7 Things to Know About Getting into Virtual Interior Design

man in yellow crew neck t shirt using vr headset

Following up on our first part of this series, ‘The Story of How Interior Design Went Virtual‘, it’s time to look at a few things you’ll want to know if you plan to get into virtual interior design for yourself. Let’s dive in, shall we?

A tale of remote design from the past

Did you know that the world famous Sydney Opera House was conceived of by an architect who never actually saw the completed structure in person?

It was 1956, and the then-unknown Danish architect Jorn Utzon won the bid in an open design competition. The city of Sydney began construction on the project even before the plans for it were completed. The iconic building was eventually realized in 1973 and the designer received the Pritzker Prize for his work in 2008.

Unfortunately for him, due to some bad politics that saw Jorn resign from the project, he never actually returned to Australia to see the finished opera house that we all know and love. The Sydney Opera House was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007, shortly before he passed away.

Wondering how Jorn Utzon submitted his winning design for a concert hall in Australia all the way from Denmark? Why, snail mail, of course.

Why you’ll want to get on board with virtual interior design

So, okay, I’m making the point here that it’s always been possible to design from a distance. Worldwide architecture competitions are a great example of this. However, what we now call virtual, or remote interior design wouldn’t be ‘virtual’ if it didn’t involve computers and digital skills.

Why would you want to learn these skills?

The brief answer to this is that digital skills make almost every aspect of the creative and design process for designers far easier in the long run. This is especially true where the execution of creative ideas is concerned. Of course, you don’t need a computer to design or be creative, but when it comes to running a design project, it’s going to save you a hell of a lot of time. Enter virtual interior design!

Here are seven things you should know if you want to get started in the space.

1. Virtual interior design is a technology-based creative service

female software engineer coding on computer

Virtual interior design is an emerging ‘new way’ to design that is becoming more feasible for more designers every day. It’s all because of the incredible tools that have become available to us in the online space in recent time. Thank you, technology!

So, while computers aren’t vital to the core concept and process of design, it’s hard to imagine a successful interior design business today that doesn’t use software in multiple phases of the design process.

The virtual part is now made possible because of the technologies which enable us to do more, and do better, in less time. How does this work?

Interior design and its relationship to technology

Interior design involves several distinct phases. They are: data collection (a.k.a. programming), research, communication with the client, conceptual design, schematic design, the drafting of plans, and project management.

How does technology help the interior design process? Interior design businesses often use software solutions which help with the organization, structure and scheduling of design work along with tools for communication with clients and suppliers.

One of the biggest ways technology helps designers is through the use of CAD (Computer Aided Design). CAD was invented in the sixties, but like most tech, it wasn’t available to everyone at first. CAD was initially only used by the industrial engineering and aerospace industries in large scale design productions. It’s come a long way since then!

CAD leads the way

By the eighties large architectural studios were starting to use CAD, and by the nineties, it was becoming more commonplace. However, it was only in the early 2000s that the smaller studios in developed nations fully transitioned over to digital design practice.

One of the reasons it took so long to catch on is that CAD drafting wasn’t necessarily taught in design education programs. It’s hard to believe now, but some architects and design professionals were actually against the move to digital. Another big reason that CAD took awhile to be adopted is due to the cost. ‘Big name’ software suites like Autodesk’s AutoCAD, Revit and 3DS Max start at $320/month.

In easy to see why in some parts of world with more ’emerging economies’, drafting is still done by hand using manual drafting methods.

See: Why Learn Manual Drafting in 2022?

The story of SketchUp

It took a small software company making an off-label 3D modeling product that worked in a radically new way to upset the industry. At the turn of the millennium two software engineers won a Community Choice award for ground-breaking and beginner-friendly program SketchUp, and by 2006 Google had acquired it.

This was a golden age for many designers who were just stating out with 3D modeling at the time. SketchUp was free, and it did almost everything the big programs did without the ‘bloat’.

Times changed and the company was acquired by Trimble who turned it into a subscription model, and it lost a lot of fans, especially after Blender was released.

However, lovers of SketchUp endure. SketchUp’s 2018 version is still cited by many architects as being the de-facto mainstay of many an architectural student’s workshop. And since then, there have been many other software suites dedicated to the home design market which offered reasonable solutions for less than the big programs.

In recent times, photorealistic rendering has become the new standard and more accessible to the everyday start up designer.

Let’s see how the old methods stack up against new virtual design technology.

Comparing Traditional and Digital Interior Design Methods

Traditional analog methodBlended analog and digital methodVirtual purely digital method
Data CollectionCollection of existing data from physical drawings, reports and surveys. Could involve photocopying, mail by post (or later faxing). Filing would be physical.A mixture of physical copies and digital copies of relevant information to begin a design project.
Might use faxing, but more often e-mailing. Hard copies would be scanned. It is often necessary for the designer to translate physical data to digital.
Generally relevant data would be sent by email and stored digitally.
Often data is already digital and easy to transfer.
Relevant information could be uploaded to a design management software platform.
ResearchSources include books and hard copy reports which may be photocopied or transcribed by hand.
Designers go to the site to conduct site surveys and take measurements.
Research comes from a blend of physical sources and digital sources.
Some data needs to be digitized.
Designers usually conduct their own site surveys or do it by proxy.
Research is conducted almost 100% online using digital sources.
Designers can have site surveying done remotely due to better technology which ensures accuracy.
Client communicationThe traditional method involved typing up physical briefs and creating physical presentations. Phone, faxing and traditional postage might be used.Communication would be a mix of in person, physical and digital, remote, methods. Phone, fax and e-mail are common.The all digital method includes email and communication through digital design software platforms which are cloud based. Zoom or Google Meet video conferencing is common.
Conceptual designThe traditional way to do this was using good old fashioned pen and paper. Pencil, charcoal, pens and markers, crayons and even paint were applied to a substrate. These included anything from a napkin to sketch paper and even art board or vellum.
Sample boards were always physical and included real samples of materials and finish products.
As digital started to become available, some designers started to experiment with digital drawing methods and digital mood boards.
However, sample boards were often still physical, as this was considered standard practice in the industry.
Presentations might be created digitally, but were presented in person.
The new way can be done entirely digitally, from sketching and drawing on tablets and computers, to creating mood boards and sample boards which link to products online.
Rarely, clients are mailed physical samples.
Schematic designSame as above. Traditional methods were always physical, analog and presentation was mostly mostly done in person.Similar to above. Digital and analog methods were combined depending on the preferences of the studio and client. Presentations were usually done in person after some email communication to refine the design.
Designers used a variety of programs.
In the virtual model even presentation is done remotely. New VR and AR (virtual reality and augmented reality) methods make this more appealing.
Many cloud based design solutions allow clients to walk through their designs using their browsers.
Designers use more streamlined applications.
Plan DraftingDone by hand using a good old fashioned drafting table and T square.Usually done digitally, but physical copies printed out for submission to council and for use on site.Digital is more accepted and plans are submitted to town council digitally. Some contractors use digital plans onsite, though fully digital is not yet practical.
Project managementThe entire process was managed using analog methods and filing systems.
Project management was usually done in person.
Project management would be a mix of digital and physical.
Many designers selected products physically and designers usually physically supervised installations.
The new methodology allows for project management to be done remotely through proxy or using technology solutions.
In some virtual design models, the designer does not do project management, but turns over execution to the client.

Solopreneurs: Decorating, home design, interior design, architecture, landscaping, urban planning and beyond

The good news is that if you want to start a design or decorating business and do it one hundred percent online it’s never been easier. Virtual design is now used by many different types of designers.

New software programs make running a project from start to finish easier than ever before. The rise of a host of new design programs allows hobbyist, enthusiasts, decorators and design specialists to get started with digital interior design. Since the pandemic many have been able to run design businesses online from the comfort of their own homes and without the need for large teams of people.

Virtual interior design has brought the cost of projects way down and has the added benefit of making good interior design accessible to many more people, especially in the residential market.

2. Virtual interior design is becoming more accepted, but expect changes

man in black crew neck t shirt sitting beside woman in gray crew neck t shirt

Evolution of virtual interior design

The biggest change to come about in designing interiors remotely is in the sheer number of options available these days when it comes to software. There are more products on the market and at more varied price points. These products are also becoming increasingly more ‘intuitive’ and easier to use.

Even though having more choice when it comes to products is a good thing, it can also be hard for new designers to find the solution that is right for them. Many designers will go through several programs before finding the one that ‘clicks’ for them.

All in one virtual interior design software solutions

Another newer development in recent years is the software developed by designers as an ‘all in one’ design business solution. Often a monthly subscription model, these types of programs have been developed in tandem with experienced interior design communities who specialize in remote and virtual interior design. Many virtual designers operating solo businesses and small studios swear by them.

The lines between home design software and interior design software has become increasingly blurred. If you plan to design for a living, it’s important to find a program that suits professional practice needs or be prepared to fill in the gaps yourself.

Keep in mind that things change quickly in the virtual design world, and software products come and go. There are no guarantees that a product you love to use will stay on the market. Designers also need to stay up to date with the new trends and features as they become available.

Adoption of virtual interior design by full service designers

When it comes to the ‘image’ of virtual interior designers, there has been a large shift in acceptance by the overall industry in the last few years. A couple of stereotypes that had to be overcome is that virtual interior designers were somehow less professional, underqualified or even ‘lazy’ for wanting to work remotely.

Obviously, with every type of job that could possibly be done online going virtual as a response to covid19 lockdowns around the world, there was nothing to do but accept that virtual interior design was actually a thing. The designers who pioneered the virtual space have been incredibly welcoming to newcomers who have questions about how to run projects from a distance, and there has been a huge uptake in interest.

Not only have virtual design communities online grown exponentially, but many designers who once ran brick and mortar businesses now say they won’t go back to full service. We are seeing a shift in the industry related to the designer’s role. Designers are focusing more on design and less on the construction and project management side.

3. Virtual interior design is a great choice for small design startups but you will have competition

smiling formal male with laptop chatting via phone

What is the demand for virtual interior design services?

Now that jobs can be turned around quicker, and design clients can work around their own budgets and schedules, virtual interior design is helping interior design to become more accessible. This is a trend which is considered by many experts in the industry to be here to stay. Remote interior design is fast becoming the accepted new way of offering design services and more people are trying it.

So, virtual interior design is not going away. On the contrary, it is just getting started. A big question is, how is the demand for virtual interior design services?

A look at the rise of ‘big box’ interior design brands

Although the virtual interior design space was first popularized by design entrepreneurs, where opportunity arises there are always big companies ready to snap up some of the emerging market share. One way to explain this is that many designers were laid off in 2020 and seeking online employment. Big box brands like Modsy, Haven and Decorilla took advantage of this to create online virtual interior design ‘superstores’.

Google search reveals the numbers

If we look at search volume for some of these brands we see that Modsy enjoys the most searches per month at around 3600, while the other brands get about half of that. Interest in Modsy as a brand has subsided since its peak in 2020, while search trends for other brands continues strong and is rising in many cases.

You’ll remember from our first article that eDesign sees about 9900 searches a month and virtual interior design about 1600. Meanwhile ‘VR interior design’ is becoming a more popular search term.

The downside of big brands in the virtual interior design market

The exposure caused by larger companies normalizing virtual interior design has been a mixed blessing as well as a something of a ‘curse’. On the one hand, it has given greater visibility to online interior design and made it more acceptable. More people have heard about it and are likely to consider trying it. On the other hand, these conglomerations have undercut the market slightly, pushing prices down beyond what is fair and it is rumored that they take large commissions.

How interior design startups can position themselves

Going forward it will be up to you to figure out how to uniquely market yourself in the virtual interior design space, capitalizing on the interest in virtual interior design while still expecting fair and even great compensation if you are providing a quality custom service.

Finally, as this industry is still new and growing, be open to new ways of attracting clients, finding design work and pushing past barriers in the business. There are a lot of ways that virtual interior design can still gain traction, especially in the real estate space (virtual home staging with VR, anyone?) and eventually design for the metaverse. Yes, I said it.

If it’s virtual it doesn’t always have to get built. You can still make money.

4. Having a specialty is important in virtual interior design

interior of kitchen with modern furniture

I won’t elaborate greatly on this point here, since I’ve covered this in depth in another article titled “4 Interior Design Niche Types to Know“. While I’m not at all hard set on trying to get new virtual interior designers to figure out what their corner of the market is when they’re just starting out, it can help to know what the options are that exist.

This is more for opportunity assessment. What are the gaps in the market that is accessible to you or that you plan to serve, and how can you ‘snipe those gaps’? Here are some ideas.

  1. Decorating and stylist work
  2. VR home staging
  3. Color consultant
  4. Residential interior design
  5. Design-Build
  6. Kitchen and Bath
  7. Design Renovation
  8. Design Virtual Assistant
  9. 3D modeler/renderer
  10. Interior design bloggers
  11. B2B (business to business services)
  12. SAAS (software as a service)

Each of these can theoretically be done remotely and some are well suited to it. Some of them require little training while others, like B2B and design virtual assistant require you to know the business and have skills related to virtual interior design.

We’ll definitely cover some of these in greater detail in future and discuss more of the pros and cons of each. For now, suffice it to say that if you’re looking to do some freelancing or want to work for another virtual interior designer, there are opportunities. If you are an entrepreneur who would like to hire other designers, there are lots of people looking to freelance as well.

In order to be successful at virtual interior design you will need to know how to brand your business and have some basic web skills related to starting a website. If you don’t know how, there are people that can help who specialize in virtual interior design websites.

Virtual interior design is fast becoming its own ecosystem and the community supports each other.

5. There are still some gaps in virtual interior design workflow

woman raising her hand while sitting in front of the laptop

Mind the gap

Depending on how you like to operate, there can be some difficulties you will need to manage with your workflow. For many designers going all digital requires them to think differently about how they work and it can be a learning process. If you’re new to designing in general, you will want to learn about how the general virtual interior design process works.

Heck, you might even want to learn how traditional design is done if only to compare the differences, but I digress. A lot of designers hesitate to teach a specific way of designing because it’s individual to each person. While the process goes through specific steps and phases, how designers work within those phases can differ. This is especially true when it comes to the ideation and conceptual part.

Virtual designers use multiple programs

Why this matters is because depending on how you like to work you will have different needs. There is no one size fits all solution for virtual interior design. You will need to use several different programs and be fluent with them and be able to integrate them.

While programs like Design Files offer a lot of time saving solutions for virtual interior designers by having many functions in one program and in one place, there can still be issues. 2D and 3D are usually separate programs. Billing might not be possible with the system you are used to and you might have to switch your payment provider or accounting program, for example.

One common frustration for virtual interior designers is the inability to find exact 3D models for specific products, especially new or trendy products. You’ll need to learn the workaround for this or be willing to create your own if its necessary. Don’t worry, there are solutions to these issues, but be aware that as a designer you will need to problem solve.

6. You will need to determine your path to becoming a virtual interior designer

woman in blue crew neck t shirt

Depending on your design background and how much experience you have, your path to becoming a full fledged virtual interior designer could be almost immediate or a series of steps as you learn the ropes.

So go ahead and assess your current ‘designer level’.

If you are a professional designer looking to break into the space, you will simply need to refine some of your methods to virtual and possibly learn a new program or two. If you work in a design related field (say, graphic design) and want to become a virtual interior designer, you might know how to use some design programs already and it would simply be a matter of filling in your knowledge gaps or getting some new skills. Remember that you can outsource if you need to.

If you are an artist or creative who has not yet learned any type of digital design or interior design then you might want to start smaller. For you, getting started with decorating would be a great way to begin your virtual interior design journey and give you the chance to level up as you grow. Our popular article on three ways to become a virtual interior designer gets into your options in greater detail.

This brings us to our final point for this post.

7. It is possible to learn by doing if you scale intelligently

assorted gold plated table figurines
“Today the bookshelf. Tomorrow the world!”

Do you really need to go to school to be a virtual interior designer?

A lot of designers will tell you that you can’t go into interior design if you haven’t gone to school for it, but this isn’t entirely true. It is certainly true for the higher level commercial and contract jobs out there.

Anytime you are working with retail, design for public spaces and public building codes, you will want to have your ducks in a row. If that’s the type of design you want to do, go to school for it and learn interior design in great detail, get your license, etc. More power to you.

Do a little digging

However, if it’s a small residential interior design or decorating business you want to start online, you might find that your options are a little more open than you thought. It’s up to you to DYOR (do your own research) and conduct your due diligence to figure out what’s possible where you live.

In many places in the United States, for example, a simple resale license or business license in the form of an LLC often suffices for a virtual interior design business online.

Become a design baddie with us!

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That’s all, Baddies. Stay baddass!



Designer, writer & educator living in East Asia since 2001

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