If you have spent any time watching HGTV, you may think you have some idea about what it’s like to be an interior designer. But the miracle makeovers, limitless budgets, and luxury furniture on these so-called reality TV shows don’t accurately portray what it is like to be an interior designer in real life, with real clients. Working as an interior designer is not just about having a sense of style. In fact, many of your hours will be spent on the details of project management, writing proposals, accounting, planning, and marketing.
To get a better sense of what it takes to be successful in this industry, we asked six interior designers to weigh in on what their jobs are really like. One thing they all agreed on? It’s hard work, but they absolutely love it. And it is that passion that helps when you hit road bumps along the way.
1. You Have to be Interested in Running a Successful Business
Interior design is an art form. Interior designers take a space and make it more attractive, functional, and in some cases, safer. But beyond the artistic aspects of the job, you are also running a business.
“It's kind of like an iceberg,” says Juliane Mazzarella of Avenue Interiors. “What we see on the top is just the frosting, but there's all this other stuff that goes on underneath it that you've got to love that part of it too, or you'll burn out or just be miserable.”
Bridget McMullin, ASID, NCIDQ, CID, ReGreen of The McMullin Design Group, “we are creating a concept and then managing it through to completion. It entails not only pretty concepts but also professional services including construction documentation and specification, sourcing products, project management, purchasing, damages & warranties, as well as all the other behind the scene work to get the project done.”
That other part has a lot to do with how you run the business. Stephanie Cole of Melanie by Design stresses the importance of developing processes from day one, with your first client. “If you don't have your systems or processes in place from the start, when you have more business coming in, it can be very overwhelming and difficult to implement,” she says.
These designers told us you have to tap into your design mind to create such systems, and think of the process as solving a problem. Then commit to your business design as much as you commit to your interior designs.
It’s also wise to learn business techniques by starting out as an employee rather than going straight to solopreneur. “You don’t know what you don’t know. Working for someone for a period of time will give you important insights, including helping you decide if the business owner lifestyle is one you wish to maintain for the rest of your life. A lot of people think they can run their business, take care of their family, have a social life, and pay themselves a decent salary. The truth is, it is a very difficult industry with an extensive time commitment. The majority of your hours will be spent running your business, not billing clients.” Bridget says.
2. You Have to Be Willing to Do More than Just Design
“When you own a small business you play the role of CFO, CEO, HR Director, and delivery driver, to mention a few. As we’ve grown, I've been fortunate enough to hire people who can tackle these tasks, affording me more time with my clients,” says Michele Fanning of Design Collaborative.
Recognizing your strengths and weaknesses in the various situations that arise will help you identify who or what you need to bring to the table to enable your success. “Shore up your weaknesses with technology or an assistant, or help from a vendor or supplier, and don't be a Jack of all trades,” advises Juliane.
Juliane also cautions against getting caught up in the glamour of design, “It's not like it is on TV. There's a lot of schlepping.” She suggests owning a van and wearing clothes that you don’t mind getting messy.
“This is not something you get into because it seems like it would be fun or because you want to buy the pretty stuff. There's also a lot of grunt work. If you're not willing to do both, you'll always feel kind of dissatisfied with it.” - Juliane
3. Spend the Time on Education and Credentials
The designers we spoke to emphasized that there is a big difference between decorating and design, and the commitment you make to your education will be incredibly important.
As Michele puts it, “Get educated, stay educated, and get certified. Set yourself apart from all of the people that call themselves designers just by giving themselves the title and putting a sign out front. They may know how to pick fabrics and paint colors, but you will be ahead of the curve and stand out from them if you can get certified. Make sure you are proficient in CAD. We have a very hard time finding good designers that also know how to put together a complete set of construction documents, if you can do this, you can get a job anywhere.”
This also includes taking the necessary business classes to help you make wise financial decisions, learn how to draw up contracts that protect your business, and consider additional skills that can help set you apart. “You are not only the designer, but you are also the marketing department, accounting department, and the ordering department. If you don’t know how to do these things, take practical business classes,” says Bridget.
4. Interior Design is as Much about People as it is About Spaces
Many of the interior designers we spoke to not only felt passionate about the work but also about the people they work with.
“I love getting to know our clients and discovering how they live and work, allowing us to make their lives easier and more beautiful. Through the design process, many of our clients have become life-long friends. The extensive research we do during the programming phase has become one of my favorite parts of the design process,” says Michele.
But loving it can only happen when you make sure you work with the kinds of people and projects that you love. Don’t try to be everything to everyone. Find your niche and that includes the personality types you will work with because you will spend so much time with your clients.
“You have to work for people that you want to be around. The moment that you make that compromise, no one wins,” says Juliane. She warns this can lead to a very unhappy process, including more stress about whether or not the client is happy, appreciates your work, and will even be willing to pay according to the contract. “It gets complicated. And so you have to find your people.”
At the end of the day, the design you create and implement is going to live on in someone else’s home or business. Having synergy with the people you work with will help make sure your project is a success.
5. Talk About Price, But Don’t Let it Block Your Creativity
Especially when you are first starting out, you might worry about recommending designs or materials that are on the higher end. No one likes to talk about money, so start the conversation from a solutions perspective.
“Even if a client says they don't have a budget, they have a budget. In their head, so try to get to the bottom of that with a walk-through. Make an itemized list before you even start sourcing anything and say ‘here’s what we think it will cost you at the mid-range,’” says Stephanie.
Once you have a general budget, you can push against it with great recommendations. “Often, I am more concerned about the budget than they are. In the past, I wouldn’t offer a higher-end or more interesting piece because I was concerned about the budget. If you think it’s right, show it and let them choose. I want my clients to love it so my only regret is choosing a more standard solution to fit the budget,” says Jenn Sanborn of Sacris Design
Finding the middle ground between a killer recommendation and fitting the budget sometimes takes time to learn and goes back to the idea of the relationships you build with your clients.
“If you don't have your systems or processes in place from the start, when you have more business coming in, it can be very overwhelming and difficult to implement.” Stephanie Cole, Melanie by Design
6. Income can Vary Widely Based on Location and Specialty
Interior design is not just for homeowners. You can work with builders, architects, government agencies and business owners. How you choose to specialize and where you choose to live can have a big impact on your bottom line. According to College Grad, the median annual wage for interior designers is $53,370. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $29,970, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $94,130.
But even if you have done your due diligence and set your expectations based on these factors, you also have to be aware that life happens and impacts your business. When it does, “Be flexible, be willing to change with the times, and everything will work out fine. I've survived the recession and the Loma Prieta earthquake while living in San Francisco in 1989. Staying current with design trends is only a portion of changing with the times; it's just as important to be adaptable to the economic forecasts as well as anything Mother Nature may have in store,” says Michele.
7. The Days are Long and Nontraditional
When you’re working on a project, you can find yourself working 10-hour days, or even longer. Setting boundaries is essential for self-preservation, especially if you happen to have a life outside of interior design.
“My main advice is it can wait until Monday morning. Clients might be searching on the weekends or coming up with questions on a Sunday, but unless it is related to construction schedules or schedules for next week and it’s important to reply, I wait until Monday morning. You have to give yourself days off,” says Jenn.
Ivonne Ronderos of D'Kor Interiors suggests setting intentions around how you spend your time off work so that you have an opportunity to recharge “I make sure to have hobbies or things to do that do not include interior design so that I can disconnect and come back with a fresh approach.”
“We just sent out a client communication policy. You find out clients will want to email and text at all hours of the night or day or morning and you just have to set boundaries for your client,” says Stephanie.
8. Defining and Maintaining your Brand is Also Your Job
As Jenn says, the visuals in this industry are everything. So start taking photographs of all your projects. High-quality photos that document your before and after can pay off long after the project is done. “I have shots that show my work that are 15 years old–they stand the test of time.”
Defining your brand also means saying no to projects that are not in your wheelhouse. “My best friend, who's in the industry as well, she's awesome at kitchens and baths and has really found her niche there. Whereas I'm really good at window treatments. I'm really good at layering fabrics. I'm really good at space planning in certain areas of the home. I have my strengths, so that's what my business is built on. 70% of my business is window treatments,” says Juliane.
“You can't say ‘Yes’ to everybody, especially if you want to have a successful, profitable business. You have to learn to identify what kind of projects you want to do, who your ideal client is. And then when someone comes to you that doesn't meet that criteria, knowing how to gently turn projects down,” says Stephanie. As hard as it is to say no, in the long run, it may prove to be the best thing you can do for your business.
“You can't say ‘Yes’ to everybody, especially if you want to have a successful, profitable business." Stephanie Cole, Melanie by Design
9. Never Underestimate the Importance of Networking
Then there is the business of networking. When you are first starting out you have to make the marketing effort of connecting with people and other business owners. This isn’t just for potential clients, but also for the vendors and manufacturers you will work with. These relationships, in particular, are important to build early on.
Your first clients are probably going to be in your network already, But Stephanie cautions that if you go that route, to remember you are professional and not just doing a friend a favor, “One of the issues that I know that we had here at our firm is just charging for your time and charging what you're worth.” That’s actually where Stephanie’s role as office manager really helped. “Putting me as the office manager created a buffer to bill clients without the awkwardness of billing your friends.” she said.
10. Set Yourself Up for Success
When it comes to running a design business there are so many factors to consider, but here are a few parting words to help set you up for success:
Stephanie: Know your costs. From your overhead costs to how much it costs to keep your business open every month. The sooner you learn those things the easier it is to make business decisions.
Juliane: Write it all down. I live by a color-coded Google calendar and schedule in when you are doing your design work.
Bridget: Having a contract from the beginning is so important. The contract sets the rules of the game. If a client is scared to sign the contract or give you a deposit, that is an indication that they are not a good client.
Ivonne: Don’t stress out over the small stuff. Everything has a solution. I would also remind myself that I’m not going to live in this house, so it needs to meet their expectations, not yours.
Michele: There are three that I live by and try to relay to the other designers in my office, especially when they are getting started in the industry; a. be a good listener – the journey is about the client and you are their conductor; b. have confidence in yourself and your decisions – don’t be afraid to go out on a limb, good design is not always safe; and c. have patience.
These 10 truths are only a few of the many that reveal what it is like to work in interior design. Like any other business, hard work, talent, and persistence always create a recipe for success.