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Inspiration for the Day

5 Steps To a Design Career Without the Formal Education

By 02/09/2016January 23rd, 201729 Comments


via HGTV

My Mom was going out of town this past weekend but I received a text from her at 5:19 AM Saturday morning. If you’re not a Fin, you won’t be able to read half of this so I’ll translate.

“Maria, come visit, I’m watching some amazing ted talks.”

“But you’re going?” (I thought she was leaving really early) 

“Not for two hours, come now”.

“Do you have coffee?”



My Mom writes and speaks in half Finnish and half English. It’s quite charming really. Terreeia calls it Finglish. My Mom didn’t come to this country until she was 19, where she met and married my Dad right away. She stayed home to raise us girls, and kept to a small family circle so her English is flawed, but it adds to her charm. Whenever she says something wrong, I rarely correct her because I love listening to my Mom talk and since she has always spoken both English and Finnish to me, I understand her perfectly.

She had the Ted talk by Sir Ken Robinson on her screen when I arrived, watch it here.

This is an excerpt from my favourite part of his talk:

“I meet all kinds of people who don’t enjoy what they do, they simply go through their lives, ‘getting on with it’, They get no great pleasure from what they do, they endure it rather than enjoy it and wait for the weekend. 

But  I also meet people who LOVE what they do and couldn’t imagine doing anything else, if you said to them ‘Don’t do this anymore’ they’d wonder what you were talking about because it isn’t what they do, it’s who they are, they say ‘But this is me, it would be foolish for me to abandon this because it speaks to my most authentic self.’

And it’s not true of enough people, in fact, on the contrary it’s still true of a minority of people.

Often people are good at things that they don’t really care for, it’s about passion and what excites our spirit and our energy and if you are doing the thing that you love to do, that you’re good at, time takes a different course entirely.

You know this, if you’re doing something you love, an hour feels like 5 minutes, if you are doing something that doesn’t resonate with your spirit, 5 minutes feels like an hour.” Sir Ken Robinson

I recently received an email from a reader who told me she was having a small mid-life crisis, or more accurately wanted some career change advice she said:

“I have done very well for myself in my career but am missing passion for the work. I truly want to help people make changes in their lives that make them happier. I know my home brings me joy and there is nothing I like better than improving it.

I was considering taking your True Colour Expert Training in Charlotte, but while I think I would love the course, I’m not sure if that would be the wisest place to start. I found that we have an Institute here that offers a BSBA in Interior Design, but I already have an MBA and hold down a demanding full time job. I don’t envision going back to school full time for ~4 years. I want to make sure I’m maximizing my time and money and have a solid plan to build my expertise as quickly as possible. 

In short, I value your advice and hope that you can find some time to point me in the right direction.

I think there’s more than one person reading this blog who might be asking the same question, so here are my thoughts on how to go about gaining expertise and training in the design industry when you’re no longer at the beginning of your career.

When I was 30 years old and having my mid-life-I-can’t-do-this-mind-numbing-corporate-job-for-one-more-day moment, I was basically single and still had to support myself. So going to school for a 4-year degree was not an option for me.

I’ve spoken with many interior designers with a 4-year degree who told me that it’s too much education for a design business focused entirely on residential anyway.

Those of you reading this who have a 4-year degree, might want to chime in here. But before you do, please know I am talking about a mid-life degree versus a younger person starting out in the design world where the 4-year degree serves both residential and commercial design.


via (classic fireplace mantle)

So here is my best advice on what to do when you are starting a design/decorating/colour consulting business later on in your career:

And first, let me state the obvious: the biggest sign that you should pursue a design career is that your friends and family already look to you to help them with their house and you’ve decided, it’s time for you to get paid!

Follow your nose

There are so many new ways to get educated these days, the four year degree model looks a little lumbering and stuffy by comparison. There are general decorating and design courses online and every imaginable aspect of the business is covered out there, either by designers sharing their expertise, or via more formal programs. What is going to work best is going to depend on who you are, so follow your nose.

Who’s advice are you drawn to? Who’s work do you admire? Are you particularly good at layout, or colour? There are many niches in the design and colour business and you need to find yours. The best way to find your niche is to listen to your gut. That’s what got me here.

I’m talking about my events in this post of course, but go with your intuition when choosing your path.

Find a Mentor

I don’t have a 4 year degree. My expertise comes mostly from experience. If I had to choose now between being highly educated in this industry or the invaluable experience I received working at a paint store conducting thousands of consultations over a 4 year period, I would choose the latter.

It’s how my Understanding Undertones™ system was born.

So my 4-year degree was earned in a paint store as a colour consultant and as a result, I have been in more homes than most interior designers or decorators will ever be in the lifetime of their career.

Because of this, there’s rarely a question about the world of specifying colour that I don’t have an answer for when you arrive at my event.

But it wasn’t always this way and when I didn’t have enough experience to be able to answer a question or I just got stuck, I made sure I had a mentor I could ask for support.

I wrote about each of my mentors I’ve had over the years here. I recommend looking for someone local so that you can work with them and find opportunities to reciprocate. So try to figure out a way you can contribute to them in exchange for their mentorship. I helped one of my mentors MOVE and that cemented our relationship.

If you can find a job working, or even volunteering for a designer or firm that you admire, that is one of  the best ways to gain experience and of course to benefit from the experience of others. Isn’t that the essence of mentorship? You provide value, they provide the valuable insight and experience that you need. There is no better way to learn than to immerse yourself to gain experience quickly and learn from the experience of others.

Get Involved

You need to get involved and connect with people doing what you are interested in doing.

Every graduate of my Specify Colour with Confidence™ event gets access to a free Private True Colour Expert Facebook page surrounded by like minded designers and where they can post questions if they are in a situation where they don’t have the answer.

There is nothing wrong with explaining to your client that you will get back to them with the right answer. I’ve never had a client who was upset by that. They were just happy that they were going to get the right advice in the end.


via La Dolce Vita (Classic exterior)

Define your aesthetic as fast as possible

When you’re starting out, you give your clients pretty much exactly what they are looking for because you don’t have a look yet.

But the faster you develop your own aesthetic, the more money you’ll make because your clients will hire you for that reason.

If you have to reinvent the wheel and learn a bunch of new things each time a new client hires you, you’ll spend way too much time doing that instead of what you’re really good at. It’s impossible to go from extreme contemporary to super traditional and actually be good at both.

I know this post will sound like I’m plugging my training but that’s because it covers a lot of what you’ll need in order to figure out what you’re good at.

The reason my course is so successful is because I teach it from my classic and timeless aesthetic, when it comes to colour in hard finishes. It’s hard to argue with that because the principles of timeless design are pretty universal.

When you learn how to give advice from that perspective, you’re already starting your career with a foundational look and feel even if you haven’t figured out exactly where you’ll land.

That is way more powerful than flailing around on your own, trying to figure it out.

Every design choice you make is a colour decision first.

You can go to design school for 4 years but you still won’t learn there what you’ll learn in my course in 3 days.

Who else will teach you the 9 undertones you’ll see in everything after you leave? Hard and soft finishes, everywhere in the world. Who else has the answer to every single colour question in your head? Well, you’ll find it here.

Plus on day 3, you’ll learn the business of colour, what to charge, how to sell a consultation, how to specify colour for paint and finishes for online clients and much more.

So get really good at choosing the right colour, look at your design from a classic and timeless perspective and you’ll already be halfway there.


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

Related posts:

How I Became a True Expert

How I Discovered my System of Understanding Undertones™

What it Looks like to Be in a Private Forum

7 pins


  • Gilda says:

    please come to Cleveland, Ohio or Pittsburgh, PA!!!!!

  • Gerley says:

    Gasp, I see dirty and clean yellow on the site together!

    Just joking I’m sure that is is meant to be gold. Thanks for the articles I learn so much from them.

  • Ashley says:

    Thank you so much for this post, Maria. I must admit that although I’ve been eager to attend one of your seminars because I think your approach and content are revolutionary in the color world, I’ve been hesitant because I don’t have a formal education in design. I appreciate you encouraging us design enthusiasts who are passionate about the subject but don’t have the “paper” to prove it. I look forward to attending one of your seminars soon!

  • Jessie says:

    I am also from Ohio! I love this post.

  • tricia says:

    Hi Maria,

    Are you planning any other classes later this year in the US?

  • Carla says:

    Thank you for the great post! I can see the passion in your career.

  • Susan @Susan Silverman Designs says:

    I’m a certified Interior Decorator but I must admit that most of what I’ve learned came from the experience I gain on a daily basis. I go to as many seminars and courses as I can and try to keep abreast of the latest trends in design. Maria, your course was invaluable to me, and I still learn something new everyday from you or other TCEs.


  • Nancy says:

    First let me say your mom who wouldnt love her 🙂
    Your stories about her paint a perfect picture of a very loving spirited lady .
    Next that was a awesome / inspirational blog.
    Thank you that was exactly what I needed this morning !

  • Vee says:

    Thank you!! Thank you!!! This is exactly what I am contemplating in my life right now. The “how” of transitioning my career from a “job” to a “career” from nursing to design. I am looking to take any decorating courses I can get my hands on in person and online. But after that, I am at a loss.

  • Jill says:

    People need to consider if they have the right personality to be an Interior Designer. I myself have a University degree in Graphic Design. Later in life, I had a career change to Interior Design and took another 2 years on a College course. As much as I like Interior Design I just don’t have the confidence to pursue it as a career. I am far too introverted. Graphic Design seems to suit me best. I think to be a good Interior Designer you need more than talent. An outgoing personality and being a people’s person helps.

  • Kelly says:

    Taking your course was what gave me the confidence to quit consulting for ooohs and aaaahs and start getting a paycheck. Thanks to you, I know how to articulate not only WHAT to do but WHY it should be done and that makes all the difference in my confidence level and the level of trust my clients have in my advice. Thanks, Maria, I owe you one (or two or more!)

  • Teri says:

    My grandmother could not understand spoken English until we turned on the Italian accent. Great memories.

  • I love your voice, Maria! I always leave your posts feeling energized and good about my work – including the things I still need to learn!

  • Linda says:

    I’ve been in the business for a looonnnnnggg time. I’ve had interior decorating training –I can call myself an interior decorator and know I have the education to back that up. And the education was invaluble.
    But never once has a client asked me what school I attended, or even IF I attended school before hiring me. My experience, confidence, and willingness to listen gets me jobs.
    My advice? If you want to do this, get a job doing anything in the industry and work from there. Work in a paint store, be an assistant to a window covering seller, get a job at Home Depot and learn flooring. And take any course you can. But if you learn color you will be hands down ahead of the pack. That’s what will set you apart.

  • Barbara says:

    Maria hi! Do you know when you plan to be in Austin next? You had talked about having a seminar here. It would be greatly appreciated.

    • Maria Killam says:

      I won’t be back in Texas in 2016 since I was just in Houston last Fall and now Dallas. Maria

      • Victoria says:

        What??? I missed you being in Dallas, my area? I’m so upset with myself that I didn’t know you were going to be here!

  • Linda says:

    One other thing: in some provinces or states anyone can hang up a shingle and call herself an interior designer or decorator without any formal training. In some places there are regulations. I’d check that out. I think the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) could help there.

  • Michelle Clark says:

    You made my day! I hope to take the course, or one of your courses in the near Future! MC

  • Michelle Clark says:

    You made my day! I hope to take the course at some point! MC

  • Cindy says:

    Hi Maria 🙂
    First off, I would just like to say THANK YOU for all of your advise over the years. I’m a long time reader of your blog (since the beginning!). I feel like this entry was speaking DIRECTLY to me. From early on, I had a love for painting and decorating but never pursued it as a career. I’ve taken on countless projects for my friends/family as well as my own homes that I’ve bought and sold over the years. Now that I’m almost 40 (eek!), I’m seriously considering a shift into the Interior Decorating field. I’ve been scouring the internet trying to find the best formal online education that won’t cost and arm and a leg….or is not a scam 🙂 Any suggestions?! Also, any chance you or someone you know is looking to mentor? Just thought I’d ask as I’m from the Fraser Valley too 🙂
    All the best!

    • Maria Killam says:

      Yes I would start with a 2 year diploma program at a local college, I taught at VCC downtown for almost 3 years, look into their program. Then, my course will teach you the colour, the why of decorating decisions and the ‘what you don’t learn in design school’ about consultations, billing, business of colour and much more. The piece of it you won’t get anywhere else. Then I would look for a mentor or offer to work as an intern at a firm. It sounds like you already have the validation of your friends and family so you just need some education so that you can stop working for free 🙂 Hope that helps, Maria

      • Cindy says:

        Wow that was quick! Thanks for the solid advice, really appreciate it! I’ll definitely look into VCC and see what they can offer 🙂

  • Scarlett B says:

    I’ve thought about this a lot over the years. I practiced design for 5-ish years then moved into marketing colour for a paint company. I’m an Interior Design grad and NCIDQ certified (which was hard for me considering my experience was brief). But I haven’t been working in design at all for 8 years now. My interests have changed. I am impatient with people and so I never really wanted to do residential. And there are many people out there that are much more talented and passionate in design than me. So I think it’s a balance of talent/passion/education/experience. An education will open doors certainly, but hard work and passion will get you there too.

  • Ivy Lane says:

    Great post! I am also from Cleveland, OH! It would be wonderful if you came here and did your seminar!

  • Kristin Dimmich says:

    Any plans for Chicago in the future? Love your blog!

  • Claire Young says:

    Hi Maria! Love your blog and all your advice. This article really struck me… I’ve been trying to grow my interior decorating business for 5 years now and still keep running into the same issue, I’m not certified nor do I have a degree in design (my degree is in Political Science! – yikes). I am actually really good at what I do and my clients never have an issue with it, but I find that furniture stores and other professionals never take me seriously… Do you have any advice? I would really like to get access to design markets, trade discounts but it seems that you always need a state license or certification. I’m feeling frustrated.

  • Cecilia Lim says:

    Inspired by your story. Grateful for the information you share. Bookmarked your site, thank you for being you!

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