3 Steps to finding a Mentor in the Design Industry

If you want to succeed in the design business you need a mentor. The best advice I can give my students on the fastest route to becoming a freelance designer is to finish all your education first and then get a job working for an interior designer. This way you can learn from their mistakes and have a built-in mentor.

If you want to take the longer and more difficult route (like I did) and get educated at the same time that you are in business, you need a mentor in the industry so that when your client’s furniture arrives and they say “It’s too big!” and you know it’s fine but you don’t know what to say? You need to be able to find the answer, which is; ‘Sometimes if people have had an empty living room for even a couple weeks, doesn’t matter what arrives–it seems too big’.

The chances of getting a job working for a designer get a lot slimmer if you don’t complete your education. So the second best way [to becoming a freelance designer] is to get experience working somewhere in the industry; selling lighting, furniture, or colour (like I did) and/or be good at finding mentors (like I was).

I met my first mentor at an interior decorating course in Victoria.

She was the instructor and I called her a couple times after the course was over. Both times she was too busy to talk to me.

Then the third time I called her, she told me she was right in the middle of moving and I offered to help!

We were great friends after that!

To find a mentor in the beginning when you don’t have that much to offer (in terms of business and talent) you have to be willing to do whatever it takes even if that means schlepping boxes and unpacking dishes.

My second mentor, Erin Grant was a brilliant decorator and colour expert at Benjamin Moore. I worked in 3 stores (for 2 separate owners) to gain all the colour experience I have. We would stand around in the paint store, talking to customers about their colours and selling our services.

The first time I arrived at a consultation with no inspiration and no furniture and I really had no idea what colours to specify I simply told my clients that I was new and that I was not going to charge them for that consultation. I called up my friend Erin, came back together on another pre-arranged appointment, they paid her and I watched and learned.

I found my third mentor at an industry event.

I walked up to her (certain I knew her from somewhere, or so I pretended) and she said “I have picked your brain a few times at Benjamin Moore about colour”. She told me she was having trouble selecting a colour in a 10,000 square ft house in West Vancouver she was designing and of course I offered to help.

After that I would simply call her if I received a consultation where someone had questions about re-designing kitchens (not my specialty). When that happened, I would refer her and she would get her design fee and I would watch and learn.

She was so generous with my endless questions that we even ended up business partners for a couple of years.

I got my current mentor by being slightly annoying.

I called her off and on for advice over a two year period. When I found her at the home show in her booth, I would bring her coffee and just listen to her talk to potential clients.

And then one day the timing just clicked and we became friends.

To this day I will do pretty much anything for this woman, she has been extremely generous with me.

Here are 3 steps to finding your own mentor:

There is a fine line between being annoying and being pushy. It’s hard to be likable when you are being pushy. Annoying can still be charming. No one wants to be around a taker, so make sure you have the spirit of a generous person, quick to contribute where you can.

Can you expect your mentor to come out to one of your projects (for free) and help you if you get stuck? No. Your job is to sell his/her services as a designer if you want to watch and learn, just like I did (in the above example).

Each one of my mentors is a huge part of who I am today. Because I’m the type of person who—has to know the RIGHT answer, RIGHT now–I have been very fortunate to find such generous women to mentor me. They gave me their time, knowledge, and energy and I have been very lucky to know them.

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  1. The timing of this post is so perfect for me. I’m planning to contact a designer here in Ottawa to tell her that I want to work for her so I can learn about the interior design business first-hand.

    I think the best way to learn is by doing, even if it’s schlepping boxes and unpacking dishes!! I just want to be immersed in the business every day and watch a designer in action.

    Thank you, Maria!!

    Kelly

  2. Maria,
    I was self taught most of my life and the balance of my training came from grateful mentors. They were grateful because I always made sure I was NOT a burden in any way and prided myself in carrying my own weight (in boxes or dishes or whatever it took).
    Now that I coach and mentor others; I notice I give more of me to those who are generous and tenacious. It’s likely because some how I sense they will give more to others – sort of a pay it forward thing. It’s fun to be around and to give to ‘givers’
    Thanks for this thought provoking post.
    Terreeia

  3. Nice post. The great Mario Buatta–father of American English Country Design said ” I don’t work with interns–they always take much more than they give.” The key to getting an internship is to be VERY giving and full of integrity. If you are without experience– you are a burden– unless you can pull your weight and be a self-starter.
    In my 24 year interior design career I have accepted two interns. Both contributed much. To be an interior designer is a spiritual calling–it is to help people express their spirit in the material world. Blessings to all who feel called!

  4. Thanks for another great post. I think the blogging world has much to offer as far as mentoring goes as well. It is great to be invited into the lives of designers/bloggers who are willing to share advise, inspiration, and a bit of their lives too! Thanks for all the great advise and insiration that I get here! You are the best!

  5. Recently, I spoke to an instructor at a industry gathering about mentoring.

    Sooz had us find a candidate, call them, and commit to meeting with us once a week for our senior projects. She now wanted to know how helpful this was to me.

    The mentor I chose isn’t the one that has come to be, but I told Sooz…”how would I know when I had a mentor in my life, if not for that earlier experience”.

    I look for mentorship from a client who is a master of marketing, and a top real estate agent, and also a local Interior Designer…I plan on telling them both how much that means to me, both personally and professionally.

    Great post Maria!

  6. Brillante Home Decor

    Very interesting to read about your experience with mentors.
    Obviously they all helped you because you were worth it and I am sure they also received a lot from you.

  7. Tiaa @ EYInteriors

    This is a great post, Maria. Your timing is impeccable. Your blog is amazing and I truly enjoy reading it!

  8. Wonderful post! I have had the opportunity to work alongside some of the greatest in the biz myself – and I’m glad you mention the schlepping that’s involved! Everyone tends to forget that lugging things around is where we all get our start!

  9. High-Heeled Foot in the door

    Great post. I’m in a similar boat to you. Trying to start my own business while I finish my education. Since I was recenty laid off I now what the time to finish my studies faster and was looking into interning with a local designer to learn more hands on. I’ve contacted a few, but none are interested in interns. It’s been hard, because you are right I don’t want to go from annoying to pushy. So it’s difficult. I had one designer tell me she would need help in the summer so I will see, but I’m still on the look out. Ah it can be frustrating at time, but you inspired me to keep charging ahead.

  10. What a great post and a fabulous blog! Very useful information that reminds us if we {designers} work together, we can all be uplifted.

    I appreciate your willingness to share your wealth of knowledge. Thanks for visiting my blog. It’s nice to have discovered a fellow color-blogger!

  11. I think I am taking the route you already took. I just got a job that I’m not to fond of, just for the sake of having a job. and i just love to be around home design and accessories. sadly i can’t just up and leave my job to pursue happiness at the moment. maybe when everything starts to settle a bit and the world isn’t so finciancially in a mess I would venture out. till then, i will blog!!

  12. Great post Maria. This has been one of the things I've really had trouble doing… I've attempted twice & failed (I get the impression that some designers are very competitive & don't always enjoy sharing information) but have one designer I've recently met who is just AMAZING. She's realy taken me under her wing within the local design chapter & has been so open & helpful.

  13. As ever a great post and full of really practical information – I love that about your blog and writing Maria!

  14. Meade Design Group

    It is very strange – I had a couple of mentors in my lifetime, but last week somebody called me and asked me if I could mentor her. It was cool but it was weird. I am on the idea that generosity always brings back more generosity.

  15. I love that you wrote this post. I'm learning so much from you and feel like I'm being rescued from drowning every time I read your stuff. I've adopted you as my mentor! 😀 Thank you!

  16. I am trying to work up the courage to do any kind of design. I have worked in mid-high end furniture sales for 5 years. Currently, I am the Director of Operations for a multi-family design firm. I now know that I miss the creative part of my former position.

    It is very different to sell a product than sell yourself. My strong points were to know the ins & outs of the furniture, lighting, & accessories. It would make the designers comfortable in working with me.

    Until I move on from this position, I have started a blog for my creative outlet. It's much less expensive than redecorating my home every month.

  17. Wonderful post! I am currently just starting out in the Vancouver design industry, and I feel like its time for me to find a mentor to help me hone my skills.