What I Actually Learned in Design School
When I realized after graduating from college that I wanted to pursue a career in interior design, I had some major decisions to make. From all of the job postings and career advice I had read, it seemed to me that a degree in interior design would be necessary to make it—or at least make money—in the industry. So I spent the summer researching programs and schools, eventually settling on a part-time program I could tackle in the evenings, while working in a design showroom at Chicago’s Merchandise Mart during the day.
Less than a year after finishing college, I was back at it, spending three evenings a week at design school in classes ranging from drafting to building codes to color theory. Looking back, was it worth it? Considering that some of today’s top interior talents are self-taught, it’s tough to say. But if I could go back and do it again, would I still go to school? Oh yeah.
Keep scrolling to find out what I learned and why I wouldn’t give it up.
Attending design school taught me that there’s way more to the industry than just designers and decorators. Through my classes and networking with instructors I was introduced to the broad range of opportunities available from product development, furniture design, lighting design, textile design, and much more. Exposure to these made me reconsider my end goal. Being a residential designer meant spending a lot of time with clients and working with a variety of personalities, while textile design offered a different form of creativity, and less likelihood of character clashes. Decisions, decisions.
Sure, an innate ability to visualize a space’s potential and your individual taste level are not qualities that can really be taught. These intangible assets set natural designers apart from those who work hard to develop a valuable skill set, but there is more to good design than just knowing how to pair patterns and textures. My courses taught me the value of sight lines, vertical elevations, flooring transitions, structural necessities, material pairings, and eco-friendly and sustainable design.
To sell an idea to a client—because, let’s face it, being an interior designer means you are constantly selling your clients both physical items like furniture and lighting, as well as broader concepts—you need to be able to show them exactly what you mean by “ceiling-hung canopy” or “floating staircase” before they will fork over the money to make your vision a reality. Through drafting, drawing, perspective, and computer program courses, I learned how to do technical drawings for floor plans, cabinetry, and custom furniture. I learned how to create a 3D rendering of a space so the client could feel like they were actually there, and I was taught the best ways to compile inspiration and mood boards and booklets. Good luck selling that two-story feature wall that costs a ton of money if your client just can’t picture it.
There’s a broad scope of interior design work to be done in the world: Residential design, commercial design, hospitality design, healthcare design, and so on. A designer who can anticipate how the acoustics of a restaurant will affect a diner’s experience likely has a different skill set than someone who can maximize the functionality of an apartment’s guest bathroom. If your goal is to pursue a specialized field of interior design, knowing the ins and outs of the field from a situational and technical standpoint is vital. Was I looking for a gig in commercial design? No, definitely not for me. But at least I knew what that meant.
Any time you look for a new job or consider changing professions, the most valuable asset you have may be your professional network. I worked side by side with some very talented people in school and developed relationships that ended up helping me secure a job at a top residential design firm when I finished my degree. Once placed in the firm, I used the network I developed in school to seek out talented interns, who were also eventually hired. I called upon past instructors when I needed assistance with a particularly tricky situation, and recalled vendors I had met in my materials and sources course when we needed someone to quote a complicated custom piece for one of our best clients.
Could I have forged a career in interior design without having gone back to school? Maybe. Did I gain valuable knowledge working in the showrooms and interning at a design firm—experiences that were completely removed from my schooling? Certainly. Are there wildly talented design professionals who never went to school and gained their invaluable knowledge elsewhere? Without a doubt. Do I know that even after the late nights, hours of studio work, mind boggling tuition, and sacrifices, that, for me, my schooling will be worth it for my design future and over the course of my career? You bet.
Do you think you need to attend formal schooling to make it in interior design? Share with us in the comments.