Design School: What to Know Before You Go

As a recent graduate of the interior design program at Washington State University, I’ve realized there are many things I wish I had known before starting. I wouldn’t change my choice of majors, but it would have been much less of a culture shock to have a bit of information beforehand. To help others who are starting their interior design education, I got together with some design school friends to make a list of what we wish we could have known.

Design is harder than TV makes it look

For many of us who have not had the opportunity to interact with professional interior designers, most of our ideas of what an interior designer does come from the media. The programs hosted on HGTV and other shows like “Trading Spaces” portray interior design as something that is fun, quick, typically residential, and something anyone could do with a good eye and a love of DIY. While interior design is a fun and creative major to join it is rarely quick, expands much further than just residential and takes much more skill than just liking DIY. That’s why you go to design school!

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Taylor Coleman is a design school grad and a writer for The Student Lounge.

Going into interior design school expecting what they show you on TV will leave you at a disadvantage. Interior design means being able to make beautiful designs (both residential and commercial) that meet the client’s needs while being safe for users. There is a significant amount of research involved and much of your time may be spent designing your floor plan multiple times. Being an interior design major takes a lot of time, dedication, and stress. However, if you stick it out, it can also be incredibly rewarding.

After design school, people’s misconceptions are still abound

Interior decorating is a perfectly valid career choice and has its own merits, but it is not interior design. Many people will use the title of interior designer to describe everyone from their neighbor who redecorates her living room every year to the professional designer who works on multi-million dollar projects. There will be many times when you will find yourself defending your choice to spend thousands of dollars on a design school degree because people think that the only thing you do is choose paint colors and furniture for people’s houses.

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Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.

Although designers do pick furnishings and finishes for their projects, it’s not the only thing, and often it’s the last part of a project. According to the CIDQ (Council for Interior Design Qualification), “Interior design is a multi-faceted profession in which creative and technical solutions are applied within a structure to achieve a built interior environment.” When you face the issue of people discrediting your decision, try not to let it get to you. Remember that the average person is only aware of interior design through TV and as a throwaway career for women in romcoms. When you face those situations, take the time to teach and advocate for the profession. However, if you are not up for the long explanation and still want to correct the misconception, explain that we’re practically architects, but with an indoor focus. That usually gets a general nod of understanding. Recognizing this as a design student will give you a leg up.

Your design studio (home 2.0)

Design studios differ from program to program, but one thing they all have in common is the amount of time you spend in them. Your studio is not just another class that you go to and then think about only when work is due. At design school, you will spend a large portion of your time outside of class working in there. Cliché as it sounds, it truly does become your home away from home.

To have a great studio experience, understand the studio culture. Some studios are for maximizing creativity, while others emphasize collaboration, and have a very professional atmosphere. There are many different types of studio cultures, and it is vital to figure out where you do your best work, then integrate yourself.

Studio etiquette is immensely important. Knowing what is and is not acceptable within your studio can be the difference between a wonderful and disastrous experience. Being aware that you are not only sharing space, but will be for long stretches of time with projects that are highly personal and important. Be respectful of others’ space and possessions as well as their boundaries – regardless of how comfortable you are or how long you’ve known them. The stress of projects compounded with being around each other on a near constant basis can raise tension, and you should do your best not to add to it.

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The New School Parsons School of Design in New York.

Time Management (THE most important part of design school)

I know, I know, everyone says that time management is important and so far you’ve probably been able to do it with minimal effort. However, I cannot stress it enough. Figure out what your priorities are and figure out how you are going to budget your time accordingly. During my first two semesters in the interior design program, I struggled to find a balance between my personal life, interior design, and all my other classes. My design classes took up most of my life, to the point where I lost friends and had little to no chance for de-stressing, and I was not the only one. Nearly everyone in my design school program had similar issues, the exception being those who had already had some experience with design from another program. And even then, it was close.

During my time in design school, my peers and I spent an average of 16 hours a day in our studio, but the actual class was only 3 hours a day. That was only the average amount of time and did not include the extra-long days spent right before a project deadline. This also did not include time spent working on non-studio classes. My suggestion is that you get comfortable with caffeine and late nights because you’re going to want every scrap of time you can get to perfect your projects. Also, even though finding time for a personal life is extremely difficult, try to anyway. Do not let your school life take over everything. This does not lead to a good experience.

Coping with stress

I really wish someone would have told me how much stress I would experience when I joined this program. In the words of one of my favorite professors: “Interior design is not an easy major. If it was, everyone would do it.” She was not wrong. As satisfying as it is to see one of your designs come to life and know that you are one step closer to joining the professional world, the process of getting there is filled with a ton of stress. Interior design can be a very fast-paced program to go into, and it requires a lot of time to produce your best work. This, in addition to the stress of project presentations, critiques, redesign, and many other aspects can lead to you becoming overwhelmed very quickly. It is important that you find healthy and effective coping mechanisms to handle this stress.

One of the most effective strategies that I developed at the beginning of my junior year was to set aside a set amount of time to NOT think about design or school in general. I would put all my effort into my projects and classwork for the entire week (Sunday-Friday) but Saturdays were for destressing. I would not look at anything even hinting at school. I would make sure that I did as much as I possibly could on all my work and put in every ounce of time that I possibly could so that by the time Saturday came I didn’t stress about what I could be doing. Instead, I would start my “work” week on Sundays. This strategy may not work for everyone, so find a way to cope with stress that allows you to get things done but is also enjoyable.

Dealing with criticism

As a student of design, you are constantly placing your work in front of others for critique, and it is vital that you know how to deal with it. Critiques are not personal attracts on you or your work. They are impartial looks at what you’ve done to help you improve. DO NOT take it personally. In fact, you should seek out critique. Don’t just wait for a formal presentation; ask your professors, your peers, people in other design majors and people who know nothing about design. The more people you can get to critique your work, the greater your chances of creating a well-rounded and beautiful design. For more on this, listen to Episode 4 with Professor Diane Phillips from Georgia Southern University.

Thanks for reading! I hope this has been helpful! If you have any questions or would like to get involved with The Student Lounge, reach out here or through my email, taylor@wallsbydesign.com.

About the Author
Taylor Coleman is a Denver native and recent graduate from the interior design program at Washington State University. When not thinking about design, Taylor is an avid reader and photographer, and as a new intern in The Lounge, she is excited to see another side of the design world!

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