Table of Contents
Interior design is constantly moving and evolving. Whether it be the design trends implemented or the software used to create your spaces, you need to stay up-to-date in this industry if you want to make it as a successful designer.
If you’re not sure where to start and you want to get all the basics down before you dive deep into the world of interior design, this guide will help you.
Before you decide to embark on a career in interior design, we wanted to give you a better idea of what it means to be an interior designer by listing out some of the key requirements you’ll likely need to find success in this field.
This is what most people imagine when they think of interior design: picking wall colors, furnishings, and artwork. Undeniably, this is a key component of interior design. If you’re unable to put together a beautiful space that makes use of coordinating colors, textures, and aesthetics, you will likely struggle in this industry.
The more design-centric components listed above are the icing on the cake of interior design, but if you’re unable to get the bones right below the surface, you’ll struggle to ever make it as an interior designer. In other words, you can’t begin decorating a space until you’ve considered how the space will function.
This requires a lot of visual and spatial awareness. You need to be able to look at an empty space and envision what it is capable of. You’ll need to consider both structural components (i..e knocking down walls, adding windows, considering doorways), but you’ll also need to visually consider how that space will feel (i.e. does placing a coach in a certain position make the space feel cramped, would adding built-in seating help open the space?).
Creating areas that feel spacious and functional is one of the most important factors an interior designer needs to do, and having high spatial awareness can really help here.
Interior designers need to be thoughtful, intentional, and confident in their decisions. Interior designers can’t simply go into a space, start making structural changes, and hope that everything works out. Instead, they need to carefully plan out exactly what they want to do. Without careful foresight and planning, spaces can quickly become disaster zones of construction and debris.
There is no doubt about it, when interior designers start executing their plans, it’s extremely rare that everything will go off without a hitch. Whether it be a supplier who doesn’t come through or an unforeseen structural issue, interior designers need to be able to think on their feet and problem solve.
Interior designers are never working alone. As mentioned, they work alongside architects, engineers, and contractors. Interior designers need to be able to work well with people and coordinate with their teams to ensure the project comes out as planned.
Interior design is focused on space planning in each of the different rooms in a home. The elements involve both formal training and designer creativity to be able to quite literally know how to shape and work a home. The basics of interior design are working with clients to determine the best use of a space and to develop the most aesthetically pleasing place. There are design principles that come into play to help accomplish that goal. Interior design involves planning and utilizing floor plans to maximize potential. It also involves staying up-to-date with design trends and understanding the size, scale, and financial restrictions of your client. Each room or home you enter becomes a blank slate, your job is to make it beautiful.
Being able to find balance is another important aspect of interior design. This means successfully evenly distributing the visual weight of the furniture within the room with the accents and space. It's about creating a perfect harmony between the positive and negative space in the room. Balancing the scale of the different elements in the room and the position of different objects helps create the perfect proportion in each space.
Another important element is having a focal point. Having a focal point piece in every room is important in all design styles. Every room should feature one focal point whether that is a fireplace, a different paint color on one wall as an accent, an area rug, etc. During the design process, it's important to maintain the balance and make sure not to have too many focal points.
There are a number of different types of interior design – it is all in the different styles you choose to use. Some of the most popular styles to work with are:
By no means is this list comprehensive, but it does give designers a good place to start. Regardless of the style you choose, what is most important is you stay on brand through and through. Each of the different styles involves its own color palette, pieces of furniture, wall art, rugs, etc. While some styles will come easier to you just based on your personal preference, it is important for you to gain knowledge and learn a little bit about everything when it comes to different style options.
Most of us consider interior and spatial design to be the most common type of interior design work, but did you know that there are also other types of interior design that can have you working on movie sets and in some of your favorite retail shops?
We’ll start by describing the most common style of interior design, but we recommend keeping yourself open to these other styles as well:
As a spatial and interior designer, your job is all about renovating and designing internal spaces. You’ll be spending your time considering lighting, furniture, colors, and floor planning.
In some instances, you’ll be working in residential settings (i.e. helping a client redesign their home), but in other instances, you’ll be working in more commercial settings (i..e designing restaurants, office spaces, etc.). For most, you’ll either specialize in residential spaces or commercial spaces. In fact, you’ll even find in some instances, designers will specialize down into what type of space they work with (i.e. some designers will specialize specifically in restaurant design, and others might specialize in office spaces).
Planning the project, managing timelines, and hiring contractors to complete the work
Considering human needs (i.e. how will the space function, what do the client require from their space)
Managing budget concerns/figuring out where to allot money
Using software to plan out the project
Coordinating with different teams
Staying up to date with design trends
If you’ve ever had the desire to work in museums, galleries, and libraries, this is a great option for you. Exhibition designers work on large-scale, commercial projects that you’ll often see in public spaces like museums, galleries, and libraries.
Your job is all about understanding the aesthetic of the client and coming up with a plan that helps execute their vision. You’ll need to consider things like messaging, concept, and image, all while strongly taking the client’s vision, aesthetic, and brand into account. This style of design can be very specific and requires a keen eye for detail.
Getting a detailed account of the client’s vision and aesthetic
Understanding the branding and aesthetic of the client
Developing and planning a concept that fits the client’s vision using software
Presenting ideas to the client in a professional, well thought out, visually appealing manner (i.e. you need to communicate your ideas to the client and get them on board with your plan)
Managing budgets/figuring out where to allot funds
Keeping track of timelines, budgets, schedules, and orders
Understanding building codes, (i.e. some museums will have strict conservation requirements)
Keep in mind these responsibilities will vary slightly depending on what type of exhibition you are working on, but in general, you can expect all these responsibilities to pop up.
As a production designer, you have the responsibility of helping to design the sets you see on television, movies, and theater. You’ll also be tasked with considering lighting, costumes, props, graphics, and even camera angles. Essentially, your whole mission as a production designer is to help create a world that feels realistic and in line with the story that is being told. Not too surprisingly, this takes a lot of creative talent and the ability to juggle multiple projects at once.
Production designers will also want to have some background working in television, movies, or theater. Whether that be hands-on experience or some type of education in these fields, knowing these industries will help significantly.
Understanding the story being told (i.e. diving deep into the script)
Research, especially for period pieces where you’ll want to create a scene that is historically accurate
Considering budget and allotting funds
Researching locations and studios
Sourcing materials for set design
Coordinating/managing the art team, camera operator, actors, set designers, lighting team, costume designers, etc.
Overseeing the construction of the set
Monitoring progress and maintenance of the set throughout production
If you have an interest in fashion, this is where you’ll find your talents are put to best use.
Visual merchandisers are responsible for the feel and aesthetic you experience when you walk into a store. Whether it be window displays, the way the clothing is hung, how the store is laid out, or the way in which a mannequin is dressed, visual merchandisers consider all the visual aspects of a retail shop.
In other words, your job as a visual merchandiser is to engage, attract, and entertain the brand’s target market through the visuals used throughout a retail shop.
Coordinating with other members of the brand’s team to get a better feel for the overall aesthetic (i.e. need to work with the buying team to know what clothing pieces will be in store next season in order to come up with your store plan)
Staying up-to-date with fashion trends
Staying on top of sales strategies in order to better understand how to display items effectively
Sourcing lighting fixtures, furnishings, props, etc.
Staying on top of the budget
Creating visual guidelines for multiple stores so visuals are consistent across the brand
Supervising multiple store locations to ensure consistency
So far we've already hinted at the 7 elements of interior design basics – space, line, forms, light, texture, color, and pattern. Now, it's time to dive into each one of these things with some quick hits...
When we talk about space we need to consider it in a three-dimensional capacity, involving length, width, and height. When it comes to space, it's important to understand positive (space including objects) space and negative (empty) space, as well as understanding what that means for your room. Finding balance is important and the amount of positive/negative space needed in a room will change depending on the different style you are working with.
Lines include horizontal, vertical, and dynamic (zig-zag) and guide the way your eyes move through a room. They are created through furniture, rugs, art, color scheme or other objects. You need to make sure that there is both rhythm and harmony in the lines you are creating within different spaces. Balance is also needed for this design principle.
When discussing form, the focus is on the shape of the room itself and the objects within it. Some of the form you play with will be natural and already within the home – like a rock wall for example – while others will be what you choose to be part of your creative design.
Light is a really important aspect of any space – it can affect the way our eyes see color and process the space in a room. There is both natural and human-made light that can be used for a defined purpose – to accent or to create mood lighting. Fixtures or lights themselves can make or break a room.
This refers to the finish or the tactile finish of an object. This can come in the form of an actual or visual texture. You can find texture in paint color/method, furniture, a rug, etc. Since it can sometimes be an underrated element, consider adding in texture if something feels missing within a room. It might just be the finishing touch you were looking for.
Like all elements, color is really important. It can be used in a lot of ways – to change the perception of how big a space is or what the size looks like. The psychology should also be taken into consideration in your designs, for example, colors that entice calmness. It's important to choose color schemes that complement each other and the style you are creating.
Similar to texture, patterns are really something that can add to a design but need to be utilized to properly fit the style you are creating. Pattern can be used to add variety but needs to live in harmony with your design. Just like texture, they can come from furniture, wallpaper, a fixture, a rug, or artwork. Make sure it isn’t overdone, but don’t be afraid to utilize it either.
For anyone who is into home decorating or architecture, interior design is a great career choice. Every home and room you enter becomes a new canvas to create. Becoming an interior designer as a career choice will mean networking, education, developing a great online portfolio, staying up to date with design trends, and constantly tapping into your creativity. It's most important to choose a career path you love – so, if you've always had a knack for turning ordinary spaces into pieces of art, then a career in interior design might be perfect for you.
As mentioned, a job in interior design is a great career choice! Through both a passion for design and the proper schooling the sky really can be the limit in the clients and projects you work on, as well as the services you are able to offer. The average salary for an interior designer in the US is $49,810, however, the pay can really vary depending on who and what kind of design you are working on and with. Through experience and formal training, the pay scale can increase into six figures.
Like any business, interior design can be competitive in gaining clients. You'll need to create an online portfolio to share the spaces you've created with the world. Be sure to showcase your best work and a variety of different styles to show potential clients your range of skills, knowledge, and expertise. Format has a number of different online portfolio options catered to interior design with more tips and tricks to help you along the way. Check it out!
To help give you a better feel for what an interior designer does on a daily basis, we’ll provide you with some examples of portfolios from professional interior designers who are already working in the field. Pay special attention to details, the design style, and even the portfolio itself. We’ll discuss portfolios below, but keep in mind now that portfolios are one of the most important tools in an aspiring interior designer’s toolbox.
With interior design, you want to show multiple images and angles of the same room. Because of this, organizing your portfolio by project is very helpful for clients who are interested in hiring you for your services. Megan Evans does this perfectly with her website portfolio, while also including additional information like her about page, contact page, shop, testimonials, and even a page specifically for staging services.
If you would like to achieve a portfolio similar to Megan’s, check out the Triptych theme from Format.
With over 25 years of experience in both residential and commercial real estate design, this portfolio is an example of how you can diversify your work.
While David doesn’t break his projects up into commercial versus residential, he does make his style and aesthetic clear right off the bat with professional imagery that is clear, bright, and predominantly featured.
If you would like to achieve a portfolio similar to David's, check out the Panorama theme from Format.
For a portfolio that is clear and gets right to the point, Emilie’s is the perfect example. With full pages dedicated to each project, Emilie doesn’t feature much beyond her work.
While we do think your website has the potential to showcase more than just your portfolio, it’s also not always necessary. First and foremost, your website should function as a digital portfolio.
If you would like to achieve a portfolio similar to Emilie’s, check out the Stockholm theme from Format.
If these examples inspired you and you feel ready to start building your career as an interior designer, take a look through these interior design examples for more insight.
We’ve said it before but we’ll say it again for emphasis: Interior design is not just decorating rooms and playing with color palettes. While you certainly can get a job as a decorator, if you want to become an interior designer, you’ll have to do more leg work to get the credentials and establish yourself as an expert in your field.
To give you a better feel for all that goes into building a career as an interior designer, we’ll go over the step-by-step process we recommend for getting your career started:
Sure, designing spaces might sound fun, but if you’ve never spent any time redesigning your own spaces or those of friends and family, we would recommend starting here. This can be as simple as rearranging furniture and practicing with your decorating skills, but if you have the opportunity to lead a renovation process, this will give you an even better idea of what your potential job title will entail.
We always recommend getting some hands-on experience in your field of interest before you start investing any of your time, energy, and finances into a career change.
If you want to become a decorator, there’s a chance you can build a career without any formal education, but as a designer, you will likely need to invest in some further education and training to help you better understand some of the more technical aspects of interior design.
This can include learning how to use software that will help you communicate and execute your ideas, understanding design styles, learning how to make rooms flow, and even understanding some basic architectural principles that will help you better design spaces that are comfortable and functional.
Building connections is extremely important in the world of interior design. Not only because it will help you stay on top of current trends and best practices, but also because word-of-mouth can be an extremely effective way of landing clients.
We also recommend at this point putting some time into finding a mentor. This doesn’t have to be a formal process or anything too specific, but taking the time to find someone whose work you admire and who can give you professional advice can help you grow your career more quickly and seamlessly.
Keep in mind, you’ll likely find your mentor during your schooling, so be particular about what school you attend. You want to pick a program where you’ll have qualified professionals who can teach you, push you, and encourage you.
While you likely won’t start landing professional clients right off the bat, it’s never too early to set up your portfolio.
Your portfolio is your visual resume. It’s the piece of your brand that helps show off your style, your capabilities, and your experience, so taking the time to carefully consider how you display your portfolio and where is essential for an interior designer.
You don’t have to include every piece of work you’ve ever been involved with in your portfolio. Only include your best work in your portfolio, and if you know what type of interior design you want to be involved with, only display the work you want to specialize in.
House your portfolio on your own website. Not only does this make it easier for clients to view your work anytime and anywhere, but it also allows you to start building a brand.
Be sure that your website is easy to navigate and professional. If your website looks like it was thrown together last minute, this isn’t going to give off a very professional vibe to your potential clients. You need to consider things like color, font, spacing, navigation, and organization on your website.
Use high-quality imagery. In that same vein, the images you use in your portfolio should be professional and should capture your project in a professional manner. If the images are blurry or look like they were simply shot on a smartphone this won’t give off the professional feel that you want.
Our last piece of advice on portfolios is this: Don’t be fooled into thinking you need professional clients in order t to start putting together your portfolio. Everyone needs to start somewhere and that means beginning your portfolio by gathering work you’ve done for free, for internships, and during your schooling. This way, once you start trying to obtain jobs or work with clients, you’ll have some hands-on work that you can show to help better illustrate your skills and capabilities.
If you need more help with putting together a portfolio, we have a full guide all about building a portfolio for interior designers.
Whether it’s building your own business as an independent interior designer or applying for jobs that will have you working within a company as an interior designer, we highly recommend getting out there ASAP.
Even if this means working while you’re in school or as an intern, these are amazing opportunities to help you get hands-on experience in this field.
For those of you who wish to launch your own interior design services, there are just some of the initial considerations you should take into account:
Who is my target market? (i.e. are my services for residential homeowners looking to renovate their space, or am I more interested in working with commercial real estate?). Keep in mind, as an independent interior designer, you’ll likely have the most success marketing yourself to residential homeowners who are looking for guidance during a renovation project.
How will I price my services?
What types of services will I offer? (i.e. will I do full design projects, will I consult, will I offer packages to suit different needs?)
How will I market myself?
Will I have a social media presence?
Will I use content marketing? (i.e. blog posts)
What will my branding be like?
What about things like taxes, invoices, budgets, etc.?
For those of you who are interested in pursuing this potential career path further, we highly recommend checking out our full guide to interior design.
This is an area of concern that will likely only apply to those who wish to become independent interior designers. If you plan on working within a company, you will likely have a set salary that will be negotiated when you first sign your contract.
The number of hours you work (this includes pre-planning and supervising contractors)
The square footage you’re working with (i.e. you’ll charge much more for a full-scale kitchen renovation versus a powder room remodel)
A fixed-rate (i.e. you decide on pricing before going ahead with the project)
An hourly rate (the client pays you based on how many hours you work)
As you’ve likely already likely concluded, the major disadvantage with a fixed rate is you never know exactly how many hours you’ll put into a project until you get going on it. To avoid this issue, we always recommend adding a 10-15% increase to your pricing simply to account for any unexpected surprises. In interior design, there will almost always be some unforeseen event, complication, or timeline delay that you’ll want to cover with your pricing.
In addition, as you gain experience as an interior designer, you’ll have a better idea of how long projects will take you and what you should charge. When you’re just starting out, it’s unlikely you’ll be taking on huge renovation projects since your experience doesn’t match with this project. Instead, take on smaller projects that you are more qualified for, get familiar with the pacing and hours put into your work, and come up with your fixed rate from there.
Both a fixed rate and hourly rate have their benefits and drawbacks, but the main thing to be aware of is that you’re under no obligation to keep your rates the same throughout your entire career. You’ll be able to play with numbers and raise your prices as you grow and gain experience.
Since most of you are likely just beginning your careers, we thought we would add some tips that are more relevant to these early stages of your career.
Don’t be afraid to work for free/discounted rates. Even if you think you have the skills and experiences to charge high prices right off the bat, there’s nothing wrong with getting your feet wet, gaining some portfolio experience, and increasing your rates as you go. You’ll likely find this pricing structure works best with friends and family.
Be upfront with clients about what your services include. Because you’re just beginning in this field, you might not fully understand all the work that goes into an interior design project. Your clients also might not fully understand the amount of work you’ll be doing. Be sure that you’re both on the same page by explaining what exactly your services include.
Go above and beyond, even if your pricing is still low. As a beginner in this field, you need to go above and beyond what is being asked of you. This might mean doing more work than what you are being paid, but in the end, if you have these initial happy clients, this could lead to recommendations and good word of mouth.
Raise your prices as you gain experience. Some designers might feel reluctant to do this because they worry that raising prices will deter clients, but if you never raise your prices you’ll never be able to grow your career. If you’re worried your pricing is too high, take a look at what other designers are charging in your area and this will give you a better idea of how your prices compare.
We hope we made it clear that it’s never too early to start building your career as an interior designer.
Even if you’re not sure about investing in schooling yet, start by taking the time to practice interior design principles on your own space, shadow a professional interior designer if possible, and read as much as possible on the subject.
Once you’ve decided that interior design is a career path that you feel confident in, it’s time to start building your portfolio. This is the most important step in your career and is something that you can start putting together even while you’re still in school.
If you’re uncertain about putting together a portfolio and you’re looking for some guidance, don’t forget that Format provides professional portfolio templates that can help you set up your interior design portfolio in the most professional manner possible.
Try out Format today.
Create your own portfolio website with Format today.
Plus, get FREE access to our exclusive Photography Business Masterclass Course