Interior Designer, Reflections

On the Job Learning

I’m wrapping up my fourth week at my part-time job as a Design Assistant with Susie Novak Interiors. It’s amazing how time flies!

I’ve already learned so much — not just about the interior design business, but also about my preferred working style and how well a part-time job fits within my sabbatical plan.

Insights About Interior Design

My interior design classes have given me a good foundation on the concepts, theory and even art of design. However, it’s this job that has really revealed to me what it’s like to actually work in the field, particularly as an independent designer.

This experience has already been so fruitful, that I’ve started stressing to my classmates how important it is to get some hands-on experience in a real office. With just a few weeks under my belt, I’ve learned:

  • How much time is dedicated to each stage of the design process
  • Different ways of bringing on new clients and preparing sales & marketing materials
  • Project management and invoicing tools that work well for independent designers and small firms
  • The abundance of showrooms and vendors in this field and how to get set up with a trade account to get that designer discount
  • Different ways of charging for your design work and for purchasing furniture, furnishings, etc. on behalf of your clients

How I Like to Work

I’ve also reflected on the areas of this work that I particularly enjoy. I’ve really like sourcing inspiration photos and adding them to our Pinterest boards — it unlocks my imagination and creativity. And, of course, I’ve enjoyed drafting! That’s no surprise, given how much I liked my AutoCAD class. I’m learning a new program for drafting floor plans but have also been able to use my AutoCAD skills to mock up some room elevations and designs for a custom cabinet.

But beyond that, I’ve also learned a lot about my preferred working style: 

Right now, the hours of my job are set week to week, based on the other things in my schedule as well as the work needs for the business. And that has been great! Not only does it provide me the flexibility to accommodate the other activities in my life, but it also guarantees that my time is always put to good use. No twiddling my thumbs before the next task comes in or wasting time just waiting for 5 o’clock to come around. If I’m working, it’s because there are certain tasks that need to get done. It really makes the time go by quickly, and I end the work day feeling energized and accomplished.

I also realized that I like to have a clear to-do list but the autonomy to decide how and when I complete each task. And related to that — I need variety! It’s nice being able to switch from sourcing furniture pieces to drafting up a floor plan to working on sales materials to even getting out of the office to pick up samples from the design district.

Part-time Work & My Sabbatical

As I’ve alluded to earlier in this post, this part-time job has been a great contributor to the goals of my sabbatical. The key, of course, was taking on a position that was related to one of the careers I set out to explore.

In just four weeks, I feel like I already have a lot more insights into what it would really be like to work as an interior designer. And I’m determined to take this approach as much as possible with my exploration of the other careers on my list.

It’s also been helpful, mentally, to add this part-time job to my sabbatical repertoire. I feel a lot more accomplished — not only in getting stronger and faster insights into this career path and my working style but also in the fact that I’m bringing in money again. 

While I’m still not 100% sure if interior design is the right path for me, I’m confident that this position will help me figure that out more quickly.

Interior Designer, Planning, Theater Executive Director

Part-Time Work

This week, I’ve been working on something I haven’t done in quite a while: applying for jobs!

Wait, Laura, are you done with your sabbatical?!

No, not at all. But I have been getting a bit antsy not working. Sure, I’ve been keeping busy. Quite busy, in fact. I’ve had classes, my internship, work on the podcast and a lot of projects around the apartment as we prepare for the baby. But there’s something about actually getting paid for the work you’re doing that is much more satisfying.

And from a more practical standpoint, it would also be good to make a little extra money. While we’re very excited about expanding our family, it wasn’t something I was expecting to happen during my sabbatical. And as I’ve written about before, this new development will likely push back my timeline on going back to work full-time and may draw out my career exploration process, as I’ll need to fit in caring for a baby! So, my thought is that if I start working part time now, I won’t feel as much pressure to rush back to full-time work.

What are my requirements?

Related to my career exploration

A while back, I wrote about pursuing different ways of making some extra cash — everything from selling old clothes online to being a mock patient for medical students. The goal was just to make money.

This time around, I want to be more focused, taking on opportunities that are in some way related to one of the careers on my sabbatical list.

Part-time only

In addition to the job, I would still be taking classes and working on non-paid projects that relate to my sabbatical career exploration — not to mention taking care of a newborn very soon!

By limiting my work to just part-time, I’ll give myself the time and mental space to still work on my other ventures. And most importantly, by not committing to a full-time job in one specific area, I hope to prevent tunnel vision and keep my mind open to all of the possible careers on my list.

Flexible schedule and (ideally) location

Again, outside of work, I’ll have a lot of other things that fill up my schedule: classes, the podcast, theater projects, house projects, and doctor’s appointments, to name a few. Having some flexibility in a work schedule would allow me to better accommodate these other projects.

As for location, it would be great to find a job that is either close to home or allows for some remote work, both for my own comfort as I get farther along in my pregnancy and from a logistical perspective for when I’m taking care of the baby.

What opportunities are out there?

So far, I’ve pursued a couple of roles, both in different areas of my career exploration.

Theater Administration & Management

I’ve applied to and have an interview for a part-time fundraising position with a local theater company. I, obviously, have extensive experience in fundraising and a background in online advertising for theaters; however, I’ve never worked in-house at a theater company.

Being an Executive or Managing Director for a theater company is one of the careers on my list, so I figure this would be good exposure to the inside workings of theater management and administration.

Photo credit: Richard Mayer

Interior Design

I’ve also just applied to be a part-time design assistant for an interior designer, located right here in Oakland. 

This summer, I’ve done my internship with the home staging company and really have learned a lot about that area of design. My next goal was to intern with an interior designer (or firm) in order to get hands on experience with that process. To find a paid position would be even better!

We’ll see how these two opportunities pan out and what else comes up. It will be important for me to stay steadfast in my requirements. While it would be nice to make some extra money, I can’t let it derail me in my ultimate goal of exploring new careers and finding the path I’m passionate about.

Interior Designer

To Freelance or Not to Freelance

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how much I was enjoying my class on AutoCAD. Working with the program is a perfect mix of computer skills and creativity. I pick up the tools and commands really easily. I like the challenge of looking at an assignment (e.g. a floor plan) and figuring out the best way to approach the drawing in AutoCAD.

I’ve relished working with AutoCAD so much that I’ve been looking into opportunities where computer drafting could be the primary focus of my work. There seem to be two main options: work in-house at a large firm as a dedicated drafter or pick up freelance drafting work.

The Appeal of Freelancing

For a while now, I’ve been thinking about whether or not freelancing would be a good fit for me. I like the idea of being able to set my own hours and work from home (especially with a baby on the way). 

And I also think about how freelancing could be a good complement to some of my other career interests. For example, looking at a career in theater management, some of those opportunities — especially on the community theater level — are part-time. Having another skill where I could do freelance work could help me close that salary gap.

Of course there are cons to working as a freelancer:

  • No stability or consistent paycheck — another benefit of pairing it with a permanent part-time job.
  • No paid benefits — you’re working for yourself!
  • More complicated taxes — or at least, there is no one necessarily withholding your taxes, so you’ll see that hit on tax day.

CAD Freelancing

Work as a CAD freelancer can be pretty broad. Since I’m taking my course as part of an interior design program, our projects have focused on floor plans, electrical plans and elevations. However, CAD program can also be used for a vast variety of projects, such as mocking up 3D concept drawings for a new product.

I’ve done a little research on freelance work in the CAD industry, and here are some top skills that will help one be successful:

  • Knowledge of multiple CAD software programs: While I’ve been learning AutoCAD (which is definitely one of the most common programs in the interior design field), some firms or clients may rely on other software and want their freelance drafter to work in that same program.
  • Familiarity with both 2D and 3D design: In interior design, AutoCAD is mostly used for 2D drawings, such as floor plans or elevations. However, often interior designers need to show their clients 3D models. That’s where it is useful to have experience with software like SketchUp or Revit — both of which I plan on learning.
  • Good understanding of math: Mocking up floor plans or other interior drawings involves working with a lot of dimensions and angles. In my assignments, I often have to calculate distances, diameters, etc. Luckily, I was a math whiz in school!
  • Speed: With freelance work, you are working on a deadline, and clients won’t be happy if projects aren’t turned in on time.
  • Ability to work remotely and independently: This one is a little obvious, but as a freelancer you really are your own taskmaster. You have to be good as setting your own schedule and following through on timelines.

Next Steps

In the immediate future, I need to focus on building up my experience, skills and portfolio. 

For experience and portfolio, I’m looking at a few avenues. The next type of internship I want to take on is with an interior design firm or independent designer; often interns help with computer drafting. I’m also taking a space planning class in the fall which will involve drafting up floor plans. And I’m considering offering to draft floor plans for friends and family who may be looking to rearrange their space.

As for beefing up my skills, there are many AutoCAD practice drawings and exercises available online, which will help increase my expertise with the software. And as I mentioned earlier, I also want to learn SketchUp and Revit, two software programs that I see often in job requirements within the interior design field.

Interior Designer

Behind the Scenes: Home Staging

Through my internship, I’ve now had the opportunity to work on a couple of home staging projects. It’s been great to work with my hands and see how we can completely change the feel of a home with some furniture and accessories.

My mentor, Joe, has also been good about giving me tips and pointers throughout the staging process and really explaining why we set things up a certain way.

New Learnings

In my initial post on my internship, I talked about some early guidance I received on home staging. Here are some additional things I’ve learned, working on actual staging projects.

Focus on living rooms and master bedrooms

It’s often said that kitchens sell homes. And while that may be generally true, a lot of that has to do with the counters, appliances, etc. that are already built into the kitchen — so things out of the home stager’s control.

When it comes to rooms that can be completely transformed through staging, that would be living rooms and master bedrooms. And it makes sense. Without staging, these can be pretty empty, blank rooms, with little features. The addition of furniture and accessories can have a huge impact in helping potential buyers picture themselves in the home.

Place your sofa on a full wall

Every home stager may have differing opinions on this one, but by placing the sofa on a full wall, you have the opportunity to place a show-stopping art piece above, making this a real focal point of the room.

Interestingly, this is not necessarily how most people would set up the living room if they are actually living there, as full walls tend to be reserved for the TV/entertainment system. But you hardly ever see TVs included in a home stage.

Think about foot traffic

When placing furniture, it’s imperative to keep in mind how potential buyers will walk through the home, especially during open houses when there may be high foot traffic.

In one home we staged, we had brought a full living room set with a sofa and two large matching armchairs. However, when setting up the living room, we realized that by including both armchairs, we were blocking the natural pathway that buyers would move through the home on their tour. So, we decided to remove one.

Consider which angle the room will be photographed

Staging is not just to make an impact during open houses but also to help bring out the home through its photographs and get potential buyers to the property in the first place.

When arranging a room, it’s good to keep in mind where the photographer will most likely stand. In this bedroom below, we made sure that the comforter length was perfect and the skirt was thoroughly steamed on the side where the photographer would shoot.

Don’t ignore the outdoors

Home owners don’t just spend their time inside the house. There’s a lot of living that happens in the backyard. And with some patio furniture and some strategic accessories, you can help potential buyers picture themselves enjoying this space.

What’s Next

Already, I think I’ve gotten a good handle on how to set up a home stage. I’m still hoping to shadow a consultation and help work through that initial design strategy and selection of furniture pieces.

I’d also like to get some more experience on the business side of things — landing new business, marketing and drawing up contracts.

Interior Designer

I Heart AutoCAD

For those of you who have been following my blog for a while, you know that this past Spring semester, I took a class on architectural drafting. And this was drafting by hand. While it was certainly satisfying seeing the final product, these drawings took hours upon hours to complete.

It’s no wonder that these days, architects, interior designers, engineers, and others in the field now rely on computer programs to draft their floor plans, mechanical/electrical plans, elevations, etc.

There are many different programs out there (in fact my interior design program offers classes on three different softwares), but the program that seems to be the most popular (for 2-D drawing, at least) is AutoCAD. In fact, even when I was searching for internships, about half of the listings wanted proficiency in AutoCAD.

Luckily, Cañada College decided to offer an accelerated AutoCAD course during the summer session, and I jumped on the opportunity to add this to my skill set as soon as possible.

What is AutoCAD?

As the CAD in the name suggests, AutoCAD is a computer-aided design and drafting software. It is used by many different professionals to generate blueprints, floor plans, elevations and other drawings.

And though it may be obvious, here are a few advantages of doing computer drafting over hand drafting:

  • Working with a design team is easier, since drawings can easily be shared digitally.
  • You can draw fixtures, furniture, appliances, etc. only one time and re-use them for other drawings.
  • You can use items drawn by other designers, easily pulling them into your own drawings.
  • You can have a library of items and templates for re-use.

The great thing is: Autodesk, the distributors of AutoCAD, offer free licenses of the software to students and educators.

Thoughts so far

I’m only a week into my course, but as the title of my post suggests, I’m loving AutoCAD. I find it really easy and intuitive to use. And you can draw things so much more quickly than hand drafting. Make a mistake? Just hit undo or delete.

AutoCAD has keyboard shortcuts for all of the commands, which make the work even faster. And even if you’re working on a laptop, it’s good to use a mouse with a wheel, as that provides a lot of capabilities to easily navigate around your drawing (e.g. zoom and pan).

The class itself has been a little slow, since they have to accommodate students who may not be as computer-savvy. But yesterday, we spent the afternoon working on a few exercises and projects at our own pace, and that is when I really got into a good flow. It’s just amazing how quickly you can generate drawings after learning just a few basic commands.

For example, creating these outside walls for a hotel suite took my probably 10-15 minutes:

Drawing the same thing by hand would have probably taken me 2-3 times as long.

A few other drawings I completed:

In many interior design firms, it seems like the design assistants or junior designers do a lot of the drafting, so if I go that route, it’s definitely something I’ll do a lot of, in the beginning. In fact, some large design firm have dedicated drafters.

It’s also something you can do on a freelance basis, as some independent interior designers will outsource their drafting work.

We’ll see what the rest of the course has in store, but if this first week is any indication, working in AutoCAD is definitely something I’ll enjoy and could even become something I decide to specialize in.

Interior Designer

My Introduction to Home Staging

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a number of internships I was looking into, as well as some home staging assistant positions I applied to, in order to start exploring the various paths within the interior design field and build up my experience and portfolio. I am happy to report that as of yesterday, I’ve started an internship with Pink Door Interiors, a home staging and interior design firm.

The bulk of Pink Door’s business comes from home staging, and during my first day yesterday, I got a good introduction to the field. My day was spent at their small warehouse, where they store most of their furniture, art and accessories.

It was quite a sight to see. Racks and racks of canvas and other wall art. Sofas carefully wrapped in protective plastic and stood up on their side to maximize space. Shelves going up to the double-height ceilings, housing chairs, ottomans and console tables. A whole room of just pillows! And another room filled with small accessories like dishes, picture frames, candles, soap, placemats, and more.

Chairs and ottomans and tables, oh my!
Yes, there is a pillow room
Let there be light!

While I technically report to the owner of the business, I’ll be working most closely with the project manager, Joe. Joe gave me a great rundown of the home staging business, as well as some interesting tips.

Home Staging Process

Early on in the day, I eagerly asked, “So, what’s the typical home staging process?” While every project is different, Joe was able to give me a general overview.


First, they start with a client consultation, where they tour the house and talk about which rooms are going to be staged and how. In the case of Pink Door Interiors (and I imagine a lot of home staging firms), the client tends to be the real estate agent rather than the home seller. After consultation, Joe and the owner, Alejandra, meet and discuss the plan for the home stage.


Before too much work gets started, the next step is sending the client a proposal. This is where they lay out in writing:

  • Which rooms are being staged and to what extent (e.g. full stage vs. partial stage)
  • If any existing furniture needs to be removed
  • Budget
  • Timing
  • Other stipulations

Selecting furniture and accessories

Once the proposal is approved, work gets started on selecting the furniture and accessories. You start with the furniture, of course. They “reserve” the furniture for each project in their online database system. Then, they’ll pull art and accessories, walking through the warehouse and seeing what fits with the overall look they are going for. Accessories and other small items are carefully wrapped and packed into bins, usually the day before the home will be staged.


On the morning of the stage, contracted movers come to transport the furniture and accessories bins. Fragile things like art and lamps are typically transported by the stagers themselves in their own cars.

Once at the property, the movers bring everything in. I’ll get to experience my first in-home staging project next Tuesday! With Pink Door Interiors, they like to start with unpacking and laying out all the accessories. Then, room by room they get everything set up. Sometimes during set-up, they find that something they selected just isn’t working, and in some cases, they have to go shopping to find better alternatives.

The clients will walk through the staged property and note any adjustments they’d like made.


After the home is sold, it’s then time for the de-staging process. Packing everything up. Disassembling furniture, if needed. And getting everything back to the warehouse.

Home Staging Tips

Throughout this internship, I’ll learn a lot of about the best ways to tackle home staging. Joe was able to give me some early advice.

Walk through the home on your own

When you do your initial consultation, tell the real estate agent that you’d like to tour the home on your own. This will allow you to put yourself in a buyer’s shoes and see the home with fresh eyes, without a realtor pointing things out to you or coloring your experience.

Stage to bring out the features of the home

When it comes to choosing the overall look you are going for, don’t worry the homeowner’s design taste or what you think they buyer’s style will be. The goal is for the home to appeal to the widest variety of buyers.

Instead, look at the style of the house itself. Does it have traditional features like crown molding and decorative cabinets? Opt for more traditional furniture. Is it a very sleek and contemporary home? Go for more contemporary furniture. Sometimes the clients will request (or insist) on a certain style, but it’s important to hold your ground — you know what’s best!

Ask for everyone to be out of the house when you stage

This tip is pretty self-explanatory, but I guess it can happen a lot. Staging requires a lot of moving and installing, and it’s hard to work around contractors or other people doing work in the home. And it’s best not to have the homeowner hovering, either. They can be very emotionally attached to the home and might push their own personal preferences on style and set-up.

Be strategic about the order you set things up in

When staging a room, I think most people’s instinct would be to set up the large furniture pieces first and then place all the smaller items. However, you need to take into consideration things that may be hard to set up if the furniture is in the way.

Need to plug lamps into an outlet that’ll eventually be blocked by a large desk? Get that plugged in first! Hanging a piece of art over the bed? Best to hang it before getting the bed set up (keeping in mind, of course, the height of the headboard). It’s a rule that seems obvious after the fact, but you’d be surprised how many people make this mistake.

Label your accessories in a partial stage

Sometimes you are staging a vacant home, but sometimes you are doing a partial stage, where you augment with homeowner’s existing furniture and decor with your own pieces. In these cases, the home staging company’s accessories can easily get mixed up with the homeowner’s. Whether it be a small label or a sticker, it’s good to somehow discreetly mark your accessories.

A lot more to come

I’ll be doing this internship for at least the next couple of months and potentially into the fall. During that time, I’ll have the opportunity to see and work on the full process of a home staging project.

Next week, I’ll get experience pulling accessories and packing them up, as well as actually staging a home. Eventually, I’ll see how proposals are put together and other administrative things related to the home staging business. Hopefully, I’ll get to shadow a client consultation and initial home walkthrough. I’ll even get some insights into the marketing side of things.

This internship will not only allow me to build up my resume and portfolio, but it’ll also expose me to the reality of home staging and help me determine if this is a path I’m interested in pursuing.

Interior Designer

Rewriting My Resume

Over the last week, I’ve been looking into interior design-related internships or part-time work, with a few goals in mind:

  • Get hands-on experience and understand the real day-to-day work in this field
  • Explore the various paths within interior design to see what direction best fits my strengths, interests and working style
  • Start to build up my resume and portfolio

Of course, as anyone who has applied to a job or even an internship knows, one key step in the application process — submitting a resume.

But how do you put together a resume when you’re new to the field?

I set off to do a little research, and a quick search of “career shift resume” netted a lot of helpful information. Here were some of the top tips:

Identify your transferable skills

Just because you may be new to the field, doesn’t mean you don’t already possess skills that will help you excel. For me, I had to think about the experience from my past work that would be a benefit in the interior design world. These are things like project management and client service.

I was also able to list some of the skills I’ve gained from my classes this semester, such as knowledge of the principles of design, space planning, and drafting.

And here’s how I was able to present them in my resume:

Write a resume/career objective

This might seem a little old-school, but writing a career objective is an opportunity to show that while you may be new to the field, you have passion as well as a clear direction as to how you want to enter the industry. This can be really helpful for internships or assistant-level work, where it’s understood that you will have little or no experience.

However one good piece of advice when writing this section: it’s not enough to just show passion; you should also touch on your transferable skills and how they will be a benefit to this new line of work.

Here’s my career objective for a home staging assistant position I applied to:

Choose the right format for you

I think many people are familiar with the traditional resume format:

  • Summary
  • Employment history
  • Education
  • Skills, certifications, awards, etc.

In this format, the bulk of the content is typically reserved for the employment history section, where for each job, you list out your responsibilities and achievements.

However, this format doesn’t really work when you’re making a career change. It focuses too much on your employment in a completely different field, leaving your transferable skills buried.

When deciding on the best format for me, I thought about what my strongest selling points were.

I started with the career objective, just to lay the foundation and set some context for the person reading my resume. Then, I moved on to my summary of qualifications and skills, to really highlight how I could be an asset in the positions I was applying to. Next, I included my education, since it would show that I’m currently studying interior design. Finally, I concluded with a list of some of my past jobs. However, for this last section, I just listed workplace, location and dates; I didn’t list the responsibilities, as any transferable skills were also listed up in my skills section.

Here’s what the final resume for my home staging applications looks like:

And the great thing is I can use this same resume for multiple opportunities in the interior design field, with just a few wording adjustments.

Interior Designer


As I’ve mentioned in a few of my previous blog posts on interior design, I feel like it’s time to augment my studies with internships. Not only will this give me a better look at the day-to-day and realities of the various paths in the field, it will also help me build up my resume and portfolio by the time I complete the program.

What am I looking for in an internship?

When weighing my internship options, there are a lot of nice-to-haves:

  • Paid over unpaid
  • Close to home
  • Well-known firm, designer, etc.

However, I feel like I could compromise on these for the right opportunity. Because here’s the absolute must-have: It must be an internship where I get a full view of the work, learning the ins and outs of the job coupled with hands on experience, rather than just doing administrative work.

What area do I focus on?

Right now, I’d like to start with residential design, working with either an interior designer/design firm or a home staging company.

Home staging is particularly interesting to me, especially for my first internship, for a few reasons:

  • It’s currently spring going into summer, which is a popular time for real estate, meaning it’s also a busy time for home staging.
  • Home staging projects are often faster than full interior design projects, meaning I would have a lot more experience under my belt (and in my portfolio).

So, what’s out there?

As program director, my teacher gets emailed a lot of internship listings. There are a couple of home staging companies and one interior designer that have caught my eye. It’s not clear if any of them are paid.

Pink Door Home Staging and Interior Design

In their internship description, they note: “Interns will learn how to run a staging and interior design business, including how to stage and de-stage a property, give consultations to clients, create proposals, contracts, invoicing, etc.”

They go on to list the specific things that interns will learn how to do.


  • Clearly committed to educating interns and letting them be involved in the full lifecycle of a home staging project.
  • Flexible hours.
  • Don’t need any prior experience.


  • They are located all the way down in Santa Clara, which is pretty far for me, especially considering traffic.
  • They ask for a six month minimum commitment, which can be a long time, if it’s something I don’t end up enjoying.

Halcyon Home Staging + Design

There was not a formal description for this opportunity; rather the owner of the company wrote a short email, saying she’s in search of a design assistant.


  • Top-rated company that works on high-end real estate listings.
  • Located in San Francisco, right off of the Embarcadero BART station, so it would be a quick commute for me.


  • No job/internship description, so it’s unclear how much I would learn through the opportunity.
  • Owner indicated she was looking for a design assistant, not an intern, so it may be that they are looking for someone long-term and full-time, which wouldn’t work with my school schedule.

Leslie Karas Design

This is an interior designer rather than a home stager. This opportunity also lacked a formal description but the owner did mention interns would learn both in the field and in the office. She is also a former Cañada student, so she understands what an intern would be looking to gain through the experience.


  • Former student, so she would know to make the internship a meaningful learning opportunity.
  • Looks like she works on both residential and commercial projects, so it would be interesting to see the differences.
  • She is open with timing/schedule and level of experience.


  • Located in Redwood City, which could be a difficult commute with the traffic.

Next steps

I’m going to reach out to all three to find out more about what they are looking for and what I’ll learn. In addition, I going to look at Oakland and other East Bay-based firms. If I find one I like, I’ll reach out to see if they are interested in taking on an intern.

Interior Designer

New Inspiration with Interior Design

For the past few weeks, I had been having doubts about pursuing interior design. My class assignments had become something to just get done rather than something I was excited about tackling. And I found myself prioritizing other creative pursuits such as theater and the podcast over interior design.

But I became reinvigorated with this path after listening to a guest speaker in last week’s class. Gloria Carlson is a senior designer at Harrell Remodeling and a graduate of Cañada College’s interior design program. And much like many of the students in my classes, she didn’t enter the field until later in life.

Gloria Carlson, CKD, senior design at Harrell Remodeling

It’s never too late

It all started when she was 40 years old and decided to remodel her kitchen. She worked with a contractor to execute the work, of course, but most of the design decisions fell to her. She enjoyed the process so much that afterwards, she asked the contractor if she could work for him part time to get more experience in the field.

Gloria’s work with the contractor consisted of mostly project management, but she also had the opportunity to help clients make design choices. It was during this time that she decided to take some interior design courses at Cañada College. Her original motivation was to increase her knowledge to help her in her position with the contractor. However, she quickly realized that she wanted to be a full-fledged designer.

Gloria continued to work for the contractor while taking classes. It took her five years to complete the program, but she also took almost every class the program had to offer and graduated with every certificate available at that time.

Upon completing the program, Gloria set off to become an independent interior designer. However, she quickly realized that this wasn’t the exact path for her. Finding clients and taking care of the business side took up too much time. She decided she would do better at a firm, and having worked for a contractor she knew she wanted to work for a design build firm — one where the company not only designs the new space but also executes the work.

She had one firm in mind — Harrell Remodeling, a high-end firm located in Palo Alto. Unfortunately, Gloria’s entry into the interior design field was right in the middle of the recession, and her dream firm was not hiring. So, she decided to work for a showroom, Gilmans Kitchen + Bath.

Gloria recounted how when she initially interviewed with Gilmans, the position actually went to someone else who had owned his own cabinetry business for years and had more experience in the field. However, a few months later, Gilmans called Gloria asking her to interview again. Their initial hire had been a dud; while he knew cabinets, he wasn’t a great people-person. And this is where Gloria shined.

Gloria worked for Gilmans for almost three years. But she still had the goal of working for a design build firm, so she kept her eyes open for opportunities. Eventually, the economy started turning around, and Harrell Remodeling was hiring again.

Gloria applied and secured an interviewed. It was a long process with many rounds of interviews and a portfolio review. Ultimately, the position went to someone else who had been an architect for 15 years.

Gloria was dejected and started to resign herself to the possibility that she would never achieve dream, that there would always be someone with more experience. But six months later, Harrell contacted her again about another designer position opening. Her personality had made an impression, and they were starting to rethink their hiring process to not just focus on experience.

And this time, she got the job! Six years later, she is now a senior designer with Harrell Remodeling. In fact, they call her the ‘rainmaker’ for how much business she secures.

She showed us pictures of her designs and the results were inspiring:

Before: a dated kitchen in Los Altos.
After: a super sleek kitchen remodel for these Los Altos clients.
Before: a drab kitchen in Palo Alto.
After: a new, vibrant kitchen for this Palo Alto home.

Learnings and next steps

Listening to Gloria’s story reconfirmed the importance of getting real-world experience while taking classes. When she completed her certificates, not only did she have the design knowledge and portfolio from class projects, but she also had experience on the project management and execution side (plus additional projects to add to her portfolio) through her work with the contractor.

Plus, her real-world experience helped her more quickly find the exact path that was right for her — working at a design build firm. I had already been considering trying to get an internship or part-time job with a designer or a firm in order to better understand the day-to-day, and I’m more determined than ever.

It was also reassuring to know that personality and people skills are just as important (if not more important) than design talent when it comes to succeeding in the field. And this is an area that I already feel pretty solid in. When I was in advertising sales, relationship-building and understanding my clients’ needs was my favorite part of the job.

And, of course, it was inspiring to see how successful Gloria has become and she was even older than I am when she got her start. It can often feel that it’s too late to make a major change, but Gloria is a prime example that hard work and determination can get you where you want to go, regardless of age.

My next steps:

  • Touch base with my professor on internship and part-time job opportunities. The program is well known in the field so they get contacted a lot about position openings. I think it might take me 3-4 years to finish the certificate program, and during that time, it would be beneficial to intern or work at different types of places so that I can have a stronger idea of what path is right for me.
  • Research more about design build firms. After hearing Gloria’s journey, I also think I would enjoy working for a firm that manages both the design and the execution of projects. I think I’d feel a better sense of security knowing that I could trust the team building out my designs. And it would also help to have the build team available to consult on the feasibility of my design ideas.
  • Start building my portfolio with pro bono or reduced rate work. I’ll start reaching out to friends and family who want to update a room and have the budget but need help with design.

I still haven’t given up on exploring the other career paths, but I do want to invest more time and energy into this field.

Interior Designer

Update: Interior Design

It’s spring break this week, which means I’m about half-way through the semester. This seemed like good time to reflect on how my classes are going and how I’m feeling about interior design in general.

For those who missed the first blog post about my return to academic life, I am taking a couple of courses through Cañada College’s interior design program. The program is accredited with a lot of professional organizations and is well know to people in the industry in the Bay Area.

My Introduction to Interior Design course combines design theory with practical application and includes a semester-long project where we put together a proposed design for a fake client. In my Architectural Drafting class, we are learning how to do hand drafting of site plans, floor plans, electrical plans and more. Hand drafting is no longer done in the industry but it serves as the foundations for the drafting computer programs.

Career exploration through classes

I have appreciated the structure of learning about a new career field through a teacher-led class. It has forced me to keep a regular schedule and pace with my exploration. I particularly like that the classes I’m taking are focused heavily on practical applications, not just theory.

These classes have been a good way to get a taste of the field. It has opened my eyes to many different career possibilities within this industry. And it’s comforting to know that if I decide to pursue this career path, this program comes with it a lot of connections to interior design professionals.

However, I’m starting to feel like I won’t get a real sense of what it is like to work in this field unless I supplement my courses with an internship or part-time work with an interior design firm (or related workplace). There’s a difference between work with your fake client who is a friend and working with a real client.

Thoughts on interior design

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the biggest learnings from my courses so far has been how many different career paths are available within the interior design field. I’m starting to learn more about which of these different avenues interest me more than others.

I’m very interesting in furniture and textiles. I find myself less interested in kitchens and baths. I’m still interesting in learning more about home staging, a niche that has a lot of growth opportunities in markets like the Bay Area, where real estate is booming.

I like the idea of being an independent designer because of the schedule flexibility it can offer, but the idea of working completely alone is a little overwhelming. Right now, I’m thinking that if I decided to pursue a career as an interior designer, I would want to start at a firm (even if it was a small one) to get hand-ons experience before deciding whether or not to branch out on my own.

More observations

Because my classes meet only once a week, I do feel like it is a prolonged learning period, where I may not get a sense of how I really feel about the courses and interior design as a career path until the end of the semester.

However, one thing I have noticed: a lot of the time, I’ve let other creative pursuits like theater and the podcast take precedence over my interior design classes. I mean, I have still gotten my course work done on time, but I haven’t been rushing to do certain assignments like I thought I would.

For example, for my Intro to Interior Design course, we’re at the stage of our final project where we get to “shop” for different furniture and furnishings for our client. I thought I’d be poring over Pinterest and furniture catalogs by now, but I haven’t even started. Instead, I’ve been focusing on auditions and podcast marketing.

I’m not sure how to read this. Is it that theater and podcasting are more energizing to me than interior design? Or maybe it’s that my theater pursuits and podcast work are things that I have created myself and dictate completely while the interior design projects have been assigned to me by a third party.

Final thoughts

I feel like I’m still not convinced one way or the other if interior design is the career path for me. I will, of course, see my classes through to the end of the semester. And I may see if I can do an internship and temporary part-time work with a firm this summer before making my final decision.