What We Didn’t Know

When I started as an interior designer I had no training and no tools. Because of my dyslexia, going to school was really not the best option for me. But I was committed and determined. I trained myself to do scale drawings, to do all the things required to be able to execute a job. I was an assistant for somebody and saw the pitfalls first-hand, I learned to go to the marketplace and what it took to produce and put a job together. I did presentation boards, drafting and I paid my dues, maybe with a lot of loose change, but I learned through experience and a lot of very hard work.

Very often these days people think that because they like shopping at expensive design stores they have what it takes to become a designer. I think that to start one’s career because of contract or style, without really getting all the things it requires to be able to call yourself a professional in place could be interpreted as unfair to those who have paid their dues – be it by working their way up from the bottom, or by going to school and learning to do it that way. (I’m also considering the clients that are going to have to suffer through one’s learning curve!)

Maybe I’m wrong, maybe those who went to school would say that about me who didn’t go to school. What pitfalls have you who didn’t go to school experienced? And the ones who did go to school? Let’s share our pitfalls with those who feel that merely a good eye and connections can start them in this business.


  • GREAT POINT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


    May 18, 2010
  • Vicente, It is not about going to school or not. I think it is about “paying your dues” and that includes you paying for your faults during the learning curve and not the client, its about you choosing to suffer during the learning stage not your client.
    This profession is highly underrated as you know and already have expressed on several occasions. Many people think that they can become designers because they simply think so, I call it IDS, Instant Designer Syndrome, I have seen it many times in my country, I have even seen the designer miraculously and instantaneously materialize right in front of my eyes, and believe me there is no sarcasm here, as much as I would like to be sarcastic at this moment!!
    Because this profession is underrated, clients fall for such people and end up either facing miserable conditions for extended periods of time hoping for a happy ending, or sometimes even putting up and accepting the sad ending just to have the whole thing finished and behind their backs. What happens is that clients have paid for a bad job, a serious professional designer lost a job and the profession in general gained another point against it to add to the endless list of complaints about designers. This is what gives designers the bad reputation.

    May 18, 2010
  • It takes a lot more than a good eye and connections…I am one of these designers that went to school….alas not to design school but to arch.competitive business school to earn an MBA in finance, only to realize Wall Street was not my cup of tea. Many stories and years later, i re-invented myself as a designer with years of experience under my belt running my Interieurs Showroom. My designs come from instincts, knowledge of production, clarity of space allocation and flow, and (I think) a great eye paired with constant curiosity, years of travelling….my advise to aspiring designers…learn all you can, have a sound understanding of finance, be humble, surround yourself with mentor or experts…..I rely on my staff for all the things i recognize i cannot do…technical drawings, CAD, no patience to draw floorplan, but always sketch my vision of floorplans first.
    Pitfalls….It seems i always learned the hard way but somehow to keep a step ahead…naive… i have been expecting manufacturers and vendors to respect their terms for quality and lead time, lost serious money at the hand of incapable or dishonest manufacturers…I guess you can call this experience.

    May 18, 2010
  • mandy

    I have a friend who overnight became an ‘interior designer’. She had to hire someone to do a bathroom renovation for her client because she knew nothing about drafting, construction or space planning. I don’t understand why she doesn’t just say she’s a decorator. I see this so often where people with no skills are all of a sudden professional interior designers and it’s annoying for someone who has done the school and practical work experience training. It confuses the general public as well who feel that only architects can do interior construction work.

    May 18, 2010
  • mandy

    I want to add that we have certain expectations of architects – we expect them to be able to draft, layout the plan for a building, know the building code, have construction knowledge and in addition to that have an eye for design. In my province we have the same expectation for interior designers in order to achieve the professional designation of ‘interior designer’ (those with the required practical experience but no formal education used to get grandfathered but I’m not sure if that is still the case). However, the only people that seem to know that we require (and have) these skills are interior desigers themselves. The public doesn’t know this because so many unqualified people are using this designation (illegally where I live).

    Imagine an accountant one day saying “I’m an architect” because he has renovated his home with the help of a builder, but he doesn’t know how to draft, can only plan very sketchily and relies on the GC for construction knowledge.

    May 18, 2010
  • I think school and a degree can mean nothing. I’ve seen homes done by designers with degrees and they might as well have been done by, well, me. You can pay $100,000 to have someone tell you to put grasscloth wallpaper in your office, have your bathroom upholstered in a Laura Ashley fabric that matches your duvet cover (barf), and have a giant painting of red and blue horses over your sofa that means nothing to you personally. Having a degree doesn’t mean you have taste.

    I think clients should educate themselves on who they are hiring. And I think people also pay for what they can afford. It costs less to get someone who is still in the learning curve…to each his own.

    May 18, 2010
  • I really don’t think it is about the degree, many of the most famous painters in the world were self taught. Myself, I have taken many courses. I love the synergy of it. Your work in the end speaks for itself!

    Giveaway by Beth Cosner Designs is up on my site. Do come visit and spread the word!

    Art by Karena

    May 18, 2010
  • mandy

    Hi Littleshop -a degree doesn’t mean you have taste it means that you have a basic skill set that is required to do interior construction work. As a non-designer (as I think you are refering to yourself) you likely wouldn’t know how to do a set of construction drawings for a full house renovation. A decorator would not know how to do this either, but an interior designer would. If you are looking for someone to just pick furniture and finishes then you are right, a degree is not necessary. If you are looking for someone to re-design your home then a degree would arm you will all the skills that are required to do this job without having to rely on a builder or an architect to fill in your knowledge gaps.

    May 18, 2010
  • Mandy, I totally agree. That’s why I think to each his own…I wouldn’t hire a decorator to do a reno…I wouldn’t hire myself out to do a reno. I wouldn’t even do a kitchen remodel. I WOULD help you pick out furnishings. That’s why I have no shame in calling myself a decorator- I have a full time job in apparel design, and don’t see a point in going to school when all my clients want is ideas on which rug to choose. And that’s also why I say the client should know who they are hiring. As with any profession, you’d want references, examples of work, etc.

    May 18, 2010
  • EM

    Inquiring minds want to know: how does a client discern the difference between the professionals? There is no certification process in the U.S. What is the best way to ask without sounding like one of those difficult clients?

    May 18, 2010
  • Harry

    Firstly, I’ve been following your blog for a few weeks now and am also eagerly awaiting Vicente’s books arrival from Amazon in the next few days. I’ve also watched Vicente’s Design Icon presentation on You Tube. I’ve been pleasantly surprised that someone so highly esteemed can so humbly want to encourage others. Vicente, you are an inspiration on so many fronts.
    In some ways I’m not keen on seeing the direction this may end up taking amongst the “those who think they’re designer vs us, who know we are” commentators. I am under the impression that what bothers some the most is not getting the job. Whilst I can understand that, there is nothing constructive in it either, is there? I’d rather see everybody helping each other to learn something new than listing why so-and-so shouldn’t get the job.
    What I enjoy here is the spirit of openness that Vicente shows. I don’t think it matters where or how one gets ahead.
    Sure, knowing how to do scale drawings helps but if like me you have a drawing blockage akin to dyslexia, what do you do? I explain and work around it. One’s eye can be trained either by oneself or with the help of others. The important part is being aware that you should train it. Learning is great. It’s what I like about this profession. What are most of the people reading this site for anyway if not to further understanding?
    Buying from a big design store is easy if you copy the total look. What’s harder is knowing how to avoid that look. If a client wants that look, do it and shut up about it or let Mr/Miss I Can Shop For You do it. They’ll have their blast and a deserved one. If the “soccer mom” decorator gets to do her friends’ houses, best of luck to her. If she should get it wrong, they’ll ask you next time, maybe.
    For the anecdote, one of my contractors told me last week that a major client had asked him for ideas on what to do with the house he wanted to renovate. He replied, “Ask H because I’ll put a bidet in the middle of your living room if you ask me to. H will tell you why you shouldn’t!”
    Yes, sure it would be wonderful if everyone came straight to the designers with their perfect learning curve. What is the perfect learning curve? Is there one? I don’t think there is just one.
    I think there is something more important to rant about. I do think it sad though that people fall foul of the wrong sort of designer, the worst sort, the one that thinks they know it all, doesn’t listen or rather just doesn’t choose to hear.
    Somewhere along the line your clients just have to trust you or why would they want to employ you at all? I think the direction should be more about building confidence than what bruises our professional training egos.

    May 18, 2010
  • mandy

    Hi Harry – interesting points. However, its not about ego but about the skill set distinction and liability distinction between decorators and designers. That is why we have stringent regulations in my province about who can practice as an interior designer and who cannot. We have to pass exams after education and work experience, just like an architect. Then we are qualified to call ourselves interior designers and apply for permits without relying on other parties. The fact that there is so much confusion out there about the difference between the two disciplines highlights the fact that we need to educate people about the differences. It’s not an “I’m this, you’re that” game. It’s letting people who need to hire professionals know who they need to hire. If you’re a decorator just call yourself that. If you’re an interior designer just call yourself that. There is a title distinction for a reason, and this reason was enough for my province to require standards of professional practice for interior designers. It’s largely to protect the public so that they know what they are getting when they hire someone.

    May 18, 2010
  • Some US States do have that distinction (designer/decorator) and some do not. It’s a state law thing.

    May 18, 2010
  • Gary Nelling

    All rules of education are true except when they are not. It really behooves a person to get a degree in their chosen field, except that some of the most accomplished people never finished college or went at all. Bill Gates and Bob Dylan come to mind. Bill didn’t complete his degree at Harvard, but he did donate a building to them later. Like them, you broke the rule beautifully. Many of us took a safer, not better, route.

    I think education should be appropriate to the professional field. I believe it is still possible in MO for individuals without a degree in architecture to sit for the licensing exams if they have worked for a licensed architect for 10 years, done all the types of work required and have three letters of recommendation. I see no reason that designers should not be trained in the field in lieu of a degree. I don’t know the requirements for engineers, but their work is so mathematical that I think a degree should be required.

    Professionalism in the end is a matter of individual commitment to hard work, however you come by your experience, and it does trouble me too that untrained and uncommitted folks enter the design professions, but at what cost in time, money and aggravation would we regulate this? Scone has pointed out that there are still many American communities that don’t require a licensed architect to prepare construction drawings for a new house! What communities can we expect to enforce standards for interior designer work?

    In the end, I think all we can do is to make our own work reflect well on the profession, encourage others to do so and focus more on what we add than what others take away. I think we should educate the public personally and through our professional associations about the different skills sets required for different types of projects. And as a personal hero of mine, who occasionally paid people to complete his college essays, once said: “Life isn’t fair.” John F. Kennedy – 1963.

    May 18, 2010
  • mandy

    Ha Gary! – great last line. So true!

    May 18, 2010
  • jess

    I personally don’t care what’s fair or not. If you have talent in the design arena, it will show. School or no school, classically trained or not, to be a great designer I believe, requires an innate sense of style, restraint, knowledge and execution. All things one wouldn’t necessarily learn in a classroom. Charlotte Moss comes to mind: one of the best! yet not formally trained or studied as a designer.

    May 18, 2010
  • Gary Nelling

    I agree with you Jess. There are many roads to the same destination. But allow me to clarify the meaning of the Kennedy quote. He wasn’t complaining that life isn’t fair, he was EXPLAINING it to someone who had complained. In other words saying that certain situations, and life in general, can be unfair and beyond our control, but we have to press ahead and do our best anyway. Sorry if that wasn’t clear. I can see how it could be read either way. – Gary

    May 18, 2010
  • Really interesting discussions going on here.

    I myself didn’t get my bachelors in interior design (communication- go figure!) but when I realized I wanted to switch fields, I began taking courses & a diploma program along the way that taught drafting, space-planning, etc. Although the classes taught me the knowledge needed to draw plans/ renovate/ etc., because it is not “formal design schooling,” in my state I would not be considered a “licensed interior designer” or even be allowed to sit for the certification exam unless I had a bachelor’s in design and worked under a “licesense interior designer” for a number of years. I would have to close the doors of my design business to get this title. It’s important to note that in the US, each state has its own definition of “interior designer” and what he/ she can / cannot do. In my state, I’m an “interior designer” not a “licensed interior designer” but both are allowed to practice. In Mandy’s Province, it seems only those who are licensed are allowed to practice.

    Many of the greatest interior designers are self-taught. I would hate for them to have been kept out of clients’ homes because of their lack of formal design schooling. So I’d like to ask- when does a self-taught designer (with no formal schooling) actually become an “interior designer” in the eyes of those who believe you’re only an interior designer if you’ve had formal schooling? Do they not believe that self-taught designers are designers? Do they deny what’s being done (ie homes renovated) is actually happening?

    I would say that clients need to ask questions and find what’s important to them & should be allowed choices. If they do not want to hire a designer because he/ she was not formally schooled/ state certified, than it’s the client’s choice. If the client, however, wants to hire a self-taught designer, I see nothing wrong with that either. There are questions they can ask and portfolios they can look over.

    …And then back to Vicente’s questions about pitfalls: I also worked under someone else (a “licensed” interior designer) and saw the importance of scaled drawings, presentations, quotes, etc. Paying your dues is a huge part of any profession. I started out staging homes on the side while I worked a public relations job and realized that I wanted to learn and do more & actually design, so I set about educating myself for real design work. I didn’t have the luxury of being able to go back to school again for another degree. I had to work a regular job and educate myself on my own time. I don’t think that knowledge is any less real because it wasn’t gained through formal schooling. It’s taken years and I’m still learning. I think any good designer is.

    I think mistakes to avoid would be jumping into anything too quickly. I didn’t just say one day “Well, I’m really good at staging homes. I’m an interior designer. Open for business!” I realized where I wanted to be and then set about educating myself, taking courses, working under a designer for experience, etc.

    I agree with Gary & Jess that there are multiple ways to get to the same place… But I think it’s clear that whichever way you choose to get there, dues must still be paid.


    May 19, 2010
  • So sorry that was so long!!

    May 19, 2010
  • Gary Nelling

    Lauren – I admire self-educated people because it takes initiative and discipline to learn that way. Not everyone has parents who encourage and support them through college, and we don’t want to make entry to the playing field impossible for the others. (I went to college so long ago that I was able to pay my own private school tuition and school expenses, though my folks paid other expenses.) But however we come by our professional experiences, we aren’t born tigers and I agree we all have to earn our stripes one way or the other.

    On the issue of degrees and licensing, I would only add this. The world, including the US, is moving toward more regulation rather than less. Code books only get longer. I have seen numerous communities add zoning and building departments to their city governments. I have never seen a city, county or state decommission one. As the outlying communities change from rural to suburban, they sometimes have no building codes while they are attracting development, but as they become more urbanized, they begin to think about infrastructure and civic liabilities, and adopt strict codes with professional licensing requirements. This may differ regionally with less in the south and west, but it probably behooves everyone who wants to provide complete services including structural alterations to get ahead of the game. Your city or state could always change.

    Many states have private and state schools with adult continuing architecture and design education programs that are accredited for licensing and allow you to take a class or two per semester and complete your degree over time. These are typically populated by people working full time in the field. Typically you could transfer the course hours you’ve taken. I’m not suggesting you should be obliged to do this. But you may have the option if you wish go that route. – Gary

    May 19, 2010
  • bravo… to me, you either “get it” or you dont.. it is something we are born with… school or no school it is in our hearts.. it is our passion and there is no school for that. xx

    May 20, 2010
  • I first studied fine art, and then fashion design. Years later working in the field of interior design and decorating, the biggest challenge is being taken seriously by those who have gone to school for Interior Design. I can appreciate there are things I don’t know how to do because of this, and that is when I rely on the expertise of people with this training…but from my perspective this lack of formal education in this specific field doesn’t mean I can’t produce excellent work.

    May 22, 2010
  • I’m getting into this discussion a little late, but it is a subject that is near and dear to my heart, so I’m going to put in my two cents worth. I was 47 years old when I quit my masters’level educational job and began to paint murals and create a craft line for a living. Over the course of a couple of years, I recognized that what I really wanted to do was design, so I enrolled part time in a FIDER accredited design program. I continued to work, taking on a few decorating jobs, painting murals and furniture. I studied, made great grades and was well suited to the design world. It was hard to work and go to school and I was a single mother at the time as well. But I will tell you that there was very little that I learned in school that I couldn’t have learned anywhere if I was motivated to do it. Design is not rocket science. It is more art than science, and even though I had the educational requirement, there was no way I was going to work as a junior designer for two more years and then sit for an expensive test that was not going to give me what Ineeded in the real world. I needed to work, and at 50 yrs. old, I wasn’t waiting any longer. It’s been 12 years since I changed my career, and I now have a brick and mortar design studio with 2 more designer and 2 interns who work for me. My success has come from a dedicated work ethic, the desire to learn and grow and a intuitive sense of style and good taste. I know what the inside of a wall looks like and I’m not afraid to take one down. In my state, it’s the job of the contractor to implement the building code…not mine. He is quick to tell me if something is workable or not. The segment of the design community that is inflating the skill requirement to design wears a cloak of superiority, and their desire to squash talent in favor of a license is more about their own insecurity than anything else. Cream rises to the top, and if your work is good, it speaks for itself. I’ve yet to have a client ask me about my education or license…they want to see my portfolio. Captialism reigns and those who are trying to eliminate the competition should spend their time honing their marketing skills.

    May 27, 2010
  • Gary- very good advice & I’ll look into it.

    Janell & Sally- I coudn’t agree more.

    May 28, 2010
  • I think there are people who go to school and then there are people who do what Vincente did which I consider an apprenticeship. Think about someone like an ironworker. You don’t go to school for it, not really, but you learn from someone more experienced and then you have to have a natural ability.

    School gave me the basic principles and the vocabulary to speak to clients in a knowledgeable way. You may just “know” something is right, but before you can get someone to pay for it, you need to convince them. Some clients need to see credentials, some want to see a portfolio and some can be convinced through conversation.

    May 28, 2010
  • Samantha R

    Firstly, I would just like to say I’ve been fascinated by reading other people’s comments, I live in a highly pretentious creative environment in London, in fashion for my sins and its so refreshing to be reminded of the truly intelligent creative people out there, who have given true hard graft to their calling rather than expecting to become successful just because they look the part.

    I quite agree with people comments that you don’t need to go to school to learn your craft, my 4 years at design school taught me nothing I couldn’t have learnt from a couple of evening classes (and it would have been a lot cheaper to do so!). Education merely points you in the right direction. Experience teaches you what you really need to know, that and hard graft. The last designer I worked under had a degree and a masters but still couldn’t use CAD, didn’t have a clue about fabrics, pattern cutting or production. And the reason she got the job, she looked like a fashion designer!!

    May 30, 2010
  • Wow, so many wonderful comments. It is obvious this is a touchy subject for a lot of people. I took the path of a formal education (specifically a four year degree at a FIDER accredited program) and then worked for four years and sat for the NCIDQ exam. I felt that both of these experiences helped me grow as an Interior Designer and set me up with skills and knowledge needed to be a proficient designer. However… ALL of this does not matter if you have no taste or lack an open mind to learn from others and be constantly inspired by the world around you. In so many firms, both residential and commercial, you need to have the staff that are the natural designers that can create something beautiful out of nothing and you need those designers that can put a set of drawings together or detail a unique feature of the design. I think by appreciating the fact that everyone has different still sets and working together can help the world experience better design.

    June 13, 2010
  • Carolina B

    I would say, design is about passion whether you went through school or not. Ok, I went through school but now I have to make it in the real world. That’s the difficult part.
    So, what Vicente has gone though is a logical process to educate himself. What best education that go through New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and analyze composition color and light in every painting. What is best than travel around the world and interpret what you see into design. Do I mention the knowledge you could gained in fashion and advertising? Design is a holistic process. Vicente got it!

    October 19, 2010
  • Hi Vincent, sounds like you are one of the lucky few who are able to live and work in your passion. So many of us are caught in the web of work, bills and consume we even forget what living and breathing is all about. It is very inspiring to know that a condition like dyslexia did not deter you from perusing your dreams, so thank you.

    March 31, 2011
  • Wow! Finally I got a blog from where I know how to truly take useful information regarding my study and knowledge.

    August 03, 2015
  • […] I think there is value in an Interior Design degree for sure – I’ve come to the realization that I should’ve studied Interior Design rather than Drawing and Painting, but oh well, that ship’s sailed! Of course, you can hang up your shingle and call yourself an Interior Designer (not in all states) and learn as you go; however, there are some things that are more difficult to learn on your own like building code and knowing if the things you design are actually build-able. Rather than figuring it out on your own, learning on the job is probably the best and fastest way to learn design if you did not study it in school. Vincente Wolf writes about it here. […]

    January 26, 2016

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