I’ve had a successful career as an interior designer for more than four decades. After graduating from design school in the 1970s, I began my career at a premier firm, working for design legends, and then joined my family’s business for more than 20 years, designing private residences in New York’s blue-chip buildings and in wealthy communities around the U.S. In the mid-2000s, I formed my own firm, and have been working intermittently for private clients ever since. (An accident, divorce and ensuing litigation have kept me from working full-time.)
I am now at a point where I would like to join a firm and work as part of a team. I have years of experience, industry resources and vendor relationships. But when I apply for jobs, I usually don’t hear back. I’m not sure if it’s my age and experience, or the fact that my skills are not up-to-date—I always had a team to work on CAD drawings for me so that I could devote my time to meetings with clients, site visits and vendor meetings, which is where I excel.
Why the crickets? And how can I get the attention of a firm that would be a good fit for me? I’m sick of working solo—and getting tired of not hearing back.
Back On the Market
Dear Back On the Market,
What an incredible and illustrious career you have had. It sounds like you have had the remarkable good fortune to work with clients and firms that most designers could only dream about, and the breadth of experience, wisdom and talent that you bring is beyond question. So why the radio silence when you respond to job postings?
Perhaps you are right that your skills (i.e., CAD and all things technology) are not up to par. Or perhaps you are overqualified for the jobs on offer. One can only speculate as to why your responses are not being returned. The bigger question, though, is why someone with your wisdom, experience and talent (I saw the images of your work!) is being reactive instead of proactive?
Reactive is trying to fit yourself into a slot that has been identified for you and trying to make that work—classic job hunting, if you will. But you know the landscape, what is required to make a project successful for the most discerning of clients, and the players that matter. You have seen what works (and what does not) as both an owner and an employee. Why are you not trying to discover what would make you indispensable for their firm?
Today, there is no shortage of information for you to learn about firms you wish to be part of and what makes them tick. Such is the very best of the digital age. So to start, identify 10 firms you would want to work for. Have a look at what they are doing and what value you believe you could bring to them. Filter by size of firm, type of project, overarching style—make sure you are a good fit from the outside. Not everywhere is bound to be a good fit; more likely than not, your list of 10 will shrink to six or seven.
With your winnowed-down list, go further: Investigate a recent project of theirs that you love, then seek out the production partners they used. (Remember, not everyone has the ability to discover these partners and have a conversation—but you do, because your resume makes it so.) The aim is not to discover a weakness, but rather to identify the true strength of the firm. What makes their relationships so special? Can you add to their secret sauce? What exactly could you do to make what is already great even better? Maybe it is the liaison work you talk about being so good at, or maybe your design perspective—the point is that you will identify an opportunity and determine how you might best maximize it. My guess is that, once you follow these steps, you will get down to three or four firms you believe you could really enhance.
Armed with this specific knowledge, use it to open a dialogue with these firms. Everyone loves to talk about themselves and the work they do—if you wish simply to add to the conversation, it is likely that you will get an audience. Too brash, you say? Then ask yourself this: If you will not have the courage and conviction to express your opinion and offer the extent of your wisdom, experience and talent to those that might choose to listen, why exactly would they listen?
More and more today, the role of those in any firm is to add value far more than it is to accomplish a task. The reason is startlingly simple: Tasks can be done for less and less each day, and will one day be done by a machine. Value, on the other hand, is created by those who move beyond the literal to see the opportunity that extends behind the task. (Think only of the best partner relationships you have had in your career and you will know exactly what I mean.)
I have repeated the words wisdom, experience and talent on purpose. The question for you is whether you will get to work solving problems the firms do not even know they have and seize all of the indispensable opportunities that will abound if you do. Today, we can all choose ourselves if we dare: Choose to be the expert, to have our voice heard, to really matter to those who care, even if they do not know they are supposed to—yet.
Instead of waiting to get picked, how about you start showing why there really is no other choice than you? Good luck.
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'll keep your details anonymous.