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When autumn rolls around and the seasons start to change, many of us can’t help but think of heading back to school.  For the past 12 years I have as well, as I teach at the Boston Architectural College.  In the spirit of the season, let’s take a moment and talk about design education.

For those on the more architectural side of the design field, educational requirements and licensing are quite clearly spelled out state by state.  Of course you want to work with a licensed architect if you are building structures, and large scale projects demand this kind of education.  Health, safety, codes and the study of advanced design techniques are incredibly important as we have seen tragedy when structure and codes are not maintained.

But what about on the more decorative end of the field, what type of education is necessary to begin a career on that side of the spectrum?  I once had a coworker say to me, "No one is going to license me to chop a pillow." While those of us in the profession know that there is far more that goes into pulling a space together than a solid chop, how much education – or any – is enough?

Elsie de Wolfe is credited as America's first interior designer, and emblematic of the socialite decorator that grew the profession in the early 20th century (Photo source: Architectural Digest)

The decorative end of interior design was born in an era where people with good taste and access to money set the decorative tone in their social circles. Many of the great designers of the 20th century followed this pedigree.  It came from having more than just great taste: access to travel, museums, higher quality fabrics, tradesmen, and the luxury of time to think about their environment allowed these designers to hone their trade.  Their life was their education and their internship.

As the design field became more developed and matured over the course of the 20th century, education became more important, and regulations were established. I imagine this development and structure would have continued to evolve, if it hadn’t been for the advent of things like HGTV and Pinterest.  With online shopping, people feel like they can source anything on their own.  In some ways, I know that this has caused the field to take a step back in quality over convenience, as well as the devaluation of design skills.

This brings us back to the question of how much education is enough to consider yourself an interior designer on the residential and decorative end of the field?  I know many talented designers who are self-taught, and there is a full range of available options in terms of education – how do you decide what is right for you?

My short answer is if you want to decorate, you should get as much education as your life will allow. Also, think about what kind of work you picture yourself doing.  If you want to just deal in picking colors, then take a few color theory classes.  If you want to do light residential decorating, take classes in studio design, lighting, color, textiles and materials at the least.  If you love kitchens, then complete a certificate in kitchen and bath design. Ask yourself honestly what do you have to offer someone that they will pay for?  What sets you apart from someone who would seek the services of a designer? Do you have enough knowledge to advise clients in a professional manner?  Do you respect what the limits of your skill set are?

Photo Source: Kelly Sikkema

It's not about just having good taste, we also need to understand the rational and functional motivation behind our design choices – and courses in design can provide the technical know-how to back up that good taste. Remember, just because you love design doesn't mean you have enough education and experience to be a professional designer.  You know what though?  If you feel like you want to make that leap, you can start to explore your interests through continuing education classes.  Then try a few basic design classes at an accredited college for interior design. If the bug really hits you, enroll in a certificate, a bachelor’s or a master’s program in interior design.   Get as much education as you can so that you are contributing to the professional development of this field we love.  A day in the life of most interior designers is not at all what we see on HGTV. Education and experience in the field can help prepare you for what your clients need so that you feel confident you are working in their best interest.

In the end, no two people will take the same path anywhere, and interior design is no different. But if you want to grow your skill set and experience, and venture into a new field, education is always a great place to get started.

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