Top Ten Tips for Aspiring Interior Designers

When I started thinking about this post I was very conscious that my own interior design career is still in its toddler years and therefore you might ask who am I to share tips with others thinking about doing the same?

Well, you may be right, that’s one answer, but looking back I think I would have found the insights of someone relatively new into the industry even more helpful than someone seasoned, who seemed a world away from where I was.  So here I am, offering them in spite of my better judgement in case they prove useful.

As for my own journey into interior design (yes, I said journey), I have been working with paying clients for about a year now and building up to a career change for another two years before that.

Having left university with a first degree in English Literature and a Masters in Business Research I basically fell into a career in Corporate Finance, an industry that I didn’t even really know existed and that I spent the next 17 years having to try to explain to close friends and family.

Basically my job involved helping people who owned Technology companies, usually worth £10 million or more, find a buyer for their business by researching their market globally and pitching it to potential acquirers.

It’s a fairly tough industry with notoriously long hours, plenty of travel and high pressure pitch situations, not to mention the fact that it is ridiculously male dominated.  I spent 17 years more often than not being the only woman in the room.

There were many things that I liked about it however.  It was fast-paced so it was hard to get bored and it has to be said the money isn’t bad, but I really always knew it wasn’t something I wanted to do for the rest of my life and I also always dreamed of owning my own business so I saved up and planned my way out.

For me this involved doing a diploma in Interior Design while I worked, more on that later, and then starting a few jobs also while still working.  Then last summer I took the plunge, handed in my notice and launched my own business.  I can’t say it’s been an easy ride but it’s certainly also been the best decision I ever made.

So for anyone thinking about doing the same thing here are the top ten things I wish I had known when I started.

Studying

I said I’d come back to this one and it makes sense to cover this first as it is likely the first thing that you’ll do, or at least it was for me.  Having no experience in the design industry for me I felt it made sense to do a course to give me a grounding and also to make sure that it was something that I actually wanted to do.  There are various options to go for but for me, with a full time job and two kids, an online diploma made sense because I couldn’t commit to anything with specific teaching hours.  Again there are a few to choose from but I did a diploma with the Interior Design Institute which I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend.  Nothing beats real life experience but it was a brilliant introduction to many aspects of the industry and I still find myself referring back to parts of it today.

Read, Read, Read

As well as the more structured learning experience of the diploma it is also essential to start reading literally as much as you can.  For me this meant spending more money that I would have liked to on magazines – my favourites are Elle Decoration for the more inspirational and theoretical and Living Etc for the more practical in terms of new suppliers and products – and, of course, a lot of Instagram browsing.  There are also so many books out there which proved to be a valuable introduction – for example Farrow & Ball’s book for colour history – to the industry in general but also to specific areas that are of interest to me.  Reading a lot meant that when I did start to meet clients I had a good understanding of current trends, examples to demonstrate a specific idea that I was talking about and knowledge of products that I otherwise would have not come across.

Social Media

Another thing that I committed to very early on, long before I could publicly state my intention to change my career was social media.  For me this has been focused on Instagram although I also have a Facebook business account and am now turning my attention to Pinterest.  For starters it is a way of “meeting” other people in the industry, or just those who are similarly interiors obsessed, but it is also an important source of inspiration and of products, particularly from small businesses that you may otherwise not see advertised.  I am now also finding that it is a decent potential source of business with people finding me directly through Instagram or able to access my feed through my website.  It’s another way to showcase your style to potential clients, demonstrating what they can expect to get if they hire you.  Inadvertently I’ve also now grown to the point where I am occasionally working with some brands.  It’s nice to get the free products of course (!) but actually it’s an area I just never expected to get into and I’m loving seeing where it might take me.

Online Presence

For me social media came first but that was a breeze compared with putting my website together and I would say it’s still a work in progress but at some point you just have to press publish.  Spend as much time as you can looking at websites of other people in the creative industry – not necessarily just interior design – to get an idea of what it is you like and think about how and if that aesthetic reflects the style you want to portray.  Look in particular at how different pages work, how you prefer to view a roll of pictures for example, and then narrow it down to what works for you.  You can, of course, relatively easily build your own site these days but I went with a site designer that we already knew which made the process slightly less onerous (but actually still massively onerous because I couldn’t make up my mind).  Also consider where else you want people to be able to see you online.  For example most people set up a Houzz profile these days – they offer a free and paid service but starting out with a free profile in the first instance is really helpful.

Building Your Portfolio

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the principal way people decide that they are going to hire you as their interior designer is from your portfolio.  This is one of the biggest challenges you face as you go into the industry as the chances are you have few or no projects with which to sell yourself and convince people that you have any idea of what you are doing.

My advice on this one would be to start as early as you can.  Your portfolio does not have to be filled with paying clients in the first instance, instead get some really good photos of what you have done in your own house – I paid for some in the end as I just wanted the pictures for my website to look top notch.

Secondly start working for friends, family  and acquaintances as soon as you can.  For free if necessary.  Run the jobs like they are proper clients which is a good experience of what it is really like, and instead of a fee ask if you can take photos at the end to use in your portfolio.  Build up as many as you can before you launch so you can hit the ground running.

Building Your Contractor Network

This was one of my main areas of weaknesses when I began and something I’ve spent the whole year really focusing on.  It’s lovely doing the initial design work and this is why many of us get into the industry but the reality is that once you have your lovely design your clients want you to deliver it and you will need contractors for lots of different areas (joinery, kitchens, electricians, decorators) that you trust and feel happy to recommend.  I was lucky to have a few to begin with but with others I did a lot of research and met people to understand how they worked, what their typical jobs were and the areas that they worked and started from there.  The earlier you can start building this network the better.

Building Your Referral Network

And talking of networks, don’t forget that you also need to build a network of people that might refer jobs to you.  There was nothing that I hated more in my old job than networking but it’s obviously such an important element of building a small business.  Again I’m lucky that my husband is an architect, not only in that he can refer jobs to me but also in that we have other friends that are architects and can be potential referrers.  Think of anyone and everyone that you know that can be a starting point of a referral network and let them know about what you are doing and where your focus is.  It may feel a bit cringe but it will pay dividends.

Trade Accounts

Bizarrely it was a while before I felt “proper” enough to start applying for trade accounts with suppliers but when you are doing procurement for a job it is an essential part of making a profit from a job.  Most only require your business email, sometimes an existing website or a business card but I do wish I’d started setting accounts with suppliers like tile companies, brassware and sanitaryware companies up at the beginning when I had more time to think about these things.

Software

Another element which feels difficult at the outset is investing in software and I held back for some time, making do with free applications for space planning and my design boards for example.  Ultimately though I didn’t find any free applications that could do what I wanted to do in a professional enough format and so I found it necessary to invest in both SketchUp and Photoshop.  I haven’t had any professional training on either although I have had a bit of help from some people who know more than I do, but in the main I have just played with them a lot to come up with a format that I’m happy to use from client to client.

Boring Admin Stuff

And lastly, the boring admin stuff.  Which is, inevitably, always bottom of the pile, but if you are starting out and have time it’s a great idea to invest some time getting this in order before you get too busy to bother.  For example I’m still in the year long process of trying to put a supplier list together because I’m just never quiet enough to get round to it.  I did, however, invest in some accounting software fairly early on – I use FreeAgent – and this has proved to be money well spent as it manages everything from Invoices through to expenses, tax and accounts.  Not exciting stuff but necessary when you suddenly find yourself running your own business with no experience whatsoever.

So those are my top ten tips as I see it today.  I’m fully expecting my view on the industry to develop and reshape as I find my way within it so stay tuned…