Simply put, an interior designer designs interiors! This involves planning and executing all aspects of the interior environment, including furnishing and decorating the space in commercial, institutional, and domestic settings.
A little bit of history
There is nothing new about interior design. We have been organising our living space for functional, social, and aesthetic reasons for tens of thousands of years. By the 18th century, Europe was home to many well-established interior designers and by the 1950s, Britain was sufficiently concerned with contemporary architecture and interiors to have created The Design Council.
These early designers were mainly concerned with domestic interiors, and residential projects are still the mainstay of most small design agencies and freelance designers. However, interior design goes far beyond the residential. After all, yachts, hospitals, factories, and aeroplanes need interiors too.
The industry today
In 2015, DesignCouncil.org published findings from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, highlighting that jobs in the Creative Design sector have now reached 1.8 million; that represents a 15.8% increase since 2011 – or an additional 247,000 jobs!
Sectors in Interior Design
Broadly speaking, an interior designer will work in one of the following environments:
- Residential – houses, flats, canal boats, and anywhere else used for domestic accommodation. The setting may be a new build, an established home, or a conversion
- Workplace – includes factories, offices, and any number of other settings. Design may be as much concerned with functionality, problem-solving, and creating a space where innovation and ideas can flourish as it is with “looks”
- Temporary exhibition design – museums, galleries, and a wide range of other private and public settings
- Commercial – includes retail shops and shopping malls, warehouses, conference centres and the like
- Leisure – cinemas, theatres, and health centres
- Hospitality – hotels, restaurants, pubs, cafes, and nightclubs would all fall into this category
- Education – includes schools and universities
- Healthcare – local health centres, hospitals, nursing and care homes, and private clinics
Many interior designers are self-employed, charging between £30 and £50 per hour for their services. This figure can rise to more than £100 per hour for in-demand designers. Newly qualified designers will find it hard to make a living in this way, as reputation and experience take time to build up.
Junior designers employed by an agency can expect a starting salary of £18,000 to £23,000 a year. The national average salary for an Experienced Designer averages between £25,000 and £30,000 whilst Senior Designers earn anything from £45,000 upwards. Figures are based on information provided by The National Careers Service. (2016)
In interior design, tasks and responsibilities vary according to the sector and the size of the design agency or company for which an individual works. However, the following would normally fall within the remit of an interior designer:
- Client briefing – this might involve a discussion of needs, desires, and initial ideas. Branding consideration may also need to be taken into account and site visits are common. Initial considerations of budget and time available will also be necessary
- Research – this will involve consolidating the initial ideas and considering planning considerations, building regulations, and other restrictions
- Proposal – this involves producing sketches or more detailed technical drawings, sourcing and choosing specific fabrics, fixtures, and fittings
- Monitoring costs and timescale
- Preparation of a contractor brief and selection of contractors and suppliers according to budget, quality of workmanship, experience, and specialism
- Project management – supervision of work on site
- Project delivery and handover – making final inspections and handing it over to the client, including briefing the client on the use of the space, maintenance and safety issues.
- Follow up – snagging and resolution of problems or faults
A professional qualification is virtually essential in order to pursue a career in interior design. There is a wide range of courses and training options available and the most suitable route will also depend upon which sector of interior design you are interested in.
The British Interior Design Association provides a list of higher education establishments offering interior design courses. There are around 60 providers offering in excess of 50 different courses. There’s a huge variety – from a 10 Week Interior Decoration Certificate to a 4 year full time BA Honours degree. So how should you go about choosing the right interior design course?
- It depends upon which area of interior design you are interested in – look for a course which emphasises that aspect of the profession
- What are the entry requirements? Are there particular subjects which might restrict your options?
- The time and financial resources available to you
The following City & Guilds courses are good options which will get you started in interior design:
- Level 1, 2, and 3 Certificate in Design and Craft
- Level 3 Diploma in Design and Craft
- Level 1, 2, and 3 Award/Certificate/Diploma in Creative Techniques
You could also study for a BTEC National Certificate and Diploma course in Art and Design, or an ABC Diploma in Interior Design.
Degree courses in interior design vary in length, from 2 to 4 years. As well as Interior Design itself, relevant degree subjects include Interior Architecture, Interior Decoration, Spatial Design, Interior Textiles, and Furniture Design. Courses are likely to include the following elements as a minimum:
- History of the discipline (art, architecture, interiors, and furniture)
- Theory of design
- Materials studies (finishes and furnishings for use in interior design)
- Drawing, draughtsmanship, and photography, including use of technical drawing applications such as AutoCAD
- Spatial layout and planning
- Budgeting and time planning
- Professional practice (communication, office organisation, relevant legislation)
Numerous short courses are also available to supplement training you have already done. These may also be a good option to build up your skills and knowledge if you don’t have the resources to undertake a full degree.
Interior designers employ a wide range of skills and must be competent in the following areas in order to be successful:
- Technical skills are important, especially proficiency in AutoCAD and drawing and sketching ability
- Good spatial awareness, imagination and creativity are also essential
- You will need excellent communication skills, both for client liaison and for research and negotiating with contractors and suppliers
- It’s important to have empathy, so that you can see a space or a design problem from the client’s point of view
- Team work and management skills are important, especially for interior designers responsible for directing the design and build and supervising contractors
- Motivation and the ability to work unsupervised are also important, especially for freelance designers
- Competition is fierce in the industry, so a proactive approach, ambition, and determination are necessary for success
- Business skills will be important for most designers but especially the self-employed. This includes budgeting, marketing and time management skills
- The ability to work under pressure and attention to detail are also very important
Interior designers divide their time between an office environment and an on-site environment. Meetings with clients, contractors, and suppliers will usually take place away from the office and may involve substantial amounts of travelling, possibly including overnight trips.
On larger projects, health and safety considerations are particularly important, especially if structural work is involved. Here, designers will usually wear personal protective equipment, such as a hard hat.
Interior design is not a particularly formal industry in terms of dress codes, and a certain amount of individuality and expression is generally considered acceptable in a creative industry like this.
Professional experience is very important in interior design, with most employers requiring 3-4 years of experience when taking on a designer. Competition for junior positions is strong, so even building up experience on-the-job can be difficult.
So how do you secure your first job in interior design? You can improve your chances of getting that all-important first position by taking advantage of unpaid work experience, student placements, and work-shadowing. These also allow you to build up a portfolio and to make contacts. If you make a good impression on a placement, you stand a reasonable chance of securing a job with that employer after graduation.
Design fairs and competitions can help your career by showcasing creativity. Events like New Designers are often attended by journalists and professionals on the lookout for new talent.
There is a wide range of employers – more than 4000 in the UK alone – and a significant proportion of interior designers opt for self-employment, either working on a completely freelance basis or with a contract for a design agency. Noreen Davey’s Designs of Distinction is one such example.
Jobs are available with small design agencies, such as Jane Churchill Interiors, where your role and the type of project you are involved with might be wide-ranging. Another option is to work as an in-house designer for a large company. This might involve workplace design for a multinational, or creating interiors for ships for a cruise company.
Larger design agencies tend to be multi-disciplinary. A good example is Manchester-based BDP Design, which describes itself as the largest interdisciplinary practice of architects, designers, engineers and urbanists in Europe. Employing over 1000 staff, BDP has a portfolio ranging from education to heritage, and transport to workplace. It is truly a big player in the UK design industry.
The following are some of the biggest and most well-respected employers in some of the major interior design sectors:
- Commercial Design & Branding – Principle Group
- Healthcare Design – AKL Interiors specialise in residential care homes
- Retail – Checkland Kindleysides
- Residential – Gillian Rogerson Design is a small, personalised design company
Most interior designers spend the first five years after graduation (or after entering the profession) gaining experience, building up a portfolio, and a good client and supplier base. It also takes time to develop your own style and approach, and perhaps to work out which sector suits your skills and interests.
Interior design does not have the structured career path or clear promotion-based approach found in many other industries. This is partly due to the very diverse nature of the design world and its penchant for self-employment, but also because this is a creative industry. To a large degree, interior designers must make their own career – initiative, ambition, and individual skill and creativity are key. As in all things, luck can be important too.
To improve their career progression or employment prospects, interior designers need to:
- Recognise the importance of continuing professional development (CPD). The Chartered Society of Designers is very active, and encourages members to add 100 CPD points to their personal “log” each year.
- Keep adding to their skills base, and keep up-to-date with technological advances and new techniques
- Build their portfolio to show a range of projects, approaches, and clients, and to showcase individual style
- Make the most of marketing and networking opportunities
- Be reliable! Although it sounds obvious, ensuring you are on time and on budget can seriously enhance your career in interior design.
Also known as…
- Design Consultant
- Spatial Designer
- Interior Technician
What’s it really like?
Interior designer, Ray Dawes, has been in the industry for over ten years. Here, he explains what motivated him to become an interior designer and shares some tips for those interested in the profession:
”I became involved with interiors purely by accident. It was Christmas 1997 and I was working in an architectural practice and became redundant. A colleague introduced me to his agency, and this agency arranged an interview with a large interior design company, who were desperate for detailers. I was exactly what they were looking for at that time, and eventually ran the project when the incumbent left a few months later. Prior to this, I had been an architectural designer/job runner, dealing with new build/refurbishment/listed buildings.
I have always liked the creative side of the job and there is much more scope for this in interiors, which is a lot more flexible than architecture and a lot more fun. You also do not have to persuade or impress third parties (e.g. planners), who like to think that they are designers. I would say the only negative in interior design is the fact that some clients, architects, and contractors do not give interior designers the respect we think we deserve.
I would not hesitate to recommend interior design as a career. However, you need to be aware that there are two distinct areas: technical/space planning/furniture design, and soft furnishings/furniture selection (from contemporary to antique). Some people are adept at both. If someone is considering a career in interior design, I would recommend that they should observe the built environment wherever they go. They should also look at books and magazines to inspire them.
In terms of earnings, ability, age, and experience obviously count. However, supply and demand also rule, and it depends on the current economic climate as to whether one has a job or not. Hotels (which I have specialised in) are at the luxury end of the spectrum, and it is not unusual for a project to be on the company books for ten years or more, with work being carried out intermittently. There can be many changes in personnel during this time. I have earned £25,000 per annum, and also double that figure.”