Real Designer: Amy Aswell

All this month I'm interviewing real-life designers about what it is like to run a design business.  As you'll see these ladies have all different backgrounds and experiences, but one thing they all have in common is that they have taken my course, The Golden Blueprint.  

"You can't sit in a room all day on AutoCAD and expect to have good ideas. You need to go out and see things, have conversations, challenge assumptions, push boundaries, explore and allow it to influence your work."

About Amy Aswell Amy Aswell runs Amy Aswell Interior Design in Sacramento California.  She holds a Masters of Interior Architecture (M.I.Arch) from University of Oregon and is a Certified Interior Designer and LEED AP.  Prior to starting her design business in 2012, she taught interior design at the college-level.  Amy loves variety and her project load reflects that.  In addition to residential projects, she has done restaurants, TV shows, and designed custom furniture and lighting.

What traits or talents have made you successful? I take a positive approach with clients and new projects. I see every new job as a new opportunity to create something wonderful. Being able to hit the re-set button and learn from each new experience, grow, adapt, persevere and continue finding the joy in every new design program and problem. I like variety and prosper when a design job requires me to dive into research mode, whether it's a new restaurant concept, material innovation or advancements in sustainability. For instance, I'm helping a client select fireplaces and the environmentalist in me was excited to learn about new wood burning regulations in California that will impact the types of devices I'm able to recommend. I love the 'real-world' tie-ins and seeing how the industry can have a positive impact on the world, because we do a lot of damage but hold so much power to create positive change. Many clients have commented that I'm easy to work with. I also have a knack for seeking input from all parties involved, staying open to ideas and suggestions, then after I've gathered all the facts, really honing in on what I believe is the best solution.

How do you charge? Hourly

What has been your biggest sacrifice in running your business? At the moment, I'm a sole-practitioner which has its pros and cons. I love teamwork and I miss the daily collaboration of having other professionals around. At the same time, I've experienced the fallout of working with the wrong people. When you run a business, you take on all the responsibility and you get all the credit. Time management is a constant struggle as well as managing client expectations. Every day I wish the work day was 12 hours and I only needed to sleep 4 hours but the reality is I'm a human being and taking care of myself ultimate will improve the business. But as a hard-working often compulsive person, striking that balance isn't always easy. I don't have a boss telling me I've worked hard enough and to go home, I have to tell myself, and I'm not great at that yet.

What is the biggest lesson you've learned running your business? The importance of setting boundaries. Being always available to clients means there is no time to spend on the actual work. I love being prompt with responding to emails, but it comes at a great sacrifice to the real work of design. Same goes for meetings. On top of that, I'm teaching a design studio at a college this semester so I try my best to give myself at least 2 full days per week where I'm just in the office working on design. A day can really drain away quickly if your main goal is to manage your inbox, voicemails or social media. I'm getting better at compartmentalizing and saying no to spending time on low-level tasks.

What does success mean to you? Success to me is having the opportunity to work with great clients on great projects AND making a decent living. This is not a hobby yet the profession is still often regarded by the mainstream as something 'light' or easy. I have never worked harder for anything in my life so it's a strange way to be met by a world that doesn't really get it when you come through the other side. I hope to someday only work with clients who truly value design and want to work collaboratively to achieve great results. Clients who 'get it'!

"I try not to be too hard on myself and realize I can and should be continually learning and growing and I am allowed to not know everything."

When you stumble how do you pick yourself up? I try and hit the reset button. Step away from the work or situation and give it and myself breathing room to reground and try and understand where to go from there. This profession is so complex and multi-faceted that there are opportunities to stumble around every corner. I try not to be too hard on myself and realize I can and should be continually learning and growing and I am allowed to not know everything.

Do you have a favorite quote, motto, mantra, affirmation? I'm a quote junkie. I find great solace in reading quotes that relate to whatever experience I'm going through. I look for quotes that are positive yet relatable. I have a pinterest board devoted to inspirational quotes! I also like to write down inspirational quotes as I'm reading. Sometimes they even become artwork on my walls. I'm attracted to quotes/mantras/affirmations that go a little deeper and are more insightful. More complex. But sometimes the simplest quotes strike the deepest cord. There are so many soundbites available for our daily and hourly consumption I find myself drawn to philosophies from history. I'm also obsessed with humor. There is so much material to work with relating to design and comedy but so few examples of it. I'd love to work on a comedy show wholly inspired by poking fun at design and architecture. I would be in heaven! I like connecting with folks who can be serious but who also don't take themselves too seriously. I also love to meditate.

What drew you to interior design? I keep joking that we should pay special attention to what kids are drawn to through adolescence. I was intuitively drawn to design as a kid. I became obsessed with music and fashion in about 5th grade and in part I know that had to do with the aesthetics. I loved music videos...the transformative aspect of colors, sets and of course the music. And I would become obsessed with different clothing brands like United Colors of Benetton and Oilily. I remember pouring over issues of COLORS magazine which told stories of building practices around the world. I was struck by images of dwellings that were constructed with discarded materials like old glass bottles. I also went through a phase of creating short films. I would spend hours creating sets and crafting stories and even had the follow through to complete the projects. Anything weird, clever or foreign piqued my interest. I loved MAD magazine and oddity products like gag toys. I loved color, products, art, music, environments and people. That all translates well to the profession of interior design. As an adult, I'm still drawn to a variety of interests and that only helps with design. You can't sit in a room all day on AutoCAD and expect to have good ideas. You need to go out and see things, have conversations, challenge assumptions, push boundaries, explore and allow it to influence your work. It allows your designs to be more meaningful, relevant and timeless. I also love that to be a good designer requires you to be a lifelong learner! I'm all in!

How do you wish the design industry was different? I wish the title of 'interior designer' was protected like with architecture through education, experience and examination. I think this would help the general public understand what we do and also lift the profession up. Like a lot of fields, there is a 'pecking order' that is exploited by some and because that probably won't change until there's greater understanding and/or legislation, my goal is always to find like-minded, collaborative colleagues to work with. There is also a great deal of residual sexism/misogyny in the building industry. And I would like to see more overall transparency all around.

Looking back, is there anything that you wish you could've done differently running your business? I let some early clients walk all over me because I assumed that was a part of the 'hazing' process. I also did not charge nearly enough for early projects.

What are you most proud of? Sticking with it! Having the tenacity and bravery to start a business! Well, the business kind of started itself, but I have stuck with it. And I've grown and I now have some great clients and exciting projects and great hope for the future of my business and now have a waiting list. Through all the hard work I have never lost that desire to run my own business which tells me I'm where I should be. I crave the project of actually running my own business and that what sustains me. Of course the love of design keeps me here too. It's all very rewarding.

What is your biggest struggle in running your business? Finding balance between starting up my business and having a life. There is a finite amount of years I'm willing to devote to getting my business up and running and eventually I'd love to step into more of a creative director role. My to-do list is always multiple pages long and it would be great to eventually feel like I can delegate responsibilities to some great employees and step back to take care of more of the big picture concerns of the business. But for right now I'm the woman who does everything. Eventually I'll be thankful I had this experience because I'll be able to fully understand all of the facets of the business but for right now it's quite an all-consuming challenge.

"Don't give anything away. Your ideas are your business."

Any sage advice or words of wisdom to fellow designers? Dedicate yourself to lifelong learning. Keep your head down and do the work. Design is just as important as business in this profession if you want to remain solvent. Don't be afraid to ask for help. Believe in yourself and your abilities. Don't give anything away. Your ideas are your business.

What is on the horizon for your business? I hope to continue growing my business but in a smart way by making measured moves. Not hiring before I'm really ready. Participating in continued education, conferences, trainings, etc. Continue refining my business brand, identity, services and best practices. I'm currently working on 2 restaurants and 2 residential projects. It's a lot for one lady!

How has your business changed since The Golden Blueprint? The Golden Blueprint helped me gain confidence in running my business both practically and emotionally. I stopped second guessing or re-inventing the wheel as much. The business side can really leave you bruised and battered and The Golden Blueprint lifted me back up and helped me understand the worth of my business. Starting your own ID business can really feel like stepping back into the Wild Wild West and this program gave me a framework to work within. It freed up a lot of headspace that was being taken over by menial business tasks and questions.

The best way to contact Amy is  All photos courtesy Kat Alves.

The Golden Blueprint will launch again soon, be on the list to start your business off right.