dear design school grad


The best career advice I ever got was from my first year design instructor. She told me to find another major because I wouldn’t make it in interior design. She didn’t think I was good enough. I don’t know if she actually intended this as good advice or if she was just an old be-atch, but if not for her advice, and the follow-up advice that I got from my senior seminar instructor a few years later, I would be waiting tables at some old coffee shop right now.

Over the course of the last twenty years, I’ve spent many hours with people considering interior design as a career or who have just graduated and want to know what to do next. So here are a few tips from the trenches (well at least the trench that I work from).

1. If design doesn’t feed your soul, don’t do it.

I had a degree in french and was a senior in the marketing program at my university when I switched to design. One day in my senior year when I was slogging through yet another marketing plan my sis suggested I check out interior design. Not wanting to choose colors and pick furniture as a career I shrugged the idea off at first, then finally interviewed some instructors in the department as well as working professionals. What I heard sparked a fire in me that I couldn’t articulate and hadn’t felt before. So based on my gut reaction, I added another two years to my college career and made the switch. I still can’t articulate the feeling, but I do know that if I am not creating, drawing and solving problems that create better lives for my clients, I don’t breathe as well. That old instructor who told me I wasn’t good enough clearly didn’t understand me (or design)…and her lack of faith pushed me to prove her wrong so that I could keep breathing.

2. There are no shortcuts.

When you graduate you won’t be designing the next cover project for Interior Design Magazine. You will be creating presentation boards (meaning you’ll be gluing pretty pictures and pieces of fabric to cardboard), putting amazing documents together that show other people’s designs to their best effect, putting together finish schedules, specifying furnishings that someone else chose, cleaning up the conference room, basically making other people’s jobs easier. This is the path. Study hard, learn the amazing computer programs that are available to you and offer these skills every chance you get, when you finish a task ask for another, expect to work long hours when a deadline is approaching and don’t make plans the evening before a presentation….you will have to cancel. I began my career in small design firms so that I was exposed to the full breadth of design projects. My projects weren’t spectacular (small office spaces, very basic tenant improvement work), but I learned how to run a project from start to finish. If you choose to begin your career for one of the larger firms, you may work on more prestigious projects, but you will do a smaller piece of them. You know your personality, so move in the direction that best fits who you are. And whatever you do, do it well. The devil truly is in the details…mess up the details and the senior designers in your firm won’t want you on their projects. During my senior seminar I had a conversation with my instructor that I’ve never forgotten. I was lamenting the fact that I didn’t have the crazy out-there conceptualizing skills of one of my classmates. He told me that if he had to choose, he would hire me over her because I had skills that were marketable and that he could use. I could draw and write, my communication skills were excellent, and I enjoyed working down to the details. He counseled me to grow these concrete skills whenever I had the opportunity.

3. You are a problem solver first….never forget that.

Pretty isn’t the highest priority. Your first job is to solve your client’s problem, and before you can do that you must understand what the problem is. Every project begins with programming and if this isn’t done well, your design will fail. Before you even begin asking programming questions, you need to research your client and understand their business, how they work, what their employees do moment to moment and day to day, who their customers are. If this is a residential project you need to understand how your client family lives and what makes them feel comfortable, at home, happy. How they entertain and whether they love the outdoors or prefer a cozy fire inside. Then ask educated questions about the specific project and figure out how your design can fulfill their need and solve their problem. When I’m doing a restaurant project I need to understand my client’s business. If they are a full service restaurant, the operation will look very different from a fast casual lunch place. And if they are cooking three meals their kitchen will require more space than if they make sandwiches. Once you have solved the problem, then make it pretty…aesthetics are important, just not the first order of business.

4. Learn all you can before you begin and then learn some more.

There are certificate programs and short degree courses. Take the long course. Design is not just color theory and lighting science, it is a way of looking at the world. The only way to get there is to take the long course…and understand that there is no end. In order to create successful design you will need to understand the world as it grows and changes. Keep reading, talk to experts in other fields, pick the brains of the contractors and fabricators you work with, travel, take pictures. The world is an exciting place and everything you learn will make you a better designer.

5. Pretty pictures aren’t built projects.

Part of any design job, a big part, is understanding the local jurisdiction’s rules and operating procedures as well as local codes. Anyone can draw pretty pictures (well almost anyone), but can these pretty pictures be built? Learn how to research this information and the senior designers in your firm will be begging to have you on their teams. Even if this never becomes your area of expertise, know enough to ask appropriate questions as a design begins to gel. It seems to get more difficult all the time to navigate the myriad rules and regulations that sometimes feel like roadblocks, so get used to finding ways around. I learned early on (thanks to my friend Ed), that the best way to complete a project is to meet with building officials before design has even begun. Explain the project goals and ask for guidance to avoid potential bumps in the road.

So that’s my unsolicited advice….if you’d like more, feel free to contact me! And welcome to the world of design. I hope it fills your soul and makes you as happy as it makes me!

1 reply
  1. wildmaiden says:

    I love your points! Did u see that yahoo article yesterday aboit worst college majors ever? All art haha whatevs it feeds my soul too ive been wrking steady for six years anyway.

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