Much like any industry, what you learn by doing is always where the real insights come from. Here are the lessons I’ve learnt while working in commercial interior design.
From a very young age I knew I wanted to do interior design, and after finishing my higher diploma at Wits in 1994, I started on my journey into the world of commercial interior design. When you’re fresh from ‘varsity and ready to join the workforce you think you know it all and are ready to jump in, but design is a very hands-on, learn-in-the-field kind of job.
“When it comes to what an interior designer needs to know to execute a successful project, on a scale of one to 10, varsity teaches you two!”
I was equipped with great foundational knowledge of creative history (art and architecture), a basic understanding of materials and finishes, the ability to render perspectives and do basic construction drawing, as well as an understanding of the creative design process… but very little more.
Don’t get me wrong, when you’re designing a space knowing the pillars of design is always vital, but what you learn along the way is how to use those pillars in the best way in each unique space. You also learn how design affects people, how to keep yourself motivated and how to be great at what you do.
Here are the five lessons I’ve learnt so far:
1. The key to a successful project is in a successful brief
A good brief is vital to the success of the design process. So you need to ensure you get a good brief, understand the intricacies of that brief, and successfully delivering on it. And in order to do this, it’s vital for any interior designer to learn to read people well and know what questions to ask. The first step is to make sure you successfully extract all the right info from your client (this is the questions part). Then you need to correctly Interpret that brief into a strong design concept. This isn’t something you can learn overnight, it takes experience, knowledge, and hands-on insight.
2. The importance of being organised
When you’re designing a space for a company there’s no room for mistakes. An office redesign is disruptive and no company wants to be inconvenienced for longer than agreed to. Not to mention a mistake made on ‘the drawing board’ translates into a monumental problem on-site… costing the company money and major embarrassment. So working to a timeline and being very thorough is vital! Over the years I’ve learnt to be organised and ensure I know the status of every project.
3. There’s no such thing as a packaged design
We’re not office decorators… we’re solution specialists. You may learn how to plan out a space at varsity but in reality, no two offices are ever the same. So a cookie-cutter approach will never ‘cut it’. Every business is different and the importance of getting into the psychology of a client’s business is key to creating the right solution. So there are no shortcuts… Needs must be analysed thoroughly, due diligence, and research must be done completely in order to do the job properly.
4. Not every project will be very creative
I’ve done many projects in my career and while first prize is always one where we have some room to be creative, sometimes the best solution for the client is a surface makeover (some paint and new furniture for example) or a slight redesign of a space. But the projects that allow us to stretch our ‘creative legs’ are always so fulfilling for a designer… and there will be some really creative ones! I really get a kick out of creating a great solution for a client’s needs and then seeing their reaction to the final product (no matter how small the change).
5. You have to build relationships
Around one-third of our life is spent at work, so it’s only natural that the office becomes a second home to people. This is so important to understand because you wouldn’t go into someone’s home and tell them what to change if they didn’t feel comfortable around you. Design is a very personal thing and you have to build a relationship with your clients so they feel comfortable with you. It’s also really enjoyable to work on a project where you have a strong rapport with your clients.
At the end of the day, what we do as designers is vast. Our knowledge base is big and our world is ever changing. The reality of design is we only really begin our learning once we’ve completed our studies and entered the working world. What they don’t tell you is how little you know and that it will take many years of practical experience before you’re equipped to successfully and confidently take on a sizeable project.
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