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Advice for DesignersSelling Design

5 ways to know if you should Quit your day Job to Become a Designer

By 11/11/2009February 28th, 201729 Comments

Penelope Trunk wrote a great article a few months ago on this very subject [being an artist]. I love her blog because she is so blunt, and not afraid to call a spade a spade. My favourite kind of person!

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Most of us would love to paint [insert your creative passion here] for a living and get paid for it! And I’m not saying literally paint. I have a client that is an auditor and she loves it! She loves numbers, is totally organized and detail oriented, it’s the perfect job for her. She is painting when she’s working and getting paid for it (so lucky).

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In my career–since it’s more obviously creative– people ask me all the time what it takes to become a designer. Penelope’s advice [blunt alert!] is not that far from mine, “Take this test: Did you marry rich? Do you have a trust fund? Do you have reliable buyers for almost everything you produce? If you did not answer yes to any of these, then keep your day job.”

Here’s my version of the test [in order of importance]:

1. Are your family and friends (even people you don’t know) already asking you for design advice?

If people are saying, “Please, help me with my house!”, it means you have the gift of creativity (for design). There are a lot of designers (without any education) making a lot of money in this industry, so the reality is, if you have talent, people who need and want your gift, will find you. If you don’t? Get in line behind the talented ones, because this business is difficult enough with talent, never mind without it.

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2. Can you ask for the money?

Designers are notorious for working for free or almost free (this is where the trust fund or rich spouse comes in). You will not have a secretary or receptionist at the front desk asking for the money. It is up to you to sell the job and execute it as well as collect.

Image courtesy of chic coles

3. Do you have a mentor?

The fastest (and most recommended) way to get ahead as a designer is to finish design school and go to work for a designer. If you’re doing it the hard way (like I did) you need to make sure you are good at making friends with designers that can help you when you get stuck.

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4. Are you organized?

You must be incredibly organized and detail oriented not to mention a stickler for follow-up. You are the middle man, acting on behalf of the client and no one cares as much as you.

For example, if you have ordered a sofa to be custom made and you shipped the fabric directly to the workroom (from the supplier) without checking to make sure it’s the correct pattern or colour–and it’s wrong–you now have to pay for a whole new sofa. Or your drapery calculation is 1/2” out and they are too short. Guess what? You are on the hook to get them re-made.

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5. Do you like working alone?

Until your business turns into a design firm, you work from home, alone. Your colleagues are your suppliers and the trades that you hire to work on your projects.

Bottom line is, you must have talent (just like any artist) or it will be much harder for you to do the rest. And if you have talent, but are not organized or you hate asking to be paid? You might be better off staying with a design firm or in a design related career. Not everyone is cut out to operate their own business.

And if you can’t answer yes to the first question? It just means your creative talent may lie elsewhere and the world is missing out on yours if you don’t find it!

If you would like to transform the way you see colour, become a True Colour Expert.

Related posts:

3 Steps to finding a Mentor in the Design Industry

The Secret to having the Life that you Want

Happiness is. . . being Remarkable

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  • Sarah @ Dream In Domestic says:

    What a great post! I love decorating, much like my mom, who recently thought of switching it to her career (at age 50) a year ago. She is an accountant now, which she enjoys, but it doesn't excite her like decorating does. She decided against it, however, because she realized she liked decorating to her own tastes and would have a hard time catering to the likes of other people. She thought it would be too stressful trying to pinpoint what her client would like when she could just stick with numbers which are much more clean cut and don't talk back. I think I like it as more of a hobby as well, but I never know where my life is leading.

    This was a great post, thanks for taking time to be honest and give us real questions to ask ourselves!

  • Kathy @ Creative Home Expressions says:

    This is a great and thought provoking post, Maria, and something I think about all the time. I have a day job and do my decorating business part-time at the moment. This is because I also have two kids in college {that we are paying for without loans}, a mortgage, and the same regular monthly bills that everyone else has. So until that Lotto winning ticket comes along, this is the way it is for now.

  • Dagny @ Beautiful Living says:

    I would have loved to start a decorating business! The only thing missing is a mentor 🙂 Great post!!

  • lolly-jolly says:

    great post. you always are like a teacher in your posts…. love that! and maybe i haven't found anything even similar to that in all blog worlds

  • A Gift Wrapped Life says:

    A very well written post Maria! People never seemed to believe me when I told them how incredibly demanding it was to run a independant design firm. It certainly appears glamorous but does take plenty of skill (not just talent) to run it successfully. It is generous of you to tell it like it is!

  • Laura Trevey says:

    Wonderful advise! Awesome guidelines to ponder, and gorgeous photos!!

  • Red Door Home says:

    Great information as always. I think in any business you have no idea all that is required until you actually are involved. I have pondered many of the questions you have raised.

  • Jennifer, Inside Out Colour and Design says:

    You've done it again, Maria, hit the nail on the head! There are so many people that think it is a glamorous, easy job. It's not and we know it. You are right we do alot for free and you are spot on that we care. I think it's because we feel so responsible for getting it right and after all, we are the experts in the clients eye. It's not a career for everyone and Penelope's blunt advice is very true. (Love her blog too.) Like you, I'm a Nike person (Just do it) and after deciding to change careers and studying colour and design, set up my own business from scratch. Five years on, I'm still chipping away at it but I couldn't imagine myself doing anything else now. "Find a job you love and you never have to work a day in your life."

  • Ivy Lane says:

    well… I took the test.. I answered yes to almost everything.. BUTTTTT… i just don't have the talent!!! I study and learn so much from books, YOU, and other design bloggers…but sadly I just don't have that innate design sense.. Great post Maria!!! I will keep on selling houses so designers can be hired for the over hauls later!! 🙂

  • Mary says:

    Great post! My husband has been suggesting I go back to school for design because I love it so much. But after answering your questions I now know I'll keep my interest in design to just a hobby.

  • Cristin says:

    great post! I have trouble w/ the money part – hate asking for it!

    Also, where do I get one of those cute follow me on Twitter buttons??? I am such a newbie. Thanks for your help!


  • Karena says:

    Very good Maria, great points and advice that is all very true!

  • K. says:

    Great advice there…I got 5/5 but I don't still feel confident about my "talent"…of course i'm still only a student.
    There's nothing else in the world i'd rather do though,I guess that must mean somwthing.
    I suppose confidence only comes by watching learning and practising of course.

  • Velvet and Linen says:

    Great advice as always Maria.
    I don't think most people realize how organized a designer has to be. It seems like most of my work is making spreadsheets and coordinating with vendors. It's like juggling 20 balls at a time.


  • Jane says:

    Great post, Maria! Really good advice! I got 5/5, but I am not changing directions now. I'll stick with my painting and writing.
    Jane (Artfully Graced)

  • Ruthie's Renewed Treasures says:

    Amazing post as usual. Organization is key for me just like Brooke said in her comment. Another must have is to be able to be a marriage counselor. I feel like 80% of my job is coaching couples, getting to know their needs and building a strong relationship so the job is a success. Very draining but rewarding when they are pleased with the job!

  • Maureen Sullivan Stemberg, Interiors says:

    What a great article!! AS a designer of 25+ years. I agree with you and Penelope. Those questions, were excellent ones. I would just add the two questions you should ask yourself if you want to be a designer? 1. Are you good with people 2. Do you believe in your abilities and can see a project to completion? Hmmmmm. I think, that was three!!


  • Anonymous says:

    Interesting post. Not sure why you included the irrelevant photos of attractive women, other than the one typing. What did they have to do with the subject matter?


    Awesome article Maria! And the follow up with vendors thing made me fall on the floor laughing! I recently put a RUSH order into my upholstery company. No COM. Easy peesie. Needed the whole order in 4 weeks (not totally unreasonable). My girls faithfully called twice a week for the next three weeks asking for an ETA. Well they never gave us one. By week four we wanted to know what the hell was going on. "Oh!" the receptionist says "they havent started on your order because ONE of the fabrics is backordered" WTF!! "My entire order hasnt been started because of ONE fabric? Why? this is a RUSH order and we have been calling for the past 4 weeks, why was this information not disclosed" I screamed into the phone. "Well it says here in the notes that you were asking for an ETA, not if one of the fabrics was back ordered"

    SO yes, you must stay on your vendors and ask the RIGHT questions so that your RUSH order ships when it's suppose to and not when ALL the fabrics are available!

  • Carolyn says:

    Great post. I think I have talent but definitely not what it takes to have my own business…I'm sure a lot of people learn this the hard way. And I give out way too much for free. I've finally stopped!

  • Jane says:

    Please take a minute to read my blog… You have been tagged with the Honest Scrap award…the directions are in the post. I was asked to choose 7 people who have encouraged me…and I have chosen you. Please take a few minutes and share about you…
    Jane (artfully graced)

  • Eliana Tomás says:

    what can I say Maria? I loooove your posts.

    btw, when I opened my interior design studio I didn't have a degree. I started with all my heart and love. 5 years after I then decided to do a degree in spatial design.

  • VictoriaArt says:

    OMG, what can I say, I am a risk taker….
    Thank goodness I had no day job apart raising the kids, so doesn't count anyway….
    Artist, forget it, hardly made any money ever with it!

    Leaves me with some talent, and thank goodness I am sure to have that at least!
    I love being paid and I am very organized…
    So, why I ask you….

    My husband recommends a day job!


  • Design Wanna-be says:

    agree with everyone else. I like how you really try to help others get ahead, or get started, whether it be in design, or blogging. As for me, I'm keeping my day job for sure (because I do really like it), but still blogging (when I can) until I'm in a place where I could risk a new career.

  • Brillante Home Decor says:

    Everything you said is so true! P.S. I am still working on the "money" part!

  • Hockey Boy says:

    Twenty-two years ago I went to a career day organized by my high school. I was very interested in interior design and listened very attentively to the designer chosen to speak to us. She said you work hard and you work for peanuts. She had nothing good to say about this career. She seemed old and bitter and scared me off. I guess a lot of what she said was true.

  • The Zhush says:

    This was so great, once again because of the honesty involved, and of course the fun way you presented it!

  • GreenDigitalist says:

    Good points in a good post. My sister, a scientist and teacher, who also loves design (fashion and interior) asked me if she should consider switching careers to ID…and I said it wasn't the most stable of fields when downturns occur (it was during the 'go-go' dot com days); also, I pointed out that her exquisite but very specific taste wouldn't translate to everyone else, unless she went to other styles, which she didn't want to do. Nowadays-I would just point her to this post!

  • interior design Pittsburgh says:

    I'm a frustrated designer. I love to design. It's a hard job, I admit. Sometimes, it takes an inspiration to arrived in a perfect design. However the satisfaction that after spending long hours of thinking and planning finally you transform something into beautiful and amazing. So if anyone their who have this passion, come join us. I'm sure you will enjoy.

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