A friend of a friend called to ask if he could meet to talk about his interest in pursuing a career in interior design. This 45-year-old mortgage-broker was, in his words, "having a mid-life crisis" and wanted to spend his time in a more creative pursuit.
Often, I am asked to advise those contemplating launching a career in interior design. I confess that I find it a challenge to explain this complex profession to someone who probably doesn't yet understand it.
This gentleman spoke of recently remodeling his dining room, and the elation he felt at arriving at the perfect paint color after painting 35 color samples on the walls, as well as the sensual pleasure he derived from touching the perfect Larsen silk he found for the draperies.
He asked what I thought about television's "Top Design" and who did I think was doing outstanding design in the area, and how could he work for them? How much money could he make, and how much product did he have to sell to make a good living?
Identify With the Client
Based on his conversation and questions, I concluded that for him, interior design was about selecting wonderful products and selling them to clients. The thrill of the hunt was alluring to him. While that can be part of the job, the fact is there is so much more to what interior designers do.
I started by explaining that interior design was a process of creating environments to support certain behaviors. Products are one of the tools used to create the environment; however, before they are selected, it is important to identify with the client what the design is expected to achieve.
Depending on whether the environment is a home or business, the client, for example, may want the space to encourage relaxation, to communicate a brand or image, to increase productivity or to aid in healing patients. Designers use questions to understand the clients' goals as part of a design process that is central to interior design education and training.
This approach is so effective for solving problems that some business schools are now modeling their instruction after it.
Schooling is a necessity in the field — even for entry-level positions — and the competition for jobs is intense. Advancing in the profession minimally involves completing an internship, passing a national qualifying examination, registering with the states or jurisdictions where you practice, and taking ongoing continuing education to stay current with this rapidly changing industry.
Professional associations, like the American Society of Interior Designers, help practitioners throughout their careers by establishing standards, providing resources, and offering a network of peers who serve as mentors and colleagues.
Starting salaries for interior designers, according to the "Occupational Handbook" developed by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, are lower than for a number of other professions. The longtime practice of basing fees on product sales is disappearing as a business model since the Internet has given consumers easy access to products from all over the world.
Also diminishing are "to the trade" exclusivity that once existed only for interior designers and a few others.
Savvy designers today are educating their clients about the real service they provide, which extends far beyond supplying products and are charging fees accordingly. Many interior-design businesses that had been basing fees on products are now basing fees on service or a combination of both. Other businesses are basing fees on measured results.
Because the business is project-based, hours can be long when deadlines loom. For those who own their business, the hours can grow longer.
I explained to my new acquaintance that his background in banking would most likely be more helpful than he imagined, based on several assumptions. He is adept at interviewing people to find out what they need. He can identify the decision-maker, even if that person is not at the table. He can facilitate decision-making, and he understands basic business principles, which may be shortchanged in formal interior-design education.
In fact, having spent many years in a specific work environment makes him particularly well-suited to specializing in the interior design of financial institutions because interior design, as first-year students learn, can be applied to much more than homes.
Suzan Globus is president of ASID and a principal of Globus Design Associates in Red Bank, N.J.