If you are both creative and practical, and your creativity leans toward the visual side, the interior design might be the career you’re looking for. But what does it take to become an interior designer, and what does the job actually involve?
We spoke to interior designer Kelsey Omeis to get her insights on how to become an interior designer, what the job requires and the rewards it delivers.
Kelsey is an NCIDQ-certified and LEED-accredited interior designer based in Manhattan, NY. Before launching her own design studio, KLSY, she worked at large corporate design firms, small architectural firms, and on projects from corporate workplaces to residential and even some hospitality.
In her free time, Kelsey produces educational videos for interior designers on the KLSY YouTube channel, where she aims to educate young designers and debunk some of the stigmas surrounding commercial interior design.
What does an interior designer do? What inspired you to become an interior designer?
Interior design, in my opinion, is the perfect combination of art and architecture; creativity with technicality. I was always a creative child, always drawing or painting, or building something. Because art was my favorite class in school, and because I didn’t have even a mild interest in anything else, I decided to major in art in college.
Unfortunately for me, I soon realized after my second year that an art degree kind of means nothing in the real world, and I didn’t have any real tangible skills to transfer over to a stable career. I considered becoming an architect, but if I’m honest, I toured the architecture program at another school and was immediately intimidated by the amount of work, dedication, and grueling hours needed.
My mother suggested looking into interior design, which I didn’t even know was a real job, at the time. That mix of art and architecture was appealing to me, and I saw it as a way to combine two things I loved into one. And so, in my third year of college, I transferred to Drexel University and eventually graduated with Bachelors’s and Master’s degrees in Interior Architecture and Design.
Can you walk us through your experience in the interior design industry?
I feel incredibly lucky to be a part of the industry I’m in. Designers may have it hard with notoriously long hours and, at times, difficult clients, but there’s fun stuff, too. Going to showrooms and exploring furniture and fabrics. Working with architects, contractors, and engineers on active construction sites. And, in general, having something physically tangible to show for all of your hard work.
The interior design industry is overall a very fun one. We work hard, which means we play even harder. Product presentations usually include happy hours, and industry conventions end with after-parties and chic dinners. But with all the fun aside, the best part about being in this field is building friendships with the people you work alongside. Every industry is small, but this one feels especially so.
I’m always surprised to find out my former coworker is now a sales rep collaborating on a project with me or when I run into one of my mentors at an event. It’s those things that make the job more human.
What is a typical working day like for you?
My day-to-day activities depend on the phase of a project I’m working on, but most of my days include answering emails from clients, selecting furniture and finishes for projects, using computer programs like AutoCAD and Revit to create construction documents and 3D renderings, and presenting my designs to clients.
There aren’t many jobs where you can scroll Pinterest and play with colors all day long, which I will admit is pretty awesome. But because a lot of my day is spent at the computer, it’s easy for me to get stuck there. Something I’m trying to get better at is stepping away from it to either sketch out an idea by hand or head over to a showroom to gain some inspiration.
How do you become an interior designer? Is any course or certification needed to become one? Any advice for beginners in this field? What do you think are the essential skills for a successful interior designer?
There’s a big misconception that an interior designer is simply someone with great style and taste. And that can certainly be true for a “decorator”, or someone who only selects furniture and accessories. But professional interior designers, especially those working in the commercial sector, must have a degree in either interior design or a related field, like architecture, to work professionally at a design firm or gain access to many industry benefits.
This is because our job goes beyond what looks good. We’re trained on things like user experience, space planning, and how things are constructed. Even more important than that, designers are expected to be knowledgeable about codes, like fire, emergency exits, and ADA accessibility, in order to design spaces that are safe and inclusive.
Many designers opt to become NCIDQ (National Council for Interior Design Qualification) certified, which includes taking an extensive exam that tests all of these areas of knowledge. The NCIDQ exam isn’t required, but it gives a designer more credibility, and, in some states, the legal power to sign their own construction drawings.
How much do interior designers make?
Salaries will range depending on where you live, the size of the company you work for, and the industry sector you choose to pursue. In my opinion, designers can make a great, livable wage if they’re at a good design firm, but unless you start your own company or work your way up over a lifetime to a high position in a company, it’s not likely you’ll become suddenly wealthy.
Over the years, the value of architects and designers in our society has decreased, and many designers (including myself) feel we are underpaid as a whole. Due to this, it’s very common for designers to take on projects on the side to make extra money (if it doesn’t compete with their full-time job!). But with that said, if you’re smart, talented, and brave enough to take some risks, I believe anyone in this field can be successful.
💸 According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for an interior designer in the US is $60,340. 25% of interior designers earn over $77,700, and 10% earn over $99,000.
Can you walk us through your creative process when designing a new space? How do you balance your personal vision for a project with the desires and needs of your clients?
This is the ultimate question that designers contemplate constantly! We are obviously professionals and are hired for our expertise, but at the end of the day, the client is the one holding the purse.
It’s all about balance and picking your battles. Sometimes it’s worth stating your case for a point (like investing in the more expensive flooring that will last a long time), and other times I let the client win (like an ugly painting they insist on hanging front and center). I think it all starts with knowing if this client is a good fit to work with.
If you and the client have great energy and trust from the start, it’s likely they will rely on you to make the right design decisions. But if your chemistry is bad (or you notice any red flags), the project is likely to be a long and stressful one.
How do you balance aesthetics with functionality when designing a space?
To me, that is what separates a good designer from a great one: the ability to create a beautiful space that is functional and creates an overall positive user experience. Typically, the function is the priority. If something doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter how pretty it is! This is why we plan the space before selecting any finishes. We need to know how the users will interact with the space first, and what opportunities and challenges we may face. Then, we can figure out how to make it more visually appealing.
What’s your favorite part of the job? What’s the hardest part of the job?
My favorite part of the job is seeing the final product. When you walk into a completed space for the first time, it makes all the hard work worth it. It’s really cool to have a job where you can do some sketches on a napkin or select a beautiful fabric and watch your entire vision become a reality right before your eyes. It’s tangible.
The most difficult part might be managing different personalities. As a designer, one of our main responsibilities is to act as our client’s liaison and coordinate third-party teammates (such as engineers or contractors) so that everyone works together to build the space to our design intent.
All of these people don’t always see eye-to-eye, including the client. This is where being an effective project manager and problem solver comes into play. Things go wrong. So we need to be able to figure out a solution that makes our client happy and keeps the entire team on the same page.
Are you inspired by others’ work? How do you stay up-to-date with the latest design trends and innovations?
I LOVE attending design conventions and other industry events. It’s probably the most fun part of being a designer. These events will not only expose you to what’s new in design, but they’re such great networking opportunities that I believe all designers should take part in.
Staying connected with our local manufacturers’ representatives (the people that sell the products we are specifying) is also a great way to stay in the know. My reps are always stopping by or inviting me to their showrooms to show off their latest products, and they have incredible insight into what’s going on around the industry.
If you liked this interview and got inspired by it, make sure to give Kelsey a follow: