business advice | Sep 6, 2022 |
I want to leave my corporate career to pursue design. Where do I start?

Dear Sean,

I recently left my job as chief marketing officer after 35 years of experience at top 500 companies and a couple of master’s degrees. I want to start over in interior design, which has been my passion for many years.

My ultimate vision is to do professionally what I do for myself and friends—which, I confess, is more “home decoration” than “interior design” and based on not much more than good taste and a passion for beauty. To dive into my new dream, I feel that I need a bit more formal basic design education, but I am not sure I need a full degree for $40,000 per year. What type of education would you suggest I pursue?

In addition, I saw your advice to another reader, Changing Lanes, about leveraging transferable skills into an interior design job. I absolutely agree, and I have been trying to offer my marketing skills at a discount to places like Restoration Hardware, with no luck. Any suggestions?

Seeking a Second Act

Dear Seeking,

First, many kudos to you for deciding to take the leap into interior design after such an illustrious marketing career. As for education, many of the world’s foremost designers do not have a formal education in design, so before you leap into spending a significant sum, ask yourself, “To what end?”

I would rather see you immerse yourself in working for a designer you deeply respect so that you can absorb all that they are doing in the practice of design. Along the way, you will come to know the skills you will need to be conversant in the language designers use to communicate with their team, vendors and clients alike. For instance, I would hate to see you pursue a degree that requires hours upon hours to learn CAD, when you could instead become versed in the bigger-picture dynamics and then allow those who are already way ahead of you to deliver technical drawings and renderings. You seek to be an entrepreneur, not an employee—please do not ever forget that.

Which brings me to your marketing experience. What you have over just about any other designer entering the field is insight into the psychology of decision-making, especially emotional decision-making. You understand status, semiotics, emotional resonance and effective decision-making much better than most. Restoration Hardware is an amazing company but useless for what you desire. Instead, focus on the power of design and how a designer can more effectively develop, present and ultimately sell that design to clients. These are the services you should be offering for free to designers you admire who you think you can help. In exchange, you can learn all about the practice of design—and if that costs you $40,000 a year, so be it.

Your former career can be both a blessing and a curse. The curse, in one respect, is that you have learned and practiced marketing at mass scale. The blessing is that I am certain you understand intimacy. In an ideal world, you will merge the two skills, to the benefit of yourself and the design industry as a whole. Interior designers serve those who care the most, and that is an individual endeavor. You must pair outrageous promises with outrageous demands so that you can create something remarkable for the clients who care the most—one client at a time.

So jump in with two feet with a designer who is willing to let you be you. From there, the path and the requirements to navigate that path will reveal itself. Good luck!

Homepage image: ©StellaSalander/Adobe Stock


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.

Want to stay informed? Sign up for our newsletter, which recaps the week’s stories, and get in-depth industry news and analysis each quarter by subscribing to our print magazine. Join BOH Insider for discounts, workshops and access to special events such as the Future of Home conference.