I would go down the route of an interior design degree is if I was quite young and fresh out of school or if I wanted to work as an interior architect or an interior designer in a large firm.

The most beneficial (and fastest) way of learning interior design is by gaining experience either on your own projects or working for someone else. As you are hoping to start an interior design business, I’m thinking that you would prefer to be working on your own projects.

Having tried to employ interior design graduates myself, I can tell you that theoretical learning in this industry is a waste of time. I have seen hundreds of CV’s and portfolios come through my doors and the ones that got a job were never interior design graduates.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty of how to start an interior design business without a degree, I want to clarify just one more thing.

Those interior designers who want to get registered (even with a degree), still require many years of experience before being able to qualify. As there are also ways to getting “qualified” as an interior designer without a degree (aka getting experience), there is no reason you need to invest that much money, time and effort into a degree when you could be doing what you love, helping clients and getting paid, right from the word go. So how can you start an interior design business without a degree?

STEP 1 | Decide What Services You Are Going To Provide

Ok, so you need to be realistic, if you haven’t yet successfully undertaken a project for one room from start to finish, don’t expect to land a job for a five-bed house and expect it to be easy-peasy. We are all impatient, but a realistic assessment of your current skills will save you and your future clients a lot of frustration. Most interior designers start by undertaking their own project in their own home and in my opinion, this is a really great place to start. It means that you have to work to a budget, you have to figure out where to find the right style of items and you have to work out in which order things need to be done, and project manage the whole thing.

In the beginning, you will be most likely limited to providing more styling and decorating-types of services. These are still beneficial services and specific niches of interior design that you might choose to specialise.

Depending on your background, you might have transferable skills from another career that you could use in your interior design business. I find from the students that I work with, often skills like budgeting, negotiating and project management are valuable skills and services that can be added to your repertoire.

If you want some clarity on what kind of services an interior designer usually provides (and get a free check-list of services) then check out this post to get started  - What Do Interior Designers Really Do?

To scale your business safely, only provide the services you can legitimately offer. Then use your heart and intuition to decide the other services and skills that you would like to work towards gaining. You need to be passionate about the work you do in your business, if you don’t absolutely love it, it will be hard to motivate yourself to do it and you’ll find yourself procrastinating and not enjoying the work you were hoping to love.

Do not to feel let down if you would like to provide services that you can’t just yet, however. Just start from where you are and grow with your business.

STEP 2 | Define What You & Your Business Are About

Take a half-day and go to a cafe. Calm your mind and look at the people around you. If the person sitting next to you asked you what you do and what your business is about, could you describe it clearly?

And it’s more than just saying I’m an interior designer! Think marketing 101. You need to understand your ideal client and what problem you solve as a designer in your niche. Try to clarify what services you provide that are in demand by your target market. To those of you who say it’s too hard or too competitive, you’re wrong. I have seen the most random and obscure businesses succeed, you just have to know your target market inside and out and create a service that your ideal client wants (and not the other way round).

You also need to think about what is going to set you apart from the other designers in your niche. In the beginning, this may be as simple as thinking about who you think you could help with your current skill set. Ask yourself what is unique about you and why should someone hire you instead of your competitor?

Sometimes it helps to think about who already asks you for design advice and what kind of advice they ask you for, then try to figure out how to turn that skill into a service.

Your brand, your niche and your target market will evolve and grow as your business does. You need to start. Take action before you feel “ready” and don’t get stuck in the trap of perfection. Progress and motivation come from just taking action, you have to start first and then the ideas come, it doesn’t happen the other way round. You have to take that first step and just give it a go.

STEP 3 | Figure Out Your Design Services & How Much They Will Cost

You need to know how much you need each month to pay your bills and some. Once you have a figure, you have to work out how what you offer is going to meet your monthly money goals.

Your services are intrinsically linked with your target market, so you need to make sure you know who is going to buy your services and how much they will pay for it. For example, if your target market are young professionals who are buying their first home, then your design packages need to be something that those young professionals are willing to pay for as well as a price you can afford to live off.

If a design package for your first-time house buyers sells for approximately £1800, then you may only need a few clients in the first couple of months to really gain momentum. Pricing projects can be tricky though, as you may not know how long a typical project can take to complete and may find yourself working on a project 12 months down the line after having been paid upfront … (I know from experience my friends).

STEP 4 | Increase Your Skills & Knowledge

The biggest mistake I see (even experienced) interior designers making is that they don’t continue to grow, learn and add new skill sets to their repertoire. The initial passion for learning and growing is overshadowed by the everyday routine, and they forget to keep learning about the topic they love.

One of the most useful tools for communicating to clients and also one of the easiest things you can learn to do is to draw furniture layouts. I have seen experienced interior designers outsource this stuff, which is totally unnecessary, especially these days there are hundreds of free programs that allow you to draw plans, (come on IKEA has a room planner – even my clients can use it!

There are a few things that I teach in my mentorship program that I feel are critical skills to have in order to succeed as an interior designer, long term. For example, learning how to communicate your ideas is a basic skill you need as an interior designer and so is running a project from start to finish.

You should be able to do the following and if you can’t, then these would be the areas I would increase my skills asap:

  • Undertake a measured survey
  • Draw room and furniture layouts
  • Read and understand consultants/builders drawings
  • Create lighting layouts and designs
  • Design a space with a strong idea and follow through to the last detail
  • Communicate your ideas to consultants and builders
  • Be able to run a project from start to finish
  • Have the skill to formulate a binding formal agreement
  • Price your services adequately for both you and your client
  • Put together a coherent design scheme in response to a brief
  • Know how to market yourself and get a consistent stream of income
  • Know what documentation is required to be produced at each stage of a project

STEP 5 | Tell People You’re Open For Business – CONSTANTLY

You can’t imagine how many people believe that you can just build a cool website and think the clients will roll in. Sorry to burst your bubble! Yes, after a while people will call you from your website, but I wouldn’t count on that being my regular stream of clients, especially not at the beginning. You need a marketing strategy and you need to be consistently putting yourself in front of your ideal client.

The biggest failure I had when I first started was that I assumed everyone knew that I had started my business, so I didn’t tell anyone. You need to tell people constantly and in a way that isn’t irritating. So finding a way to market yourself so that it doesn’t come across as sleazy, annoying or embarrassing is the key to consistently putting yourself out there. In the beginning, you need to promote yourself. Others will put in a good word for you, but it’s hard work, so when everyone else’s good words fizzle, you gotta keep tooting your horn in a way that gets you noticed and keeps reminding them about you.

The way I describe this to my students is that starting a business is like getting a large pot of water to boil. So much energy goes into heating that pot before you see those first few bubbles, but once you see them, you know that you are getting somewhere. In the beginning, you need to give your business that kind of energy, and things won’t look like they are happening for possibly quite some time, but you have to know that the water is heating up, so you can’t give up, keep telling everyone that you are open for business, find new ways, be creative, be yourself and find your tribe, they are out there!

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I hope that gave you what you came for! This is something I am passionate about because it wasn’t until I got a business mentor that I was able to succeed finally. I had read all the things online and gotten the same, unhelpful guidance from interior designer’s already in the industry. I had two degrees and 15 years of experience but I still didn’t know how to get clients or run a design business and no one was willing to tell me.

“It doesn’t take talent or luck to succeed, you just need to decide” - Marie Forleo

Even though I had first-class honours degrees in architecture, as soon as I stepped outside of Australia, my degrees were worthless. The good thing was that no matter where I applied for a job it didn’t matter whether I had a degree or not (and no one ever asked to see it). I never had trouble finding work because it had nothing to do with my degrees, but everything to do with the fact that I had A LOT of experience.

Even Kelly Hoppen never got a degree in interior design, she built her business from gaining experience. Some of us get our degrees and they become useless. Would I have done things differently? No, I loved studying (I am a nerd after all), but I was young and straight out of school, I needed some kind of education. If I was transferring into interior design later in life however and didn’t want to or couldn’t do a degree, then I wouldn’t.

Jo Chrobak

Jo Chrobak

Jo Chrobak is an architectural and interior designer and mentor at the Interior Designer’s Business School that trains interior designers to set up professional and successful interior design businesses and gain experience working on real projects. She is trained in architecture, interiors, business and life coaching and runs her architectural and interior design studio in London UK.
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  1. Avatar of David Pursley

    I’ve always had a desire to be an interior designer but where I live there isn’t much chance for someone like me to make a living so I’ve just never pursued the interest. Never even finished my degree since I never had passion for anything else. Thank you for being so insightful about this topic, it’s really done a lot for my self-esteem. I’m in my mid-thirties and even though I know I still have a long life to live I do get overwhelmed when it comes to finally finding a pursuable passion that I can use to kickstart a decent career with.

    Thank you again!

  2. Avatar of HS Ahuja

    Thanks for the great article, it helps me alot to get rid my doubts. i really apreciate your way of writing and would happy to share your article in my network and friends

  3. Avatar of Praveen Kumar

    Informative and insightful post on how to start an interior design business. Thanks for writing and sharing this post with us.

    • Avatar of Jo Chrobak

      Thanks again for commenting Praveen :-) Much appreciated x

  4. Avatar of Linda M Britton

    Great, practical advise! Thank you so much!

    • Avatar of Jo Chrobak

      Thank you so much Linda! I hope I was able to help in some way x

  5. Avatar of Kate

    This article helped me so much!
    I had to leave design school because I couldn’t get approved for a loan for my 2nd year. I got my certification in interior decoration but always felt it wasn’t enough to pursue a career. 15 years later I’m finally sick of odd jobs and not doing what I love!
    This helped show me its possible to get going and be successful! Thank you!

    • Avatar of Jo Chrobak

      ALl over the internet people will tell you that you need a million qualifications but it’s simply not true. Follow your heart and there’s always a way. I have also written a few new blog posts that might give you the little push you need to keep going (check out the post on how to get clients without a portfolio). Goodluck my friend xx

      • Avatar of Simrat

        Hi.. this article was very informative. Its been 4 to 5 months, I am trying to give myself a pathway how to be an interior designer but looking at good colleges and universities with their tuitions always kind of give me a full stop. Now I am struggling to look for a job from where I can start building my skills to the profession. I hope I find a job that I can say was sort of life changing momemt. :)

  6. Avatar of Blake Johnson

    Thank you. This article has provided a lot of insight as well as a lot of inspiration. Furniture and interior design has always been a passion of mine, but I knew traditional education wasn’t. Growing up I knew I posses the skills to be successful without a degree however I have lacked a certain positive self-talk to really muster up the courage and start my own firm. Recently a dear friend, who owns an electronics company, reached out to me and asked me if I would redesign her office space. In putting together all the design boards, sourcing the furniture and talking with contractors, I have begun to feel like myself again. All it took was someone who believed in me.

    Stumbling upon this article gave me tremendous hope and inspiration. I feel like NOW is the time. I’m looking forward to reporting back when I have my LLC up and running!

    • Avatar of Jo Chrobak

      Hi Blake congratulations!! I can’t wait to follow your journey. Let’s connect on Instagram! @jochrobak

      Thank you for taking the time to write!!

  7. Avatar of Carleen Valdez

    Simply…. thank you. This article has been very informative to me. I live in Trinidad and Tobago and becoming an interior designer has been my dream and design my passion. However being a 42yr old single mother of 2, money to get a degree is a challenge. I believe I have a natural talent for it but dont know how to step into the arena, and the few interior designers here are very closed elite group. My dream is to start in 2020

    • Avatar of Jo Chrobak

      Hi Carleen, I’m sorry I never responded to your post. Unfortunately, it’s pretty normal for interior designers to be a closed group – there are many reasons for it, but it makes it hard for everyone just starting in the industry. I hope that you took the leap!! xxx

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