Do I Need to Go to Interior Design School?
I often hear one big question from current students and aspiring interior designers.
"Should I go to interior design school?"
My answer is always, "it depends." What do you want to do? What market do you want to serve - residential or commercial? Who do you want to work for - yourself or someone else? What resources do you have available to get started? What's your timing and budget?
I've come up with 5 things that I wish I'd known and asked before I went to design school to help you determine whether or not Interior Design School is worth it for you.
Before we get to those, a story about my journey.
My path to design school
In 2000, I graduated from Hamilton College in Clinton, NY with a double major in Chinese and International Politics and an Econ minor. I wrote my senior thesis, on emerging credit markets in China, in English and Mandarin. A career in design was NOT on my horizon. I had taken a single art course in college, but never considered anything further. My brilliant thesis advisor suggested graduate school in Nanjing, China, but I didn't take his advice as it felt too far away from family and loved ones. I wasn't sure I wanted a life as an academic, either. I shifted my focus to business or law.
This was before the 2000 dot-com bubble burst, and recruiters were still coming to campus and interested in hiring newly-minted college graduates. I was offered positions in Boston at a law firm in a two year rotational program, and at a French strategic consulting firm. After much hemming and hawing, I decided that strategy consulting would be a better fit. No projected path to grad school (a plus at the time), the ability to problem solve (my favorite), write, and be creative. And the class of recent grads I was hired with was brilliant and inspiring. I was confident in my choice and excited to get started.
I rented an apartment in Cambridge, MA and began this new adventure. I was correct in anticipating the joys of working with my smart colleagues, but didn't realize how much I would crave something tangible as I churned out research and white papers that seemed to disappear into the ether once they were sent up the chain of command. The work was fast-paced, happily much more visual and graphic than I'd expected, but also not giving me joy. Then the economic bubble burst and our clients shifted from a wider portfolio to those who still had resources: oil and gas companies, liquor distributors, tobacco spin-offs. For those of you who know me, you could imagine that these were not my ideal clients and the purpose of my work felt less and less meaningful.
So, I started to think "what next?" I busted out my trusty old copy of What Color Is Your Parachute and started to think and dream, now that I had a tiny bit of life experience under my belt. The idea of becoming an interior designer seemed to keep popping into the front of my brain. Problem solving? Check. Service to others? Check. Tangible projects? Check again! But how could I possibly make this giant transition? I decided I needed more skills and applied to grad school for Interior Design under "qualifying" programs.
Qualifying programs in Interior Design were created for people like me. Lots of interest, zero experience. I didn't have a portfolio to submit and had never thought hard about scaled drawing. Without an undergrad degree in design or architecture, I applied on a path at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn that required an extra year of credits prior to the full-fledged two year program. It added cost and time to the program, but it also gave me access. I came into the Masters program in a stronger position having been taught by the same professors I would continue to study under in the graduate program.
After that first qualifying year and a lot of retraining my brain (learning new handwriting, new ways to think about space and mass, model making, scale, and perspective), I was ready to launch into the full program. I found I gravitated to commercial projects, learned a ton from adjunct professors practicing in the "real world," and loved the space planning work in particular. Which leads me to my first reason to go to Interior Design School:
1. If you want to be a commercial interior designer, you probably need an Interior Design or Architecture degree
My first job out of Pratt was for a mid-sized commercial architecture firm in NYC. My graduate thesis advisor, Jack Travis, made the introduction, which I know helped get a foot in the door. I was the most junior person in the firm, and spent the first few months picking up redlines from more seasoned designers. This was an incredible (and humbling!) learning opportunity: why can't the door swing that way? What is the ADA clearance? How many seats can we fit at that conference table? I took every chance I could to get out into the field and walk construction sites to see what the things I was drawing looked like in real life. I saw how materials worked and interacted.
I know for sure I couldn't have been hired had I not had a degree in the field. I needed training in drafting, vouching of experts, understanding of building systems and code. My friends and colleagues who had connections in residential design and went straight to that market didn't necessarily need the technical education, but I do find it serves me well now as a residential designer as I layout kitchens, check clearances, and work with architects and clients. We all speak the same language.
2. If you want to be a residential interior designer, you may not need an Interior Design degree
Look, I love education and never miss an opportunity to learn more. But, a grad school degree in Interiors is expensive. Every extra dime I made for years went to paying off my grad school student loans. The landscape has also changed since I went back to school. The price of the degree has gone up, as have the availability of non-school resources. Blogs, Pinterest, online classes abound. If you're willing to take a slow and steady approach, have a great eye, and are willing to be scrappy, you can do this without a degree. While I think school was excellent for learning the mechanics, there's so much nuance I've learned from actually working.
I'll talk more about this in the next bullet, but I had a great introduction to color theory, space planning, visualization, and presentation at Pratt. But there was less focus on business management, relationship building, and other more business-oriented skills. In my corporate career, I shifted to a project management role at a HUGE architecture firm and learned a lot of what I now know there. When I went out on my own in 2013, I took some of this knowledge on how to manage client expectations, work with trades, write contracts, and build schedules with me. But I've had to figure out a lot of it on my own, too. I read books, blogs of other designers, and tweaked processes as I went along. And to be honest, it's always still evolving. Very little in grad school prepared me for being a business owner, which takes as much time in my day as the actual design work. Maybe more!
3. Consider the program's focus
I happily landed at Pratt, which is known for a more artistic, conceptual interior design program and department. For me, a historically linear thinker, this was exactly what I needed. I needed my assumptions challenged, the way I saw the world expanded, and to be surrounded on campus by artists. My lens is the NYC interior design school world, and there are different programs that may be different fits. For example, the NY School of Interior Design has a reputation of having a much more practical focus - more business classes, more "how to" than "what if."
Examine what relationships the program has - the professors, the industry partners, the graduated students. These will be the people who pull you along and push you forward in your career. I've had the pleasure to go back to both Pratt and NYSID to jury student work presentations, and the quality of students at both is exceptional.
Lastly, what do you want the specialties of the program to be? Do you want a program that highlights sustainability? That has more of an interior architecture or an interior decorating focus? How much time and money are you willing to spend to get that? Would you be willing to start at a community college to test the water to see if you're really interested before you commit? Our local community college program is great and often, local practitioners are the instructors so you get great local knowledge and connections. Do you want a brand name that may open more doors, or do you want to build skills as close to home and as affordably as you can? Think hard about all of this before you enroll anywhere. There are many paths to success.
4. How do you handle criticism?
One of the things I didn't realize going into design school was how often you'd have to stand in front of a room and defend your work. My undergrad experience was one where you could read most of the text, and still pull off a pretty solid paper. In design school, a half-finished or poorly-thought out plan was going to get ripped to shreds. There is nowhere to hide. Even when the work was very well thought out and executed perfectly, design is subjective and can either be embraced or torn to shreds based on the audience's/client's perspective.
Me, in the middle of a grad school critique at Pratt defending my work circa 2003.
The first few times were hard. There I stood, a mix of confident and terrified, but also fully invested in my concept and work. And the questions started coming.
"Why did you make this material choice?"
"How do you know this detail could be built?"
"Could someone move around this space in reality?"
"Why did you choose this scale for this object?"
And you just have to stand there, think on your feet, explain your decisions, take the reviewer's comments to heart to improve and grow, and learn not to take criticism personally. Some of the critics were harsh, some were gentler. But all aimed to turn over every rock and show you what worked and what didn't in your approach.
As the program went along, the critiques became both easier as my skills grew, but also harder as the standards were raised. But, they were helpful. I learned to tell stories, draw people into a vibe and mood, and sell a design or product. I also learned to have thick skin. My husband, who is not a designer, doesn't always love the bluntness I bring to our lives. There is no sugarcoating. It will make you better, but it is hard.
5. Who do you know?
I went into the design profession not knowing a single interior designer. I waited tables throughout design school to help pay the bills. I took out loans. My family graciously let me move back to my childhood home and live there rent-free to save on apartment costs. I organized my schedule to minimize the number of days I needed to commute to Brooklyn on NJ Transit and the NYC subway with huge models and floorplans. But it was hard. Many designers use their personal and social networks to begin working with a more experienced designer and build their careers as apprentices without necessarily having to make so many sacrifices. This wasn't available to me as an option, but is a great one if you can do it. It's also easier in the world of Instagram where you can get a sense of who is in your part of the world and has a busy studio.
If you do have a connection or can make one, you may not need design school. See if your local designer friends hire interns or junior designers. The work may be back-of house: ordering samples, organizing libraries, answering emails. It may be part-time and you may still wait tables. While it may feel menial, you will learn a ton. Just like I picked up redlines on the commercial side, familiarizing yourself with different manufacturers, seeing what works and what doesn't in different applications, and understanding the design process is a great alternate path to a design education. Within a year, you'll be trusted to pull palettes and schemes, you'll have built relationships with industry experts, and you'll have earned the trust of the designer for whom you're working.
Whether or not you ultimately choose to go out on your own, stay on with your mentor designer, or move to another area of the business (product rep, showroom manager, vendor, etc.), you'll have a lot of business savvy and know the process top to bottom. Plus, no student loans! The design industry has a wide range of salaries and incomes, but junior salaries are typically low. I wish I better understood this when I took on the debt I did. And, I realize how lucky I was to take on the debt in the early 2000s, and not today.
So, what's right for you?
Ultimately, the decision you make has to work for you in terms of time, budget, education needs, and where you're starting from. I made the choices that worked best for me and can't imagine having pulled off such a huge career pivot without grad school. Now, almost 20 years into a design career, this feels like the most natural work I could be doing. I have paid off my loans, have great regard for Pratt, and doors were opened to me because I had the degree. I am credentialed and a full member of professional organizations that are great resources and differentiators in the business. I hope this helps some of you think through your options as you consider a career in Interior Design.
I did it! Presenting my graduate thesis in the Pratt Show after graduation in 2004 while at my first job with an interior architecture firm in NYC.