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How to become an interior designer

I'm one of those people that took a long while to finally realise exactly what career I wanted to do. I left uni (many years ago) with no idea of what lay ahead and which direction I wanted to go in. I carried on working in retail shops as I had through all of my college and uni days until a 'dream job' came up for a visual merchandising position, with the retail company I was already working for, at their head office in London. I went for it and got the job and there started a very long path to where I am today.

Eclectic open plan living room
Lounge Diner style by NB Interiors UK

Now I guess people expect a short answer when they ask the question, how do you become an interior designer, but my answer is definitely not as clear cut and straight forward and that's not necessarily a bad thing, I just took a long road to get to where I am. There are many ways to end up in your rightful and chosen careers not just the conventional paths that seem so obvious.

I spent over 10 years working in the fashion industry from the junior coordinator to eventually creative visual manager before I made the leap over into the world of interiors.

The skills and knowledge I gained during my visual merchandising career definitely set me up to become an interior designer and run my own business, I just didn't know it at the time. When I decided I wanted to make a change, which was children related, I researched what an interior designer does and noticed I had so many transferable skills so I took the plunge and signed myself up for an online diploma course.

Mid Century Style Dining Table and Chairs
Dining Area by NB Interiors UK

So let's take a step back.

I had so much fun but also a lot of hard times when I was a visual merchandiser, it is one of those jobs which everyone thinks sounds so glamorous but it's much harder work and challenging in lots of ways. We didn't just 'dress dollies' as someone so kindly once labelled it!

I was involved in exciting events such as press day shows where it was all hands on deck to set up a space using props, mannequins and graphics to create a real show stopper. I worked closely with the creative manager to source and order the mannequins and props. There were fashion shows back in the day when people actually had budgets to spend - these were the most fun to be involved in when setting up!

As my career progressed so did my responsibilities, I started working as a creative assistant and got involved in window design. Here I worked with suppliers, sourcing props and materials dependent on the scheme, worked to a budget, haggled with clients to get the best deals and delivered big schemes nationwide. It was so exhilarating watching a design go from scribbles on a piece of paper - seriously and not even legible scribbles at a fully installed window scheme.

When I got to design my first window all by myself I was so happy with how it turned out and the window looked stunning, not your average retail window, but we had great press at how 'brave and artistic' the brand had been! This is when I really got the buzz of design and I just wanted to spend more of my time designing - unfortunately the amount of designing was only a small percentage of my job as there was sooo much admin and other retail things I had to contend with in my role...

Floral camoflauge window display
Easter Floral Window

Industrial art window scheme
Leeds Trinity, nominated for Retail Interior Award

However dressing the mannequins in the windows, selecting outfits and merchandising shop floors meant creating cohesive displays - so basically working with colour! I've always loved working with colour, being experimental with colour palettes and creating visually stunning displays. Again there was the satisfaction of turning a space that was overcrowded with product and unappealing into a store that captivated you as you stepped in the door and made you want to buy everything, honestly it's an addictive feeling!

When I started a family it made me evaluate my life and where I wanted to be. I've probably painted a very rosy picture of the life of a visual merchandiser but truth is it's a hard and sometimes cut throat industry that I eventually grew to dislike, plus the industry took a battering with reduced budgets which meant visual merchandising was scaled back (obviously not everywhere) but basically it was not the industry I loved when I first started. So I went back to an idea I've had several times over the years and finally took the plunge - I became an interior designer. After completing my diploma with the interior design institute (for those of you wondering where I studied) I did some projects for free to gain experience and to start up my portfolio. Through sheer perseverance I can happily call myself an interior designer and even though I have more to learn, I'm loving being able to work with different people, on a range of projects and put into practise all those invaluable skills I learnt as a visual merchandisier - time management, styling, balance & proportion, textures, colours, coordination, project management, sourcing, dealing with suppliers & clients - all are essential skills for a successful interior designer.

So if like me you want to change careers and think you have to start at the bottom, in one way yes you're right but also wrong....look at what skills you currently have, you'll be amazed at what transferable skills you have.

Education - look at what courses you can do, there are so many out there now from online learning to college and university courses, depending on how much time and money you want to invest and what works best for you and your lifestyle.

Work for free - take on small low key projects for friends and family to gain valuable experience where it's OK if you get something wrong perhaps. Look at who you know you'll be surprised at who is in your contacts, or who your friends and family might put you in touch with.

The career of an interior designer is ever popular now thanks to platforms such as instagram where people have carved out careers from showing their beautifully designed homes and 'got noticed'.

It goes to show that this industry has come a long way from needing a degree to get a job as an interior designer. I strongly believe you are either artistic or not, yes you can learn fundamentals (which are essential) but some people or born with an eye for design, they can see colours together, they can visualise exactly how a space can look. I definitely get a buzz out of visualising a space and watching it come to fruition. I find ornaments arranged in a certain way or perfectly position furniture or particular colour combinations so pleasing to the eye.

Industrial vintage bedroom
Bedroom Design NB Interiors UK

Old school interior designers might disagree and also it's important to mention there is a distinct difference between an interior designer and an interior decorator, so please be aware of exactly what category you fall into, and don't make the mistake thinking you can decorate your own home so you must be good at it - designing your own home is much easier as you know what your style is, working with clients is a whole different ball game. Mostly they can't convey what's in their heads, or they simply don't know what they like or want - that's the trickiest part of the job, getting inside a clients head and extracting information out of them so you can fulfill the ever so vague brief! Then remember you need to make this all happen, on budget, on time, and to brief. It's another of those industries that people assume is all glitz and glamour but truth is it's hard work and yes I probably again don't spend as much time designing as I do admin but this time it's different, I work for myself, I decide which clients I work with and what projects I'm involved with and doing the admin feels less of a bore when it's for your own business - well come back to me in a few years time the answer might be slightly different ha ha!

Kitchen diner open plan space
Show Home Styled by NB Interiors UK

Most of all don't expect success over night, remember it takes a long time to start, nurture and grow a new business but definitely enjoy the journey and all that it has to offer.

I hope you enjoyed reading about my career and journey to becoming an interior designer, I wonder what paths other designers took to get to where they are? Let me know in the comments or if you have any questions if you're thinking of a career as an interior designer.

Thanks for reading.

NB x

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