Transitioning into design? Here’s my take.

Ok, so I get a ton of DM’s about my story. People always ask how I got started, why I got into design, and if I always wanted to be a designer. Well, the answer to that question is a resounding nope. So since my path to where I am today was less than a straight shot, I figured I would share the abbreviated version with you. Maybe some of my story will resonate if you are thinking about, or just took the plunge into design from another career.

All photos from one of my first new construction projects. Photo: Amy Bartlam

When I was a child I wanted to be rich. More importantly I  wanted to be a really fantastic businesswoman, but mostly just rich. I was a super obnoxious adolescent prancing around my house in a pair of my mom’s high heels with my grandfathers old briefcase and cordless phone. The gist here,  is that my path was always business. Corporate business, big tall building business,  important business- where I would make lots of money and drive a really fabulous Mercedes sedan with a car phone. (Hey it was the 80’s!) I never rearranged the furniture in my room, and I never asked to decorate the house. I wrote pretend checks and was ready to be a boss before I even knew what I was going be a boss of.

Fast forward 15 years and I had just graduated USC (fight on) with a degree in Business. I got a job in corporate America and had a sweet little corner office and a shiny new BMW. I was on my way to dominating the world! Only problem was… I HATED it. I hated the structure, the corporate mentality, and celebrating people’s birthdays with crappy cake in the break room. During this time I also started to realize that I had a knack for deign. I helped the corporate bosses pick paint colors and photography for the offices and I helped overhaul the Iobby. Apparently I was good at it, and I liked it. In fact, I liked it a lot more than what I was doing, so I decided to switch gears.

One day, on my drive home, I called my parents and told them I had quit my job and was going back to school to study Interior Design. As always they were super supportive, but graciously reminded me that they had already funded one college experience so this time I was on my own.  I got a job bartending at night and sold  horrible furniture at Ethan Allen to learn the ropes and pay the bills and essentially… started over. About two years in, I got a job working for an amazing LA-Based designer and quit school to work for him full-time. I stayed with him for about 4 years and worked my way up the ranks, and then eventually left to start my own company in 2011. I made a deal with my husband that I would promise to bring in at least $1,000 a month from my “design business” and we agreed to give it a year. I took the $500 I had set aside to buy business cards and marketing materials and ran with it. Three months later I had four projects, and was looking for office space and an assistant. Obviously, the story is a LOT longer than this, but this is just the overall so you don’t get too bored. The really important stuff is below.

Photo: Amy Bartlam

There are a lot of things I learned taking the leap from corporate America to interior design, but a few really stand out. I gathered the things that I think are most important- and am sharing them with you guys in the hope that one or two will resonate and help make someone else’s transition a little bit easier than mine.

You’re going to start at the bottom, so be humble and be teachable.  I think when people are first starting out, they want to be assertive and seem knowledgeable but sometimes that comes off wrong. Just because you’ve built your own house and everyone loves it, does not mean you are an expert interior designer (just yet). You have yet to blow a budget, miss a deadline, have your team order a sofa that is right-arm-facing when it should be left-arm-facing, forget to request a COM,  or design a detail that looks good on paper but looks like crap in real life… and remember, this is now all on someone else’s dime. So my advice is slow your roll. Get out into the field. Talk to the contractors, take a lot of notes, and write down terms you don’t understand so you can google them later. Be humble and be nice. To everyone.   If you are going to work for another designer- be a sponge. Listen, learn and take notes on what you admire and what you’d do differently. Be aware and try to understand and observe as much of the business as a whole

Find a mentor. Honestly, I think this is probably applicable in 99% of professions, but especially in design. Find a successful designer and see if they will let you pick their brain. Go to events and workshops put on by people you admire and aspire to be like. Offer to take people to coffee or lunch. Ask questions and take notes. I knew I had a knack for design, but what I didn’t understand, was make money doing it or how I was going to develop a firm that was consistently profitable- so my mentor was a super successful businessman and his advice was always invaluable to me.

Network. Then network again. This is actually applicable even if you are getting into design to work for someone else. I made so many friends in the design industry while working for another designer because I went to events, markets, seminars etc. If you are on your own – networking is even MORE important! Join a networking group or send a marketing kit to local builders or architects who’s work you admire. Get up early and go to bed late. Hustle. In the beginning you won’t have a portfolio of work ot fall back on so you will have to sell yourself at every chance you get.

Start small, but think BIG. Please, please, please don’t take a single dollar for design until you have a client agreement, insurance, a resale certificate, proper bank account etc. If you want people to respect you as a designer, then make sure you legally establish yourself as such. Sit down with an attorney to make sure your contract protects you, and pay your taxes. Design is awesome, but it’s still a business, so treat it that way.

Stop looking ahead. Stop looking for the “next” opportunity. The one you have in hand is the opportunity. In fact, you are probably working on a small project right not saying “This project is lame. I’ll just deal with it and get it over with and then get a really good one.” I  think this was a huge lesson for me when first starting out. I would get a project that was small, or had a tiny budget, so I would sort of internally dismiss it and maybe not make it as cool as possible, becasuse I was waiting for that BIG project to use all of my cool ideas. Well, if you are doing that, STOP IT RIGHT NOW. If your current project is a powder room- then trick that powder room out!!! Make it the coolest, most bad-ass powder room on your side of the Mississippi and own that design. Treat each opportunity as your potential Architectural Digest cover and you will enjoy the journey, and the scopes and client budgets will grow. Be patient, trust the process, and focus on the job at hand as your next big break.

Photo: Amy Bartlam

Ok, obviously I learned like a billion other things along the way, but I think these were the standouts. I always love sharing my journey, and hope that there is something here that resonates with one of you in some small way. Now I need to wrap this up and answer 3,795 emails. Happy weekend! xo k

Kate Lester Interiors