business advice | Oct 18, 2023 |
I’m making a midlife career switch to design. Should I go back to school?

Hi Sean,

I am attempting a career switch to interior design and starting my own firm. I keep seeing that if you don’t have an interior design license from the state that you have to refer to yourself as a decorator. Is that true? Is it worth going back to school for a two-year program to become a designer?

Midlife Career Switch

Dear Midlife Switch:

I do not know which states require a license to call yourself a designer and which do not, and I do not really care. You will be a decorator when you leap into this business, no matter your education.

I graduated from one of the best law schools in the country. Elizabeth Warren was my professor and mentor. There is absolutely no way that I would have ever hired me for legal representation in any capacity immediately after I graduated. I knew a tremendous amount about the law but literally nothing about being a lawyer. Of course, there are schools that are better at training students to be ready for the profession as soon as they graduate, but they are definitely in the minority.

Before continuing the much-needed conversation about the distinction between the designation of decorator versus designer, an aside. The world needs you to leap, to dare to have your voice heard so loudly that you can convince someone to hire you to improve their lives. Do not let anything I say here come to mean that you should not switch careers and become a designer. If it is your path, please remain undeterred.

My column today is simply about showing you what is actually underneath your feet when you start. In addition, I am all for education and gaining necessary skills and knowledge that will root you in the process of moving into design. Education for education’s sake is always a valuable endeavor. I am simply telling you that your education and whatever license you might obtain will never allow you to skip a step.

Learning how to make a room beautiful is the stuff of decoration. No doubt, most designers are wonderful decorators in that they make curated choices that make a room sing. Because of our social media–saturated world, we mistake the beautiful images we see everywhere as design when they are really emblematic of amazing decoration. It’s when we see exceptional choices made with regard to the flow and relationship of space that there is something else, something deeper, going on.

Your education can clue you in to what it will feel like when you get there, but in no way will it teach you how to actually be there.

The gravitas of impacting someone’s life is what you seek as a designer. How someone wakes up to brush their teeth, walk down the hall to the kitchen, sit with their family at dinner, relax together in the den—this is all contemplated by a designer with the idea of transformation. The power to shape how someone actually feels about themselves is what designers do. Decorators can do it in snippets, but never the whole story. There simply is not enough there there. You have to do the work of being present both to what is and what can be without being pedantic. It takes time and patience and the willingness to really understand your purpose, as well as the projects.

My advice: Go get an education, put out your shingle no matter what you want to call yourself and then set about doing the work of becoming a designer, one room at a time. Yours is to learn to see what your clients cannot but so wish they could. It takes emotional intelligence, courage of commitment and a never-ending yearning to be curious.

Decoration is a wonderful endeavor and necessary for your education—just please never mistake it for design. A home gourmand can create a wonderful meal; a chef does it every day and is never satisfied with what is. So too with designers. If this is who you seek to be, no better day to start than yesterday.


Sean Low is the go-to business coach for interior designers. His clients have included Nate Berkus, Sawyer Berson, Vicente Wolf, Barry Dixon, Kevin Isbell and McGrath II. Low earned his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and as founder-president of The Business of Being Creative, he has long consulted for design businesses. In his Business Advice column for BOH, he answers designers’ most pressing questions. Have a dilemma? Send us an email—and don’t worry, we can keep your details anonymous.

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