I was immersed in the world of design education for eight and a half years – first as a graduate student and teaching assistant and then as an instructor. I taught both freshmen design students, who hadn’t yet declared their major, and sophomore and junior level interior design students. Along the way, I noticed major differences in the students who were successful and those who were less so.
I no longer teach in a university, but I think about my former students and the new group of aspiring designers who are beginning their journeys this Fall. So, this seems like a good time to share my best advice for achieving success as an interior design student and maximizing your three or four years in your interior design program.
Let’s first define “successful.” I am a recovering perfectionist (my husband would say I’m not even trying to recover), and when I was in school, I was grade motivated (aka external validation) just like many students. But, as a teacher, I considered any student who learned and grew over the course of a semester – both as a person and a designer – successful. That being said, the following are my best pieces of advice for new interior design students.
#1 Accept Personal Responsibility for Your Education
In order to be successful as both a student of design and in life in general, you must accept personal responsibility for everything that happens in your life.
Yes, you are paying top dollar for your college education, but YOU are responsible for maximizing the value you receive, not your professors, not your parents, not your advisor. In any and every situation that occurs, you should ask yourself how your actions led to the result and what you could have done differently or better. I can guarantee you that in very few cases the blame for a bad grade or poor critique is the fault of the professor.
Avoid making excuses for your shortcomings. Your instructors have heard them all. Unless something happened that is truly out of your control, keep it to yourself. During my very first semester teaching a freshmen design studio, a student’s mother passed away from cancer (I never even knew she was sick). He missed one week of school and was caught up with his classmates within another week. I told him he could have anything he wanted to make that semester work, but he never asked for a single extension or favor. And, his final project was stunning – one of the best I’ve ever seen.
Another interior design student was frequently absent because she was being treated for a serious illness. She proactively informed her instructors, made plans for making up missed work and presentations, and always expressed gratitude for any accommodations we made. She could easily have used her illness as an excuse and we wouldn’t have minded. But, she never did. She always had a cheerful attitude and produced excellent work, which made it difficult to feel generous towards classmates who were habitually late and underproductive.
Blaming other people or easily controllable circumstances for your failures won’t get you anywhere in school or in life. Begin your college career proactively managing your education by consistently asking how you can create the outcome you desire and you will be light years ahead of your peers.
#2 Cultivate Curiosity
I assume you decided to major in interior design because you’re passionate about creating what is essentially experiential art. Maybe you grew up painting and drawing, watching HGTV, or rearranging your room, or sketching floor plans. Maybe you took a drafting class in high school that sparked your interest. It really doesn’t matter how you arrived at your interior design major. What does matter is how you continue to cultivate your curiosity about the world around you and design in particular.
Once I was interviewing a recent graduate for a job with a residential design and build firm (we executed both the design and construction phases for home remodels and new construction). I asked her what design magazines and websites she read, and her answer was none. I was quite literally shocked. I couldn’t believe someone applying for a job as a residential interior designer did not consume any information on that very subject in her spare time.
If you want to be successful both as an interior design student and as a practicing designer, you absolutely must get out of your bubble and expose yourself to the big wide world of art, architecture, and design. Read magazines – all kinds. Explore your own city. Go to the art museum, go to art openings at galleries. See musicians play live music in genres you wouldn’t normally listen to.
Sign up for a study abroad. If you can’t afford a formal semester abroad, plan your own mini study abroad for a summer or holiday break. Subscribe to design blogs, go to Barnes and Noble and read the magazines for free. Ask for books for the holidays and your birthday and build your design library. Do anything and everything you can to broaden your worldview and learn about other people, places, and culture.
#3 Get Comfortable with Failure
This advice may be cliché, but you’re never going to get better if you don’t take risks. And, by taking risks you inherently set yourself up for failure. One of my grad school professors used to say that he’d prefer a spectacular failure to a boring success. For me, that always meant trying a new presentation technique or using a new skillset or embracing a concept that was totally unexpected and definitely out of my comfort zone.
In my last semester of teaching, one student designed a house with no straight walls. Everything was curved. It didn’t work…it was totally impractical and unbuildable. But, she had gone all in on it, and her rationale and presentation were interesting and compelling.
Conversely, I’ve seen students play it safe so many times. If you present your work at mid-term or finals and your instructor or jury struggles to find something to say or criticize about your ideas, then you aren’t pushing hard enough. You want to be the student with the presentation people can’t stop talking about because it made them think. You can’t do that if you’re copying rooms you’ve seen on Pinterest or citing Joanna Gaines as your inspiration. No offense to Joanna, she’s great, but you need to find you even at the risk of getting a C.
What I don’t mean by embracing failure – settling for poor craft, unrehearsed presentations, sloppy presentations, and generally low quality.
#4 Embrace Collaboration over Competition
Life is not a zero-sum game.
If your classmate succeeds, her success does not detract from your own. If you are in a group or on a team, then do everything you can to build up your teammates and help everyone be successful.
Within your studio section, talk to your classmates regularly. Ask them for feedback on your projects and work every single class period. Use them as a resource and likewise be a resource for them. Share information. Build each other up. All boats rise in a high tide. The better you all do as a group, the more you will level up, and the better your program and its graduates (you!) will be perceived by employers.
My favorite studio sections have been those in which the students banded together to raise each other up, meeting after hours to give help and just work together on their individual projects. The camaraderie was infectious, and the atmosphere of the studio was one of innovation and excitement.
#5 Sketch, Sketch, and Sketch Some More
Many interior design students seem to have an inherent resistance when they are asked to develop a sketch habit. I can only guess as to why from my own experience – fear of failure, feeling stuck, being judged. But, if you want to succeed as a designer, you must learn how to communicate effectively through sketching.
I have heard employers say on multiple occasions that they will hire applicants who can sketch over those who can’t and they will pay them more.
The only way to get better at sketching is to practice every day even for a few minutes. Keep a small sketchbook and your favorite media on you at all times and sketch whenever you have a few minutes. Sketch instead of mindlessly scrolling through Instagram and Facebook. Sketch in waiting rooms and at Starbucks. Practice seeing the world around you through pen and paper.
#6 Get OK with Good Enough
I’m sure you’ve heard the adage, “Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good.” I have routinely observed students so obsessed with making their process work masterpieces of graphical perfection that they don’t actually explore more than one or two ideas. These students often fall behind very quickly (see #10) and never recover. Once you understand the minimum requirements for a project, get all of them completed and then go back and improve upon them if you have time.
It’s far better to bring a complete project to the final review that is less than perfect than an incomplete project with one or two areas that are amazing. I taught a Junior studio that required a full construction drawing set in addition to presentation boards, materials, and renderings. It was so easy for them to get caught up in all the pretty of the images and textiles and graphics and forget about the construction drawings. They would focus on making their presentation perfect and never finish the drawings that made up more than half their grade. I was forced to give more poor marks in that class than any other due to incomplete projects.
This advice applies in practice as well, and I’m often guilty of not taking it. There are millions of tiles in the world, and one of them will make the perfect backsplash for my client. But, there are probably ten that are good enough. My client isn’t going to pay for endless hours so that I can find the perfect tile when one of the others would work just fine.
#7 Go Beyond the Minimum
It is actually very simple. When your instructor asks you for five sketches, you should do thirty. Two perspective drawings mean six or eight or ten. When she assigns three block diagrams, you may actually have to do ten before you nail down three that actually work.
The minimum is the minimum number that you submit. The minimum is not the number you actually do.
Think about it this way. If the assignment is to draw three chairs, do you really think you’ll ever get better at drawing chairs if you only draw three and then move on to tables? The assignment is to turn in your three best chairs not to only draw three chairs.
Let’s go back to the tile example. I may show my client three tiles as an option for her backsplash tile. I probably looked at thirty before narrowing it down to those three.
#8 Pick an Area of Focus
This advice naturally applies to graduate students, who are required to write a thesis or produce a capstone project on a specific topic. But, it also makes sense for interior design undergraduate students.
Develop a broad skillset and then pick a narrow area of focus. The broad skill set will naturally occur by taking your required courses, both studios and seminars, on different topics. These courses are necessary in order for you to be a well-rounded designer who is attractive to different types of design firms. But, if you stop there, what is going to distinguish you from the thousands of other design students who will also be job hunting post-graduation?
Find an area that you want to explore in more depth and use your electives to focus on this topic. Then apply your specialized knowledge within your other courses. For example, you might take a furniture design studio or two. You can use the skills you acquired in those courses to design custom furniture for your interior design studio projects. The same could be said for a textile course.
Or, your skillset could apply more to communication. You could develop a special method for renderings and graphic presentation. You could, like a few of my former students, get really really good at watercolor painting and use it for all of your projects and visual communication. You could learn how to make animated walk-throughs for all your projects or how to build stunning physical models and photograph them.
If you can develop your own unique perspective and skillset and apply it to your projects, then your work will stand out from the pack and set you apart.
#9 Manage Your Time Effectively
Poor time management skills are the bane of any interior design student’s existence. They often have little experience with open-ended projects with only one or two deadlines over the course of the semester. It’s easy to procrastinate because no one is holding them responsible for producing results on a daily or weekly basis.
You must be realistic about how long it takes to actually complete your deliverables at a quality, not necessarily perfection, level. A general rule of thumb is that a studio class requires two hours outside of class for every hour in class. If your studio meets for six hours per week, expect to spend another twelve on it outside of class or around two hours per day – at a minimum.
Every Sunday, review your week and make a list of everything you need to accomplish and when it’s due. Then schedule blocks of time to focus on each particular item. Review your list every single day and update it as needed.
One tactic that has worked well for me is to give myself a set amount of time to accomplish a task before I have to move on. When I know I only have an hour or a half-hour to do something, I can be amazingly efficient. If I give myself four hours, it will take four hours.
#10 Commit to a Lifetime of Learning
I want you to consider that in a sixteen-week semester if your class meets for lecture twice a week for an hour, that is 32 hours of time for your professor to speak on the designated subject. Less time for distractions, quizzes, and questions. Less class periods for field trips, tests and exams, and presentations. So really maybe it’s more like 24 hours in a semester.
It is completely impossible for your instructors to fully educate you on a single topic in 24 hours. They are going to deliver a condensed version of the most important information, and then it is up to you to do the rest (see #1 and #2).
Read the textbook they assigned. Yes, actually buy it and read it from cover to cover and then keep it for reference. Search for the topic on YouTube. You’d be shocked at what you can learn there. Subscribe to podcasts on interior design, architecture, design, and marketing (designers are salespeople in case you didn’t know). Read magazines, attend conferences, sign up for continuing education credits, join industry groups like IIDA and ASID and IDS. Commit to one event or course per quarter. Read one book on your field per month. For the rest of your life.
If you don’t want to do this, if you aren’t hungry to learn as much as you can about interior design, if you have no desire to keep growing and expanding your knowledge base, then you should seriously ask yourself if this is the right career for you. Interior design is ever changing and ever evolving, much like technology. You need to have the drive and motivation to continue your education on your own for as long as you are a practicing designer.
Bonus Advice: Use your instructor and TAs as a resource. When I was an undergrad in engineering trying desperately to pass calculus and physics, I went to office hours every single time they were offered. I went with specific questions and worked with my TA or professor until I understood the answers and where I was going wrong. I did this because I had to. There was no way I would have made it through those first two years without office hours.
As an instructor, I can count on my fingers the number of times a student came to see me in five years. I eventually canceled my regular office hours and only met students by appointment because no one ever showed up.
If your instructor has office hours, they want you to come to them! They are there for you as a bonus time. You’ll probably have him or her all to yourself for one-on-one instruction. This is an amazing advantage, don’t waste it!
What are your best tips for succeeding in design school? Please share in the comments. I would love to add to this list and start a conversation.
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