When embarking on any journey—a career move, personal endeavor, or life plan—having a proper road map is critical. Perhaps you’ve been into interior design since playing with your Legos or Barbie Dream House as a youngster, or you got bit by the design bug in high school or college, or maybe you decided to make a career pivot to interior design later in life. However you arrived at this impasse, Studio Designer is here to help with a step-by-step guide as to how to launch a career in interior design.

Focus Inward

Before pivoting into a career in interior design, do some self-reflection. Why do you want to be an interior designer? What traits, talents, and/or skills do you possess that would make you successful in the profession? What aspects of the field appeal to you? Do you have a penchant for healthcare or hospitality, lighting or landscape design? While it’s not necessary to choose an area of focus as you set out on your quest to become an interior designer, it helps to establish a plan, set goals, and visualize where you see yourself in the future.

Anyone can call themselves an interior decorator, but only an accredited design professional can be an interior designer. A little more than half of the states require licensure for interior design, which includes passing the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) exam. In order to take the three-part NCIDQ exam, you must first complete an associate, bachelor’s, or master’s degree plus a certain number of hours of work experience (depending on your level of education).

Consider Design School

Decide if you must attend design school for the work you want to do. If you’re more interested in decorating, then it likely isn’t essential for you. Or perhaps your undergraduate education provided you with a solid background in interior design so that attending a specialized school is not necessary. A number of colleges and universities that are not “design schools,” per se, offer outstanding programs in interior design. It’s worth checking out the annual ranking by DesignIntelligence, which vets the most-admired U.S. design schools and programs.

“There are designers or decorators who are practicing but did not attend design school. I believe it is possible to a certain extent, but there is a limit,” notes David Sprouls, president of the New York School of Interior Design (NYSID). “Designers deal with much more than just finishes. There are building codes and systems that have to be understood, space planning, CAD programs, how to draw construction documents, how the performance of textiles is determined and how to specify them, and sourcing sustainable products. These are very specific areas with much to learn that can’t be gleaned by looking over somebody’s shoulder.”

Even if you don’t attend a top interior design school like NYSID, SCAD, RISD, Pratt, or Parsons, it makes sense to select a program that’s ​​accredited by the Council for Interior Design Accreditation (CIDA), an organization that stays on top of trends, regulations, and practices in the interior design industry. There are some 200 CIDA-accredited programs worldwide.

NCIDQ quote: "Anyone can call themselves an interior decorator, but only an accredited design professional can be an interior designer. A little more than half of the states require licensure for interior design, which includes passing the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) exam."

Learn the Trade

Young designer in the office

One of the best ways to learn about the interior design profession is to seek out a mentor and soak in as much knowledge from them as possible. “If you are attending a design college, start with your faculty. Put the word out that you are looking to be mentored,” Sprouls advises. “Or attend public programs and lectures, meet professionals there, introduce yourself to the speakers, and let them know your goals.” Having a trusted mentor to guide your path into the interior design industry can make all the difference.

Another way to understand the practice of interior design is by working in the field, so obtaining an internship is vital. “Internships give you that real-life experience that is lacking in a classroom or studio,” Sprouls says. “They also let you ‘test out’ specific aspects of the interior design profession. I would recommend doing as many as you can in a variety of areas. … Be open and explore. You never know.”

Working an internship at an interior design firm also allows you to polish your organizational, communication, project management, and time management skills while fine-tuning technical knowledge like computer aided design (CAD) technology—which is an absolute requisite for interior design jobs now.

Always Be Networking

This point cannot be stressed enough: Networking is key to thriving in the interior design industry. It’s a convivial community, and making the right contacts can immensely enhance your career potential. Get out there and mingle. Attend interior design networking events, lectures, markets, or trade shows where you might meet like-minded people. Join an industry association—such as ASID, IIDA, or AIA—which often have student memberships. Tap into the people you already know and ask for warm introductions to their associates. Be confident, be prepared, be bold, and exhaust all avenues—what have you got to lose! Sprouls encourages, “People in the interior design industry are so open and welcoming—they want to help.”

Sprouls quote: "Attend public programs and lectures, meet professionals there, introduce yourself to the speakers, and let them know your goals…Having a trusted mentor to guide your path into the interior design industry can make all the difference."

Show Your Work

Your design portfolio is your first opportunity to properly introduce yourself, your background, experiences, and qualifications to admissions staff at design schools, potential clients, and hiring companies. Include design concepts, school projects, work for your internship, pro bono initiatives, anything that can highlight your design capabilities. Strategically showcase work that demonstrates your best design skills and conveys your personality. Choose stunning artwork and imagery to make your design work shine in your portfolio. Don’t miss the chance to visually show and succinctly tell what you can do. And be sure to include your CV and contact info.

Cast a Wide Net

Woman is talking on the phone while checking interior decorating materials lying on the table in front of her

Establishing a broad base of knowledge to learn different facets of the profession can help set you up for future success. “Many students come to NYSID thinking they want to work in a specific area …. But the beauty of a design education is that many times students discover different aspects while they study,” Sproul explains. Early on, it benefits you to expose yourself to a strong foundation before honing in on any one area or ruling out another.

Apply to design jobs that sound even remotely interesting rather than only focusing on your dream gig. Accept interviews, carefully vet job prospects, and don’t be too quick to jump at the first opportunity. Go with your gut—make sure the role feels right for you. And realize it’s not a life-long commitment: You can work somewhere, gain experience, and move on to try something new. It’s important to stay fresh, engaged, and curious throughout your career.

Never Stop Learning

Interior designer working on the project using color swatches and materials samples

Trends come and go, and a good designer is on the cutting edge of what’s hot, so it’s crucial to enhance your design knowledge throughout your career. Seek out continuing education opportunities—many trade shows and industry events offer CEU courses. Consider taking the exam to become a LEED accredited professional and learn the latest in environmentally sustainable design practices. Read popular design publications and blogs. “Education does not end at graduation—new things are learned every day,” Sprouls says. “Be curious because it will feed your creativity. And being creative is what made you go into design in the first place!”

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Studio Designer is the leading digital platform for Interior Designers managing and growing their design businesses. Featuring fully integrated project management, time billing, product sourcing, and accounting solutions for the interior design industry.

Featured image: Photo from Shutterstock