business advice | Dec 14, 2021 |
I want to switch careers. Is going to design school worth the money?

Dear Sean,

I am in my early 30s and considering a career change into the interior design space, which I’m passionate about. I’ve spent the past 10 years building a career in brand marketing for a handful of major luxury and direct-to-consumer lifestyle brands, so I have a host of transferable skills that will make me a skillful entrepreneur, project manager and relationship manager.

I’m currently looking at a few certificate programs that would allow me to build my formal and technical skills (from CAD to color theory and design history) and add a level of seriousness to my resume. My question is: Do interior design firms care about these certifications? Besides the inherent value of the education and skill acquisition, is the reputational value worth the money?

Changing Lanes

Dear Changing Lanes,

Since you are looking to enter interior design as an employee, not an owner, the answer to your question is actually pretty easy: Leverage your transferable skills into a job with an interior design firm. You are fortunate that the job market is hot for interior designers these days. If you can add immediate value with your current skill set, go for it. Just know that if you ultimately want to find yourself on the creative and leadership side of the design business, you’ll have to work to demonstrate value there.

I often see project managers or junior designers making largely ancillary decisions who think that because they do an amazing job at the tasks assigned, they will absolutely excel on the design side. That is a lot like Michael Phelps saying his swimming accolades afford him the opportunity to try out for the NBA. Not so much. What you have is the opportunity to demonstrate that you belong on the creative side, which requires building your design skill set and philosophy so that you can prove the value of your creativity to the firm. If that means working nights and weekends, so be it.

To be a designer, you have to be willing to fight for what you see, and care about details that no one else does. You need talent, skill and experience to make your conviction matter. Whether you intend to remain on staff or start your own firm one day, this is your starting point. Right now, you might have the talent, but skill and experience are critically lacking.

As for the reputational value of a certificate program, in my experience, pedigree means nothing. What matters is this: Can you add value or not? Perhaps there are some firms that require the certification, but in an apples-to-apples comparison, someone with unbelievable self-taught skills who has produced a portfolio worth talking about will carry the day against someone who got an A in class.

Many of the world’s best designers have no formal training. Do not be mistaken, though—they have worked harder to acquire their knowledge than just about any formally trained designer I can think of. Those types are voracious about extending their talent, wisdom and experience every single day.

Will the certification program hurt you? Of course not. Will it give your resume another level of seriousness, as you say? Not a chance—and if it did, I would question the firm that looks for that kind of validation instead of finding out why you truly belong at the firm.

Although you did not ask the question, I advise you to seek out design firms that are doing the kind of work that speaks to you, with clients you can relate to as a potential designer. Getting a job with the wrong design firm is not a risk worth taking. Look underneath the image and discover the soul of the firm. Ask who they serve and why—and then ask yourself what you could contribute. How could you make what is already great about them better? When you have the courage to put it out there to that right firm, you will be able to see if design is your true path.

Good luck.

Homepage image: ©Mnirat/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.

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