5 Habits of Successful Interior Designers

5 Habits of Successful Interior Designers

They Ask for Advice

Interior design has always been a secretive profession: hiding our sources, protecting our trade secrets and creating the illusion that everything is fantastic has been the norm.  Running this sort of business is no longer productive.  The most successful interior designers know they don't know everything and know when to ask for advice.  When interior designers thrive, the interior design industry thrives.  So why would you not want to help out your fellow designers if it'll help you too?

So here is my advice, don't be afraid to reach out to another designer in a professional and reciprocal way.  Don't just look for handouts, offer to share something of your own.  You can learn a lot from working for another designer, something I always recommend to those starting a interior design business.

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The business of design, how to be successful

Every designer I meet or speak to has one thing on her mind - how to be successful.  Success comes in different forms for each person, but the desire is the same - success.  Success could mean freedom, success could mean accolades, success could mean money.  Entrepreneurs I meet, not just interior designers, but really with everyone running their own business, I get the feeling that they're looking for that magic plan, the secret trick to become successful.  Even I feel that way sometimes, that if we could just figure out the right steps, our success would be laid out perfectly.  Or it would be easier, that it wouldn't be a struggle.  It is why we've become obsessed with other people's successes, why we love to hear the how.   As humans we love a story and we learn better from stories than just the facts.  Tell me the story of how spending money on advertising on radio didn't work for your business and I am much more likely to understand than just saying, "don't advertise on radio".  I received feedback from the participants of the last The Golden Blueprint that they'd like to hear more anecdotes and stories of the how & why.  So I am working on incorporating those into the course.

But what must be noted, is that the how & why for me is different from the how & why for you.  In The Golden Blueprint I don't tell you what to do, I provide the tools and knowledge for you to do it yourself.  There is no magic plan or perfect steps.  I provide the blueprint and you create your own success.  Which brings me to how I think anyone can be successful.

To be successful, you must work hard.  To be successful you must schedule time to work on your business and not just in the day-to-day.  To be successful, you must put what you know into practice.

Without doing these things you are just wishing, hoping, and dreaming about success.


Business of Design Treat your Business Like a Business

I often get inspiration for these Business of Design posts from my monthly designer happy hour.  A small group of independent designers get together to chat about business and ask advice from fellow business owners.  I hear from these extremely intelligent and successful women that they have a hard time with boundaries, that they want to please to the point of sacrificing themselves, and that they feel a little ruled by their clients.  They may not be saying these things in the words I have just used, but the message is the same. So here it is: you must treat your business like a business.

If you don't treat your business seriously neither will your clients.  Your business is yours alone and you cannot let your clients dictate the terms and processes that you conduct business.  This is really in everyone's best interest.  Interior design is a luxury service and your customer service should reflect that, but it doesn't mean that you should be an interior design butler and be at a client's beck and call satisfying every whim.

I keep a very distinct line between business and personal.  It's the way my brain works and I have a hard time surfing both realms concurrently.  I'm either in business mode or personal mode.  I would rather send two emails to the same person, the business "can we meet to review samples" and then a separate email for personal "how was your vacation" - that is how compartimentalized my brain is.  I don't give business contacts my personal cell phone because I can be reached on my office number.  I also do not use text for business.  But this is because it doesn't work for me and I think it is an unreliable means of communication.  These are the processes that work for me and help me treat my business like a business.  While I think that it is important to draw your line between business and personal, how you do it should be what works for you.

Here are some minimum guidelines that I think are important to treating your business as such.


If you want to be taken seriously as a business, get an actual business phone number.  There are many low-cost services that you can use to get a real phone number separate from your cell phone.  You can even have the new office number routed to your cell phone if you don't want an actual office phone.  It shows vendors and potential clients that you are professional and not messing around.


For my clients and vendors, I work normal business hours.  I don't work on the weekends and I answer calls and emails and have meetings during office hours.  It is important to establish this to again, be professional.  If your clients get accustomed to you responding to emails at 9pm at night, they will expect it forever more.  While the temptation is to respond right away to be done with that I suggest simply not checking your work email (because you have separate work and personal addresses) after hours.  Design emergencies almost always can be solved the next day.  Train yourself and your business contacts to respect the 9-5.


The letter of agreement/ contract/ design agreement protects you, protects your client, shows everyone that you mean business and are a professional business owner.  You are not a friend doing a fun little side project, this is not a hobby.  If you don't have this signed up front before you do any work for the client it will be exponentially harder to sign down the road.  Learn more about the interior design agreement.


Remember when I mentioned pleasing the client, sometimes you want to please so much that you agree to do something you shouldn't do and it comes back to bite you and maybe even your client in the butt.  Maybe you've agreed to install piece by piece instead of all at once and you're client over-analyzes and scrutinizes every piece that comes in without seeing the full picture.  Maybe your client tells you that they will measure to save money and their measurements are wrong, resulting in an incorrectly scaled room.  Maybe despite your rule to only use your own vendors, your client uses their own electrician and the fixture gets hung incorrectly.  Figure out what processes it takes to run your business smoothly and stick to them.  They are in place to make the whole design process go with minimal bumps along the road and to give your client the most pleasant experience you can provide.  If they aren't willing to take your expertise on how you run your own business they aren't your ideal client.


Ladies and gentlemen, your clients are checking you out online.  At minimum buy your domain name and put up a splash page with a single image, your business name, and your contact information.  It can be expanded on and fine-tuned later.  Get a freaking website.  Put your new office phone number on it.


While it may seem that co-mingling funds is no big deal, it will be a big deal come April.  It looks much more professional and give you instant credibility if you have your business checks - bonus if you print them instead of hand-write.  Keep detailed accounting records, I love Studio Webware.  Separate accounts keep your books cleaner, streamlines payments, and helps reduce accounting time and costs.  Despite having a bookkeeper helping me, doing my accounting paperwork is the worst and it is so much easier for me to have two accounts than to spend more time on my accounting rifling through a single account and multiple transactions.

I think of Capella Kincheloe LLC as an entirely different entity as Capella.  I put it in perspective by thinking if I was working for someone else than of course all of this would be separate.  Of course that business would have its own phone number, contracts, bank account.  You need to create this separation in the beginning to avoid issues down the line.

So... Are you treating your business like a business?


Business of Design 10 Things You Won't LEarn in Design School by Capella KIncheloe Interior Design Phoenix

There have been many times that I have heard designers lament about how design school didn't prepare them for a career in design.  Usually, it's just a single focus, one of those I've listed below  that they feel were missing from their formal design education.

I've been thinking about doing this post for about 3 years, so it is a culmination of conversations I've had with dozens of designers.  I should tell you that every school has different curriculum and the designers I spoke to did not all go to the same school.  I also focused on residential interior designers who are self-employed or their ultimate goal is to be.

I've always said that it is important to work for someone else before navigating this wondrous world of self-employment and that is where you'll learn the most important lessons in being an interior designer.  It's the experience that can't be taught in school.  "I feel like some of these things you fully don't grasp until you apply them in real life, said Chicago designer Edyta Czajkowska.

I've heard from many that design school provides the fundamentals, some used everyday and others as useful as calculus, but it could better prepare a designer for anything other than a career working for a large design firm.  As my friend Claire Watkins put it, "Even if it's not the graduates' responsibility, clients don't come out of nowhere, books don't balance themselves and the government isn't going to tell you what to pay in taxes. I think it would be helpful for every grad to have their eyes open on these ideas and the 'behind the scenes', not just 'here's my role - and I'll blindly perform it'".


1. Interior Design is a business first, then an art.  Forget color boards and room schemes - what you should be learning about is sales and bookkeeping.

2. Client Acquisition.  Where do you find clients and once you find them how do you convince them to work with you?

3. Budgets & Costs. Many design schools are working with outdated materials or give hypothetical (and often unrealistic) prices on furniture, fixtures, and other elements that make up a house.

4. Problem solving - Interior design is really just solving one problem after another and those analytical skills need to be exercised.  Tiffany Rene states, "I've noticed how even some 'top designers' are oblivious to what it takes to coordinate a successful installation.  Likewise, they specify furnishings without any regards to what it would actually take for the installers to move the item(s) into the space which is how we end up with crane and hoist situations."

5. Business finance & accounting - I've heard from some that they had great business of design classes and others had zilch.  My friend and former co-worker Leah Talanian, says "Yes I was warned, unfortunately it was too late, of all the time doing the business side and paperwork.  So a stronger class in time management and an organizational skills class for the business side would have been great!"

6. Client psychology.  Interior design is up-close and personal.  Understanding client psychology plays a large role in how projects get done  and why clients do what they do (They're crazy. Kidding. I'm kidding!).  Connection, understanding, and communication in integral in the design process.

7. Setting Fees.  This is such a hot topic in interior design right now and it seems like people can't stop talking about it.  How to make money doing interior design would be a great class in design school.

8. Hands-on experience.  Several designers expressed the desire for more real-world experience in school.  From role-playing client meetings and presentations to visiting actual construction sites.

9. What a contact or letter of agreement looks like.  Designers told me that this subject was never addressed in school and if it was it was just stating the necessity to have one, not what it might contain.  It's not surprising then, that my post Anatomy of Interior Design Agreement is the #2 result on Google when you search "interior design contract".

10.  How houses are built.  "Being on a jobsite and learning more about construction documents would definitely have been more valuable.  Learning a bit more about HOW a house is built and reading those details on blueprints would’ve been a great additional part of design school training," said Kristin Hazen.  Fellow Phoenix designer, Julie White echoes, " (In school) there was too much theory and focus on concepts without enough detail of construction and how things are built. I feel that designers need to somewhat know how things are made in order to design something that's possible to be built."

If you're considering going to school for interior design, remember that each program is very different.  Ask about hands-on experience, if the teachers and instructors are currently working in the field, and what sort of jobs graduates get.  Obviously, if you're looking to work for yourself one day, you'll need to find a program that can prepare you for that.  You'll want teachers who are working as interior designers today, because the field is very different than it was even 5 years ago.

If you liked this post, I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

PS: You also might like Business of Design: Best Practices or my series 10 Things Interior Designers Won't Tell You.

PSS: This is probably one of my longest posts ever at over 900 words.  Whew!

PSS: If you're interested in business training for interior designers visit www.thegoldenblueprint.com