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Interior Design Career Advice

by habituallychic

08 . 26 . 09

I get a lot of emails from readers asking for advice about a career in interior design and also if they should go to design school. Since I just received three such messages I thought I would put together a little post on the topic. I always ask my friends who went to design school what they learned and a few of them were gracious enough to share their experiences with me. I usually never steer anyone who is thinking about going to design school out of it. You will learn the fundamentals of interior design from which you can then add practical experience through internships and work experience. One of the most important things they teach in school is drafting and AutoCAD. Most of the jobs that do become available in New York require the applicants to be proficient. I have a degree in art history which helps me because I studied not only art but also architectural art history and decorative arts. I’m not as proficient in AutoCAD as I would like so I might take a class.

My biggest piece of advice is to work. If you have to take an unpaid internship, just do it. It could lead to a paid position and the things you will learn on the job are priceless! A lot of interns have to start by sorting and organizing the samples which doesn’t seem glamorous but teaches you all the fabric showrooms and also serves as an overview of what fabrics they carry and what you like. You should also go into any interior design job with the attitude that no job is too big or too small. I’ve written before that during installations, I’ve been vacuuming and cleaning. I’ve had to move things and gotten dirty. You’re running around and it’s exhausting but one of the best learning experience because they almost always involve problems like furniture that either doesn’t arrive, arrives damaged or doesn’t fit. And then you need to figure out how to fix it…now!

It’s always good to work for another designer because then you can not only learn about design but also about business. Some offices are very organized and very well run and some are not. You will learn what to and what not to do if you ever decide to go out on your own. That’s a whole other can of worms though so we’ll have to save that for a separate post!

Then there are vendor relations. Obviously, you should be nice to everyone but you should really be nice to your vendors and anyone who does the heavy lifting, and I mean that literally! If you are nice to everyone they will be more likely to help you when you need a rush job or if a crisis erupts. But you should also be strong enough to stand up for yourself when they try to blame said crisis on you. That brings us to measure twice, cut once and get everything in writing! There is a lot of paperwork that goes along with the design word and you will be responsible to gather quotes and type up the purchase orders. It’s time consuming and boring but it’s part of paying your dues and you don’t want to be the one who typed in the wrong measurements that led to an incorrect order. The designer will definitely not like you if you cost him money.

I also think it’s important to read design magazines and books and to have a real passion for interior design. I’ve worked with people who had no idea what was going on in the world of design. If your boss knows you are knowledgeable and a go-getter, they will be more likely to give you more responsibilities and take you out of the office to meetings. This is important. They don’t trust just anyone around the clients and you never know when this will happen so I advise that you always dress client ready. I’ve noticed a lot of bosses respond well if you look nice and dress well. And that doesn’t always involve a lot of money. A fun necklace from the flea market could do wonders. It’s about creativity and presentation just like interior design itself.

Design school can only take some people so far. While there are certain people who have innate sense of style and can scheme fabrics in their sleep, others may have to work a little harder. As my friends and I have discussed at length lately, those who are willing to hustle and work hard will make it in this economy and those who can’t adapt or don’t want to get dirty, will not. Design school and work experience will be what you make it. You’ll get out of it what you put in and those who make the effort go the extra mile will go far!

I also get a lot of readers asking if I know about any job openings. Since I’m not looking and all my friends just got laid off and are working for themselves now, I suggest you try the job listings section of The Editor at Large. You can also find a designer whose style you love and write them a letter telling them so and that you are willing to work even one day a week. You might get lucky. There are jobs still out there. I’m sure I’ve left out a million things and others will have even more advice but this is a start. Oh, and a sense of humor is essential! It’s decorating after all not brain surgery! Good luck!

Comments Closed

  1. Crystal @ Plush Palate August 26, 2009 | 12:32 am

    Thank you for this well-thought post and for sharing your knowledge with us! I LOVE getting the scoop from experienced designers like yourself. 🙂

  2. Jane August 26, 2009 | 1:26 am

    Heather, not only do you have an incredible style but also an immense generosity of spirit. Thank you!

    When you applied to work for other people, did you ever face any hurdles because you hadn’t gone to design school? Is it more about proving to a potential employer that you know what they need you to know?

  3. Grant K. Gibson August 26, 2009 | 1:39 am

    These are SUCH great tips. I started off as an intern myself- years ago and I walked the dog and picked up dry cleaning. I don’t have a “degree” in interior design either- but when I am looking for people to work at my office knowing AutoCAD is a must. I always say as well reading every magazine and blog is also a must. Keep up with what is going on in the design world. This sets people apart- those who like design and those who LOVE it and LIVE it!
    Internships are a great idea- you are one foot in the door then. Make a impression and you could have two feet in the door. It is so hard in this economy right now- sadly.

  4. Habitually Chic August 26, 2009 | 1:45 am

    Crystal – you’re very welcome!

    Jane – I think the degree in art history helped and the fact that I was willing to start at the bottom which is what I did. I took a pay cut to get my foot in the door without going to design school. Just like Grant, I walked the dogs. Just once because no one else was around but I always volunteered for jobs no one else wanted to do. The key is to work hard and make yourself indispensible!

    Grant – And look how far you’ve come! I also think not complaining is key! So many young kids don’t want to do the dirty work or data entry and pay their dues. If you do it with a smile, they might reward you with better tasks later!

  5. KatyO! August 26, 2009 | 1:57 am

    thank you SO MUCH for this post!! I am currently WISHING I had gone to design school (it was between getting a communications degree or a interior design degree). I went for communications – based on some bad advice from someone who knew nothing about interior design. I currently am trying to figure out how to direct my career into doing what I truly LOVE. Bills and mortgage payments make it very difficult to leave my job for an unpaid internship in design but I’m trying my best. sometimes it seems that without going back to school (which sounds so difficult to do – I already have a master’s degree!) a career in interior design is futile, but this post has given me hope that I just need to keep dreaming and reaching for my goal. I need to create my own path. Again, thank you for this post. This is a great reminder that there is never just one path to a destination.

  6. Elizabeth August 26, 2009 | 2:06 am

    Great post and thank you for all of your information. I went to the Art Institute and received a Diploma (1 year of schooling) in Residential Design, and have since then specialized in Kitchen Design and Remodeling. I never started as an intern, but got thrown right into work as a Design Assistant when I first started. Experience is key when starting out, and I would say schooling is a must, and while in school, try to figure out what kind of job you see yourself doing and focus on those particular areas. The design industry is broad as there are so many different areas you can specialize in.

  7. Dobbygirl August 26, 2009 | 2:31 am

    Heather, thank you so much for this post! I’m right in the middle of trying to figure out if I want to go to Interior Design school. My background is fabric design in residential, hospitality, healthcare and office. I’m leaning more towards a commercial interior design path concentrating on green healthcare. So this post is quite timely!

    And you are spot on in being willing to get your hands dirty and do anything. Gosh I was Styling Manager for a textile manufacturer on 5th Ave and I didn’t hesitate to take off my shoes, sit on the floor and cut samples, staple headers and make copies. You do what you have to do to get the job done no matter what your title is. And doing all the “crap” jobs is how you learn!

    Thank you again!!!! You are awesome!!

  8. Katherine August 26, 2009 | 2:41 am

    Wonderful post, Heather.
    Thank you!

  9. Heather Draper August 26, 2009 | 2:42 am

    Great post!!!I wish more of the young designer’s coming to me understood this! We all started at the bottom…

  10. kelly August 26, 2009 | 3:08 am

    great post heather! as an aside, it might be interesting for you to ask designers what they are looking for in employees right now. i find a lot…a LOT…of people apply with no experience whatsoever, think that being a designer is going to be ‘so much fun!’ and then are offended when i ask them to sort/return memo samples!

  11. Lauren Jade August 26, 2009 | 3:14 am

    thank you! this was a fabulous post! I can’t wait to get back to the states (I’m taking a 6 month hiatus in Australia, where I’m intending on immersing myself immensely in their culture and design to gain more experience) When I get back I can’t wait to find someone to internship with! I knew since I was 12 I wanted to design.

  12. style chronicle August 26, 2009 | 3:31 am

    Thank you for this post. This is an age old debate and your thoughts were quite helpful.

    A great sense of style, along with hard work with a good attitude will get you far in the industry. My husband who is a successful businessman says “happy people get rewarded” and he is right!

  13. Paula Grace Designs August 26, 2009 | 4:11 am

    Great post. The advice is solid. Yes, AutoCAD is very helpful ~ I use it daily. It helps to design and to not make mistakes. I get calls and emails from robust interns looking for a placement all the time ~ I wish I could accommodate more!
    Paula Grace ~

  14. likelydesign August 26, 2009 | 4:25 am

    I totally agree – my internship was the most valuable part of design school, besides drafting and I also really enjoyed my portfolio class where we did an entire business plan and client project. I still keep in contact with the designer I worked for, plus she had great style and that helped me see how to take on a job, no matter how big or small!!

    Great post, thanks!!

    Lindsay @ Likely Design

  15. Lindsey Conrad - Nabors August 26, 2009 | 5:15 am

    So interesting and really something to think about. This makes me want to see if I could work somewhere even just one day a week as an intern like you said! I LOVE design, but am just about to finish up my business/mktg degree after changing my major 3 times. My parents would KILL me if I said I wanted to start all over again. But maybe somehow I can use my business knowledge with anything else I can learn about design! Great post!! Thank you!!

  16. Anonymous August 26, 2009 | 8:06 am

    I have been reading since you started this blog and I think it’s time I comment.
    You are the most gracious, generous and stylish person I have come across in the blogosphere. You always put so much thought and labour into your posts and it is astounding.
    Best regards
    Arabella from London

  17. Suzy August 26, 2009 | 9:12 am

    Great advice, I don’t think it could have said it any better.

    And the other Heather was also correct, we all did start at the bottom, so why would you hire someone who thinks they are above all of that? Or someone who has no idea whats going on in the design world (let alone fahion or arts etc). You need to read and do everything you can to prove yourself, but hopefully it will all pay off in the end.

  18. lissadzn August 26, 2009 | 10:32 am

    Well said, Heather. I think what drove me to finishing my degree was the difference between wanting to be an “interior designer” vs. an “interior decorator”. Without going to school, and taking the exams, decorators don’t have the structural building and material courses that allow us to know about berring walls, and HVAC systems. What can be moved, what are the ADA rules for Universal design, Fire and Health Codes and keeping people safe in a space. Also, one of the most important things I’ve learned from going to school is how to avoid law suits. If a material is improperly spec’d for a space, the designer may be sued. I highly recommend taking courses: drafting, rendering, history of furniture and building systems are staples, in my opinion for a well ballanced “designer”. Any person with great taste can be a decorator tomorrow, the difference is that a designer has put in the effort to complete the exams and are a professional.

  19. Greet August 26, 2009 | 10:38 am

    Well Heather,
    I want you to say that you are right! It’s a good job to start from below , than you learn a lot!
    In Belgium there are good design schools but there are still a few persons who make career as a good designer.
    You learn the most things by working by a well-known designer, if you have the luck to get in there!


  20. Developing Designs August 26, 2009 | 11:59 am

    Well said! Great points. It’s not all glorious as so many might think. I am certain you have just helped a lot of people head in the right direction with these great tips. It’s a passion and will be well worth all the sacrifices you might have to make along the way. Hard work, commitment, good personality and a positive attitude will go a long way in the industry. But, VERY important (as you stated) and in my opinion too, is definitely a sense of humor. I can’t tell you how many times I have used the “it’s not brain surgery line” or “it’s not life threatening if you don’t get it delivered on time” quotes. As always, your blogs are such a treat to read. Thank you.

  21. Tammy Tant August 26, 2009 | 12:36 pm

    Wonderful post Heather. I think an intern is exactly what my business needs right now. Every designer should have an understanding of how window coverings are made. So, it would benefit both of us. Thanks so much for this post !

  22. Taylor August 26, 2009 | 12:56 pm

    Thank you so much for this post. I begin my drafting class in a month and I am so excited! People around me keep saying that I (or anyone serious about design) don’t need to go to school, but I feel that it is the best fit for me. I need the income at my current job and so I can’t just run off and become an intern somewhere. By the time I graduate, however, I should be ready both in knowledge and financially to follow whatever path lay ahead…a big “cheers!” to all the ID students out there, and to those that are helping us along the way!

  23. bundle design co August 26, 2009 | 1:18 pm

    A huge thanks from someone just starting out. When you definitely have the passion, little “pushes” from experts like yourself really help (especially when you don’t know where to begin!).

    Great post!

  24. Chelsea August 26, 2009 | 1:18 pm

    This post came at the perfect time for me. I’ve got a bachelor’s degree in the theatre field, but my true passion is interior design. It’s hard to go from working full-time and being an “adult” in the “real world” to being a student again, but I’m feeling like this is what I need to do… your post was extremely helpful. Thank you!

  25. home before dark August 26, 2009 | 1:19 pm

    As a total bystander in all of this, I always love it when someone passes the baton with grace. And, at almost 60, more than tickled to hear you comment about the lack of “want to” by these youngsters these days.

    I chose English and journalism over interior design and have straddled the fence between vocation and avocation. I think your advice is spot on, and I appreciate your comments on the people who do the heavy lifting. Kindness and graciousness when you do have to be is my golden standard for people. Today girl, you are golden!

  26. TheWingchairTraveller August 26, 2009 | 2:25 pm

    Thank you for your very generous and timely advice! I’ve been struggling with this same issue for years, and your advice definitely clarifies a few things. I have a degree in English and Art History and am torn between a PhD in English or trying to enter the design field. Since I am settled with my family in a smaller city without the requisite opportunities available to me, I think I will choose the former. Thanks again for the great advice! Love your blog, by the way…

  27. Cathy Whitlock August 26, 2009 | 3:27 pm

    Great post! I too get asked this question all the time and I tell everyone to specialize and diversify! That is the future for interior designers. It’s great to have a niche but even better to be multi-talented in a variety of areas within the profession.

    For more on designing your design career, see my
    book/website http://wwwredesignthebook.com

    Thanks for doing this blog post Heather and giving back to the community.

  28. Anonymous August 26, 2009 | 3:30 pm

    As a frustrated designer who hasn’t quite found her niche yet, your advice is very encouraging! Keeps me motivated because I have that passion for design and know it’s what I was meant to do.

    Thanks for the encouraging words!

  29. Adam August 26, 2009 | 3:33 pm

    Great post, Heather.

    I’ve applied to several job/internship openings, and AutoCAD is definitely the common denominator. I took a great class at Pratt on the weekends.

    But really just being able to speak the language is key. I do a lot of sales work with interior designers and being able to say “Oh, you mean a sort of David Hicks-ish print?” goes a long way.

    Thanks again!



  30. mary August 26, 2009 | 3:42 pm

    Amazing post! So true for all areas of life. Thanks for putting it down so clearly. Paris is coming.

  31. Lisa D. August 26, 2009 | 5:46 pm

    Hi Habitually Chic
    Great Post! Very thoughful of you to put all this together. I myself have a B.A. in Political Science & a few years ago thought about going back to school. I know excatly what you mean about the autocad -errr! Great advice about the letter & I did just that back in Nashville – it got me the job!

  32. Danielle August 26, 2009 | 6:31 pm

    Thanks for all of your advice Heather!

  33. Dandy August 26, 2009 | 9:40 pm

    I went to the New York School of Interior Design. I would definitely recommend it. Very small and lots of designer lectures and events. They also have a great job placement office. I would recommend doing as many internships as you can while you are n school. It’s the best way to get a job. Also, the ability to deal with clients and the attendant stresses is very important. You get to see that by working for a designer. My first job was with a well known and very creative hospitality design firm, but it just wans’t for me. I finally found a place with the old school traditional high end designers of my dreams, then went on my own. I made the job switch at 45, which wasn’t easy, but if this is you, keep in mind that you will find older designers and clients who will feel more comfortable with you that with younger people. There is a place for everyone.
    This was a great post!
    Good luck to all the job hunters.
    One more thing, while you are in school, put lots of time into researching products.
    Start picture flies for a source library. I have mine online in picasa through google, organized by category. I also have 20 years of ripped out magazine pages, but these days I try to keep it all digital. I use them for inspiration and to show clients.

  34. Black Zebra August 26, 2009 | 10:14 pm

    I have an internship coming up with House and Garden(UK).I have been to a few shoots assisting renowned stylists,and done all that for free,because like you said -Experience is what one takes from it.I was a stay-at-home mum for five years until early this year. I’m scared .I’m excited and I just want to say THANK YOU for the advice that seemed to come to me at the right time.

  35. Leonie August 27, 2009 | 1:30 am

    dear Heather, THANK YOU so much for your generosity in sharing what you’ve learnt! I completed a Diploma in Design but am interested in further study……or do I just get in and get some hands-on experience!? Maybe both, why not!
    Thank you, I love seeing your name in my inbox!

  36. Blair August 27, 2009 | 8:23 pm

    What fabulous advice! Thank you so much. I had definitley been struggling with whether or not to go to interior design school–and your thoughts are most helpful!

  37. Fancy for nyc August 28, 2009 | 2:40 pm

    This is so great! I too have an Art hist degree and started working for an interior designer as a P.A. I started at the very bottom! A positive attitude, quick thinking, and avoiding the tyranny of the urgent has kept me going even through this economy.

  38. Soma Pradhan August 28, 2009 | 6:06 pm


    This was such an informative and well written post! Thank you so much for sharing your advice. It gives me the motivation I was searching for. I worked at an Architectural firm while I went to design school (after a BS in Psychology and a short career as a Social Worker). I found that what I learned on the job overshadowed what I learned in school, however I wouldn’t trade my school experience for the world!

    I’ve recently relocated markets (due to strained finances) and am starting “all over” again. I’ve been contemplating what I’ll do, and I think you’ve given me the answer.

    Thank you again!

  39. saltbox girl September 4, 2009 | 10:19 pm

    Your words are sound and these comments are all sound. Learning from those in your field is both beneficial and motivating. I love hearing from people with passion.

    No matter your age, no matter your design background (formal education or not), I cannot stress enough surrounding yourself with the current trends and having a keen sense of the classics.

  40. Alex March 27, 2010 | 5:09 am

    I’m still in high school but I’m wondering: if I want to do a major in Interior Design should I go for a minor in architecture? Or the other way around? Thank you for this informative post as I am just reaching the tip of the iceberg as far as interior design is concerned.


  41. Marilyn G Russell October 25, 2010 | 8:41 pm

    Hello Heather, nice to meet you, via your blog anyways :). I’ve been a regular reader but this is my first time posting a comment. What a great post! I recently turned 40 and Interior Design will be my second career. Thanks for the wonderful words of encouragement because at times I think to myself, how much longer can I endure the rigorous requirements of school. Even though there’s much to learn, I’m glad I decided to pursue a degree in Interior Design.