How to become an interior designer
It can be daunting when you are starting out, but don’t be discouraged. With talent and dedication, it is definitely achievable!
First, focus on developing skills and a portfolio, and use these to land an internship or junior role with an agency. There you can learn project management and client management skills. At the same time, specialise in a niche or style you are passionate about, and promote yourself online. Before long, you will start to attract clients of your own.
Of course, there is more to it than this, and we spoke to 11 interior design experts from a range of backgrounds to bring you specialist advice and insights that will help kickstart your career in interior design.
How much experience do you need?
“The most important thing when you are starting out is not so much experience as skills. You can learn these in a relatively short period of time, for example by taking short courses in interior design skills. Approximately one year of intensive study and hard work will be enough to get you a job in an interior design firm, and then you can learn the hands-on part of the job such as project management and dealing with clients. That said, having experience in other work environments is a great benefit to becoming a designer. I feel that the older you are the more life experience you have and the better a designer you will be.”
Founder - Lyndall Fernie
How can new interior designers build up a portfolio?
“When you’re first starting out as an interior designer, I think there is a huge pressure to get multiple projects in your portfolio otherwise you feel as though you won’t get hired or find clients. This isn’t always the case though and what we’d urge you to try is to spend a good amount of time creating mood boards and schemes to create a portfolio that shows off your creative ability. In doing so, you can share these with potential employers or clients to show them your visions, your personal style and capabilities - it doesn’t matter if they’re not real projects. Nowadays design projects can be prepped digitally, so consider creating digital mood boards, 2D visualisations, floor plan drawings, 3D renders, and imagine you are working on a real-life project. The best thing about doing this type of exercise is that you have no client restrictions or budget limitations, so you can really let your imagination run free and create some innovative designs. Once you’ve got a few different projects, you can start to see a great portfolio building together and you can use this gain new clients or get hired at a practice.”
What do new interior designers need to know?
“Don’t try and go out on your own straight away. Get some experience first working in a design agency, you will learn so much from seeing how a real studio works. And you will likely make some of your first mistakes where it’s safe to do so, surrounded by a team there to support you. You will also learn the reality of how long it takes to design, detail and source a project. Do ask questions and ask for help with something rather than struggling alone with it. It’s far better to request specialist advice and get it right than take a chance outside your comfort zone and get it wrong. Don’t underestimate how much time it will take to develop a design, particularly the technical CAD drawing pack side and contractor specifications. Be careful to have specialist trades, such as plumbers and electricians, sense check all of your design drawings from a practical and compliance perspective. Always double triple check heights of furniture when sourcing for projects, such as the seat heights of sofas and armchairs next to coffee tables. And lastly, spend time checking the suitability of products and materials when specifying them – this includes slip ratings for bathrooms, the durability of work surfaces, textiles rubs, upholstery and fire ratings.”
Should new designers specialise in a particular area of expertise?
“It’s important for interior designers to think about what they are particularly passionate about. Is it the environment and our responsibility towards it? Is it textiles, lighting or timber? Immerse yourself in your area of interest and learn as much about it as you can. People are attracted to designers who are passionate about their particular niche and will be prepared to take risks with you. Remember that you are taking them on a journey; some clients are so disconnected from the creative worlds that whatever you introduce them to, whether textile screen printing or leather wrapping, will be eye-poppingly interesting for them - and sometimes equally terrifying! The learning curve NEVER ends and so be honest with your clients about what you are not good at or interested in. Honesty is better than frustrated clients.”
What are studios looking for when hiring a new designer?
“Since founding my design studio in 2007, I have hired several new designers over the years and there are a few things that I look for in candidates. Alongside having a passion for interior design, a candidate should have a portfolio that demonstrates their technical drawing skills and their ability to create ideas and problem solve through their designs. Interior design is a very practical industry, and communication is at the centre of it all, so candidates should be able to demonstrate how they communicate their ideas both visually and verbally to a range of people. There is a lot of administration work involved too – I believe that business skills can be taught, but previous experience of working with invoices and spreadsheets is a bonus! While candidates don’t need to have a huge amount of experience, a good understanding of the industry is crucial.”
How can new designers win their first few clients?
“You must have a portfolio which showcases your skills, and your style. If you haven’t completed any paid work, just style your own home or those of friends and family. The most important thing though, is that you take professional quality images of your work. It is worth hiring a photographer to do this well. High-quality images are essential to help you sell yourself.
Try to get styling contracts in the beginning because you are more likely to find clients willing to take a risk with a new designer on styling projects, rather than architectural projects. You can move on to architectural work once you have more of a track record, if this is the type of design you want to do.
Also, focus on getting local work in the beginning. Marketplaces like bark.com can help you find opportunities, and try to promote yourself on local social media. It’s even worth doing a little work locally for free, as long as the client offers you something worthwhile in return, such as a testimonial, the chance to be considered for a paid contract, or willingness to be a reference client who will talk to other prospective clients."
How can new interior designers set themselves apart in a competitive market?
“My biggest piece of advice for any aspiring interior designer is knowledge - building up a core knowledge of key fabrics and FF&E suppliers is what will set you apart from the rest and elevate your designs above and beyond. For the first few projects you may have to offer your services for free, but I can guarantee the knowledge that you will gain during those first vital projects is indispensable. Being able to efficiently and successfully source the right FF&E to suit your clients’ needs is imperative to providing the best service possible and will make you stand out as a designer with a strong portfolio”
Should new interior designers work freelance or join a practice?
“For new designers, I would always recommend finding a firm whose style and ethos you feel comfortable with, pitch yourself to the firm and once you're in, learn, learn and learn some more. In your spare time, build your contact book and use social media to nurture all the relationships you are making. The interior design sector is a very competitive market. It's not only your skills that set you apart, but how you service a project, run your business and most importantly, build a brand that attracts the right clients to your design studio.
I'm often asked by senior designers in medium sized firms, "When should I start my own business?" These designers have great design experience and often have developed their style and black book of contacts. But my advice to them is to sit back and think carefully, build a real business plan and think about how you are going to get your first, second and third client? Use the firm that you are in to learn about the business and marketing side of design. While you are doing your business planning, start to build your own personal design profile online - social media is a great tool for this. If you're a 'well-known' designer, you become more valuable to the firm that you're working for, and at some point, when you do leave, you have an 'audience'.”
How can designers negotiate more effectively with clients?
“For me, a good relationship is integral to the success of a project so spending time building a rapport, indeed a friendship, and understanding the client is key. As with any relationship a clear line of communication is essential, and this must be maintained throughout, whether sharing positive updates or realistic less good news. Communication should start with listening to the client, understanding them so they feel that you thoroughly grasp what they are trying to achieve, before you then move on to communicating your thoughts and ideas. This will also help with negotiations during the project as the client will trust that your choices are for the benefit of the project. I have worked with many of my clients’ multiple times and I truly believe that valuing these relationships and friendships is as important as the projects themselves. And if in doubt, smile! There is no rule that hard work, excellent and efficient designs can’t be presented with warmth. People like passionate people.”
What common challenges do interior designers face on a day-to-day basis?
“Sometimes clients aren’t too sure about what they want the finished product to look like. As interior designers, it’s our job to help guide them through the creative process. The best way to avoid any confusion further down the line is to establish a really clear brief from the offset so that everyone is on the same page. Creating a mood board also really helps to communicate your interpretation of what the client is asking for visually.
You’ll also be working with a lot of specifications and numbers every day, so it’s important to be organised and sharpen your business skills. It can actually be an advantage to enter the industry from a business background, but if not, working for a design firm can give you an insight into working to budgets and with specifications.
Another area that some designers find challenging is managing contractors. Depending on the job, you may be organising the work of plumbers, electricians, carpenters, and decorators. You have to build rapport, and find a communication style that works, and from time to time you might have to get quite tough to ensure the project is finished on time and on budget."
Which trends should interior designers track and be aware of?
“The interior design field is constantly evolving as result of social, technological and fashion trends. Within the design industries, everything links from fashion to interior. At the moment we are seeing colours becoming much darker and dramatic both in interior design and in fashion. Wider societal trends have a huge impact upon interior designers’ day-to-day work. For example, Instagram has started to influence how commercial projects are designed, especially within the hospitality industry where it’s become increasingly important to have spaces that are ‘Instagrammable’. Technology is also a massive factor within the residential sector, with the general trend towards smart homes altering how people navigate their spaces – and how interior designers design them”
“Patience is an important consideration. It takes time to build up your knowledge, a portfolio and your brand,” says Matteo. “When you’ve got the right foundation and knowledge, your next steps are to either get an internship, shadow at a design agency, or go freelance.”
If you are keen to move forward, a good place to start is by developing your skills and industry knowledge with a short course. Chelsea College of Arts offers a range of interior design short courses online or at our London campus.