Q+A: Interior Designer

Ashley Baetz on how to get started in the field of interior design, the ins and outs of the industry, and what to expect on the job.

~ 15 minute read

The CareerExplorer Discord Community had the opportunity to speak to Ashley Baetz, a senior interior designer, in a live, fireside Q&A.

Ashley Baetz is a Senior Interior Designer living in North Vancouver, British Columbia, born and raised in London, Ontario. Ashley went to Fanshawe College in her hometown before settling down in British Columbia.

Although she has always been artistically inclined and self-driven to pursue interior design, she held off on her post-secondary education for a number of years to be sure she was on the right career path.

For more than a decade, Ashley has worked for award-winning design companies and in many facets of the industry, including residential, office, and hospitality. She currently works in a focused interior design niche specifically for dental offices.

The transcript below has been modified and abridged from the original conversation.

Getting Started in Interior Design

Have you always known you wanted to be involved in interior design?

I definitely had a very strong inkling towards design and architecture. Even as a child, I not only had a love, and opinion, of all decorations and designs in the home, but I had an affinity towards how things were made.

I’m not sure if every eight year old draws out a full color illustration of how their parents can remove a wall and reorganize a larger bedroom for their child. I wanted house plan magazines for my birthday, and I spent money on a few basic home builder computer programs that I would dabble with for hours after school.

There were certainly other interests I could have pursued, and I wasn’t sure for a time if it was my career path. It was more into my high school years that I honed in on design. I would attend career fairs put on by local colleges and would always gravitate to the interior design table.

What schooling did you go through? How long did it take?

I went through a three-year Interior Design Diploma program. At the time, there were degrees through universities, and diplomas through colleges.

It’s important to look into the CIDA (Council for Interior Design Accreditation), or the ASID (American Society of Interior Designers) if you want to pursue a registered interior design status. In Canada, the national association is IDC (Interior Designers of Canada).

After your schooling, there are additional hours you need to accrue if you want to apply for the NCIDQ (National Council for Interior Design Qualification) and become registered.

The NCIDQ exam is currently the only nationally recognized professional interior design certification in the United States and Canada, and is the highest certification for interior designers (similar to the bar exam for lawyers).

Many states and provinces require their practicing interior designers to earn the NCIDQ certification to show their experience and qualifications, so it’s best to find out what the requirements are where you live.

In British Columbia, the NCIDQ certification is not required to practice as an interior designer. I am not currently registered, which means I am not insured by BC’s Interior Design Association (IDIBC). However, the company I work for insures me, and if I choose to venture out on my own one day, I would be able to privately insure myself. At the end of the day, I am able to complete the same tasks and projects as a registered designer.

Was school stressful? Were there many assignments and late nights?

I have been out of school for over a decade, so things may have changed slightly. However, I will say that it was difficult to maintain a part-time job with more than three or four shifts a week. We had a large number of small scale projects the first year to keep us occupied. The second and third years’ projects were much larger in scale and required many late nights.

One thing I did, that I found helped me throughout the course and into my career, was staying after classes for a bit if I was able to. If the teacher is amenable to staying around after class, you can learn a lot of cool CAD (computer-aided design) commands, or get some additional input on a project if you’re in a slump.

Was it difficult getting your first job? Does where you live matter?

It was hard to get my first job. I graduated in 2008, so the economy wasn’t my friend. The industry in the boutique/smaller firms can be like a yo-yo. If you have financial support, you will be taking advantage of it in the beginning of your career.

Interior design does require you to live near a central hub—those wanting to build up a clientele in a smaller city or town have a much harder time establishing themselves. Some of my fellow graduates went out and started their own businesses, but that requires quite a bit of assertiveness and patience to build and maintain.

Should you have a portfolio with examples of your work with you when you go to a job interview?

Yes, you should make sure to highlight three or four projects you had worked on in school or during co-op to show the interviewer. It’s important to have a branded look for your resume, portfolio, and socials or business card. 

Also, be sure to take pictures when you go to site for your first job. You can show these for the next employer, to present a finished (or semi-finished) project.

The Ins and Outs of Interior Design

What type of person would do well in interior design?

You definitely have to be determined and highly visible in the beginning to get your foot in the door. It’s not easy, and a lot of design graduates that are more passive will find jobs in related fields because they are less pushy. Early on, I was quite introverted and adverse to any form of contention, but have learned through the years to become more confident and expressive.

Clients will throw some interesting challenges your way—ones you’ll never see coming. Over time it gets easier, but you really need to be able to roll with the punches. You have to be ready to relate and provide solutions, all the while keeping a calm and cool façade (there are moments you will feel you should win an Academy Award for best poker face).

Being observant and having good listening skills is incredibly important, as it’s the things your clients don’t say sometimes that help you overcome the obstacles in a project.

Do you need to already have an innate flair for color, spatial arrangements, architecture, and textiles, or is it something you can learn?

One thing interior designers will have in common is the ability to visualize a 3D concept from a flat floor plan. It’s not entirely innate, but those who sketch and understand physical perspectives early on will have a leg up. Color, textiles, concept, and schemes have more to do with trends or preferences.

When starting out, you might find you need to chameleon yourself to the project lead or principal designer for a while. Often, a boutique design firm with a principal owner will have a ‘look’ they are going for. You might be able to steer their choices on a few things, but they will typically have a firm direction.

How much variety is there in interior design?

The great thing about interior design is that there are different facets to the job, and that was a key element for me. I’m a creative, but I get easily bored in one role.

Depending on the size of firm or position you work for, you could be working a full project from A to Z, or honing in on 3D renders or contract administration.

What is the difference between a decorator and a designer?

My favorite question! There is also another name—interior architect—depending on the country you reside in.

An interior decorator is able to create an aesthetic environment for interior spaces by adding furniture and accessories. In order to practice professionally, they do not need a license and are not required to have any formal training or schooling. Therefore, they are not permitted to design, as only licensed interior designers are permitted to do so.

An interior designer creates functional spaces—they can draw up and design a 3,000 sq ft home from footing to foundation. Many US states and Canadian provinces require interior designers to be licensed or registered. Many states and provinces also specifically require all practicing interior designers to earn the NCIDQ Certification.

Interior designers are between a decorator and an architect. We still require an architect’s stamp of approval and some engineering input, depending on the state or province. However, it’s definitely more of a technical trade than most people realize.

In a nutshell, an interior designer can both design and decorate, but an interior decorator cannot design. Designers do not have the same technical skills nor the same technical knowledge as a designer.

What computer skills do you need to do your job? For example, do you need to know CAD?

AutoCAD and Revit are fairly popular in North America, but there is also 3DS Max and VectorWorks. I personally use AutoCAD. Sketchup is also valuable, and something I taught myself one summer and ended up mastering in one of my recent jobs. It’s very user-friendly, if you already have a knack for designer programs.

Adobe InDesign and Photoshop are also invaluable. Photoshop was one of my self-taught programs in college. It was free to use in the school library, so I actually ended up using it for a project or two. It took a lot of time and patience to learn it, but I have been asked by numerous colleagues how to use it, so it was well worth the time. I’ve also been able to make some additional income with a side business for other creative projects.

How much of a people person do you need to be in order to work as an interior designer?

You can get by without being a people person. In lieu of this, you must have patience and be a team player to keep the status quo.

My advice for those who are naturally introverted, like myself, is to do one thing during your senior high school year or during college that is out of your comfort zone. Organize something like a big group fundraiser, or take on an administrative type role with a club where you have to prepare, present, and delegate/organize an event.

During my third year of college, I was on a committee with two other girls to help organize a volunteer trip to assist with a housing project in the United States. It was nerve-wracking to organize lodging, accommodations, volunteer schedules, and prepare fundraising methods to get everyone (15 people, including myself) ready for a week of volunteer activities. But it took me out of my comfort zone and gave me needed experience in working with others.

Is there a negative aspect to interior design? If so, how do you deal with it?

There’s one thing that will be gut wrenching when it happens to you the first time—a big design mistake. This isn’t ringing in something wrong at the till. It’s not breaking a vase when you’re restocking a shelf. A mistake in interior design can cost a company thousands of dollars or weeks in delays, and it can happen in an instant.

When you make a mistake, own it. It takes integrity and maturity to do so. Your employer will appreciate the honesty, and the client will respect you for it—you may even gain further trust with them.

Everyone makes mistakes, and you will inevitably make many, especially when starting out in the design industry. And don’t be afraid to ask questions when you don’t know the answer to something.

How competitive is the interior design field?

Very competitive. This is typically a luxury service. People don’t need an interior designer—you have to explain to those that are willing and able to pay for your service the value in hiring you.

It’s probably going to be rough for the next couple of years, as the economy plays a key role in the demand for interior designers. That said, if you are determined enough and know that this is what you want to do, then do it!

Working as an Interior Designer

What types of projects have you worked on?

I’m happy to say that I have had the unique opportunity to work on projects involving restaurants, offices, medical/dental offices, spas, as well as a fair amount of residential jobs. Not everyone gets the chance to work with the range of budgets and variety of clients that I have. I have been very fortunate.

What are some everyday problems you face as an interior designer?

For those that watch home improvement shows and think, ‘Pfft! They are creating these ridiculous problems just to add drama to the show’, let me set the record straight.

In the design world, we don’t have to go looking for problems. They come to us on their own, in the form of small headaches to large fires. Every project will have its own unique challenge(s). It could be a trade, product, or permit delay, miscommunication with schedules or manufacturers, or an issue with the contractor or client themselves. Often, it’s a trifecta. Take up meditation early on.

How often do clients change their minds during the design process, and how does that affect your work?

Bless their hearts—clients can be wonderful people to work with but can, at some point during the design process, become your least favorite people to work with sometimes. Many clients will come to you with a bad taste in their mouth from a previous renovation, or they will have watched many home renovation shows and are laser focused on doing things a certain way.

It’s common for those wanting to be in this career to think, ‘I have amazing design taste’, and ‘I will make my mark as a designer’! While it’s wonderful to be excited and to want to share your design expertise with your future clients, it’s important to keep in mind that, as excited as you are about your skill level, your clients won’t necessarily have your vision for the end result and will want to dabble in the design process.

The hardest, and most important, part of the process is to cultivate trust between you and the client. It’s always within the last weeks of the project that the trust wanes—it’s almost a guarantee that a client will have strong (and sometimes negative) opinions when things are about 80% complete.

If you’re able to get them to keep trusting your vision, they end up loving your design. This, of course, is why they hire you—because you can see the end result. But sometimes it’s like speaking two different languages.

At the end of the day, you work for your client, and your job is to make them happy. It’s their home, their office, their livelihood that you are disrupting, and you want to make it something they end up loving.

How often do you interact with vendors, builders, architects, trades, etc? Is it a significant part of your job?

I interact with them all the time! During the construction phase, there should be open communication with your contractor and project manager. They have been given a set of drawings, possibly a materials board or samples, and fixture/finish specs. It’s like getting a lego set without the big shiny picture, and they need to work with you to establish the design intent.

I cannot emphasize enough how important they are. You will not learn much, if anything, about this during your schooling—it was definitely overlooked. There’s a designer that wrote in her successful designer handbook about finding your ‘A’ team. Trades need to know that you are approachable and will not bite. These guys are probably a lot more established in their trades than you as a designer (at first), and you can learn so much from their invaluable knowledge.

How do you keep up to date on current design trends?

I keep up to date on things through various blogs and sites. There’s the usual Pinterest and Houzz, but I’ll focus on a specific designer or architect I like and find other sources of their work (could be their website or a design blog).

I don’t necessarily try to keep up with trends, but it depends on the client. There are multiple sources I like to choose concept images from. While browsing, I often see new takes on classic design. There are also certain companies I like to check in on every now and then, to see what they are up to. I’m very eclectic and like a lot of European trends.

Closing Thoughts

If you could go back, would you have done anything differently?

I wasn’t overly thrilled with elementary or secondary school, even though I had good grades. So jumping into post-secondary education right after high school was just too much for me.

I didn’t go back to school until I was 25 years old. Maybe I should have gone back earlier, but I didn’t feel that I was ready to settle back into the school routine until then. I don’t really focus too much on what ifs, and thinking back, I don’t think I would have done much differently.

What advice do you have for those wanting to pursue a career in interior design?

It’s important to follow through with accredited schooling these days. Even though I have not gone through NCIDQ and I am not registered, I have the experience to balance it out.

It’s a very rewarding career. You can always shadow an interior designer to see what the job is like and to see if you’d be a good fit. They may only have you around for half the day, but it will get your feet wet.

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