Are We There Yet? Charting a Course Towards Your Design Dreams

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Every once in a while, you meet someone who changes the way you look at your life-someone who seems to have started life out in the same place as you yet through different decisions and dreams has ended up in a completely unique place. Earlier this year, I met Dr. Anubhuti Thakur, a young professor at Cal State Northridge, and I realized how easily the story of my life could be sitting on a shelf in a completely different section.

Anubhuti initially contacted me to speak to her class about interior design for retail spaces. As we chatted about her students, she commented that they were seniors preparing to graduate, and I realized that they needed more than just another lecture on retail design. They needed insight into how to survive outside of the safety net of school and how to make the most out of the time they had while they were there.

What I Wish Someone Had Told Me While I Was in School



1. Take this time to figure out where you really want to be.

There are countless questions to ask: What kind of design career is really for you? What will be your specialty? What skills, education, and experience will you need to land the job you want? Do you want to work as a part of a large team?

There is only one way to answer these questions: try out everything you can! Internships are an amazing opportunity you can really only take advantage of while you are in school. They are how you can test drive dozens of diverse working environments without a long-term commitment.

Beginning students who have completed only a few design courses should look for unpaid internships for which they can receive course credit. These internships offer extraordinarily valuable time with accomplished design professionals and provide an introduction to the “business of design.” Through these internships, you might have the opportunity to view client presentations, visit a construction site with a senior designer, and become familiar with the everyday tools of the trade.

Intermediate and advanced students who are closer to graduating can take it to the next level with paid internships. You will have the chance to become a working member of a project team. These internships are actually your first real jobs before you become a design assistant, draftsperson, or junior designer. If you treat these jobs with the same seriousness you would your full-time career, not only will you make a lasting impression on your bosses, but you’ll also begin to understand what working in this industry really means.

The key to all internships is to try everything you can in as many different settings as possible. You never know where you might find your perfect fit.

2. Prepare to sell your ideas with words.

So much school time is spent honing your visual presentation skills and honing the ways you can articulate a concept graphically. It is easy to forget that it is equally important to be able to defend your visions with language. Are you going to be able to articulate why you designed what you did in a way that resonates? What’s the best way to improve your own ability to convey your unique statement? Start practicing now.

3. Enter every competition you can.

Enter every contest that is open to students. You can find student design contests through your school, ASID, IIDA, NKBA, AIA, or the myriad of design magazines that announce contests monthly. Even if “you’re sure you won’t win,” enter anyway; you have nothing to lose! Going through the motions and preparing your entry package will make entering the next contest that much easier.

After all, school should be about more than gathering and storing copious amounts of information; it should be an opportunity to try everything and to discover what the shape of your dream is.

What’s the next step? Landing that dream job!

Preparing for Your Interviews and Landing Your Dream Job (or Close)

1. Practice presenting your portfolio aloud to a real person.

Watch the person’s facial expressions. Are you being positively received? Does he or she look confused? Be prepared to explain how the work you have done in the past is relevant to the position for which you are applying. It is always appropriate to turn the pages of your own book and briefly explain the merits of each project, but take a cue from your interviewer; if he or she reaches out to take your book and wants to review it on his or her own, by all means hand it over.

2. Be confident, but don’t grossly overstate your skills.

Be honest and play up your strengths, but don’t promise what you can’t produce. A lot of employers give applicants who are being seriously considered some kind of practical exam as part of the second-interview process.

3. Be realistic about the job you are applying for.

Remember that you are likely to be applying for a support position right out of school. When you speak about your goals for the future, remember to consider the needs of your potential employer right now. You will increase your chances of being hired by demonstrating how your abilities can benefit your potential employer immediately. Do not talk about your plans to use this job as a “stepping stone” to the next great thing.

4. Read the job-posting requirements carefully, show up prepared, and don’t make excuses.

If I ask you about your hand drafting, don’t tell me that your program really didn’t focus on hand drafting, so you’re just not very good at it. If you are really lacking the skill that I am searching for, you shouldn’t have applied.

5. Practice answering interview questions with someone.

Get help with interview questions from your school’s career center or the Internet, and have someone ask you these questions in advance. Be prepared to not only speak about your education, internships, and pre-design work experience but also about your personal design philosophies. What are your greatest achievements? Failures? What is your reason for applying here specifically? What is your organizational style? Almost anything is fair game, so be prepared.

As I shared this information with the class, we chatted about my own experiences on my path towards my dream job. After the students left and while I was packing up my materials, Anubhuti and I began talking about the differences in our lives. Despite the fact that we are both 29 years old and both began in the same place as students in design school, here we were: she with her Ph.D., a university professor with many published research projects, and me, a graduate from a local community college who went on to become the owner of her own interior design firm that has received numerous accolades since opening in 2003.

Meetings like this are important; they are reminders that the world of interior design holds boundless opportunities and insanely varied paths that can all lead to your dream. When I began design school, a professor told the class that less than 1% of us would ever succeed in business for ourselves, and this discouragement kept me from even considering starting my own company for years. When I decided to take the risk, I realized that I was finally exactly where I was meant to be. No one can tell you what is best for you. Chart your own course, and use these tools to discover and realize your dream.

About the Author

Sarah Barnard crafts cutting-edge yet gracious interiors that reflect the unique qualities of the project owner and the inherent soul of the architectural site. Her work has been featured in local and national publications and has placed prominently in several design competitions. Sarah Barnard is a member of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) and the National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA), which has awarded her the distinction of Associate Certified Kitchen Designer. For more information about Sarah Barnard, please visit www.sarahbarnard.com or call 310-823-7331.


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