5 Ways to Get into Interior Design Without Going (Back) to School

Designers, like Rome, aren’t built in a day.


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Introduction

The question of whether you can learn interior design yourself comes up fairly often in online communities where people discuss their interests in decorating and designing homes.  

This post deals with the general issues and questions regarding getting into interior design without going back to school, then I share five ways that you can get started in design by being ‘self taught’.


If you want to jump ahead to the five ways, go here.  If you want to understand some of the background to this question to help you get better context, keep reading!


What being self taught means

If being self taught simply means that you teach yourself, then you are your essentially your own teacher and there is no one looking over your shoulder making sure that you learn any particular thing and in any particular order or to any particular level of depth and completion.

That puts a ton of accountability on you.

If you can teach yourself, and I mean really teach yourself what it is that you will need to know to be successful, then it is precisely that trait of being able to show up and work hard that is going to help give you the chance to succeed in interior design.

That is why I say you can absolutely do it.

Before you make a decision, though, it’s good to know what you’re getting yourself into.


I consider myself to be largely self-taught, even though I got my degree through an accredited design school, because I learned by distance, and the onus was always on me to do all reading and research and make assignments on time

Because the entire course was self-paced I didn’t have peers who were doing the same exact same assignment at the same time as me most of the time, but we did have a great community where students supported one another, and that helped tremendously.

I actually started learning interior design myself for several years before I decided to get an education in it, and I continue to learn about interior design almost every day, because it is what I am passionate about.


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I’d venture to say that almost every designer starts out by being self taught, either by reading on the subject or practicing as a hobby.  After gaining some understanding in the field, and knowing that this is something they want to commit to, they then go on to make the decision to pursue an education in design. 

The journey doesn’t end with a formal education, either.  Like anything, if you plan to be a great designer, you will need to keep learning and being ‘self taught’ to stay current and relevant in your field.

I don’t know many people that fall into a design career completely by accident, though it may happen!

What type of designer do you want to be? 
Many residential designers, for example, are self taught.

The reason people ask the question of whether someone can be self taught designer, I imagine, is because people want to know if they can start making money by doing design as a small business that they run themselves and they want to start sooner rather than later.  

If this is where you would like to end up, then the answer is yes, you absolutely can be ‘self taught’.  


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The desire to learn about design starts out in different ways for different people. I’ve noticed that many people develop an interest by playing around with their own home or first rental apartment and discover they have a knack for it. 

Tons of people catch the ‘design bug’ this way, and actually, it’s a great way to start out!  

Learning by doing is a valuable and legitimate way to learn the basics, and can be combined with some private study on the subject of interior design and decorating to further round it out.


If you are really good at setting up a home–knowing what is needed and how to plan spaces properly–add in some furniture and fitting selection and some decorating, and It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that you might be able to extend your services to other people.

The world of home design and decoration is alive and well with huge repositories of online resources for those looking to:

  • Renovate and add to existing building structures
  • Conduct general home repairs
  • Design or make custom furniture
  • Install home fittings and appliances
  • Fix up rental apartments and dorm rooms
  • Choose the best furniture for your budget
  • Learn about different styles and how to decorate in them

The online world of design aficionados is thriving

I personally find it fascinating that there are large, dedicated communities of people online who enjoy the visual designing process.  

From kids doing Minecraft room makeovers to dedicated 3D Roomstyler ‘designers’ and lurkers on Houzz, Apartment Therapy, HGTV, Reddit, Quora and Facebook groups, there are boatloads of people who share design advice and ideas, but in many cases never take it any further than making an endless stream of home design mood boards.

Why is that?

  • One reason may be that design is simply their hobby, not something they want to do professionally
  • Or they have an inkling that they would like to do it professionally, but don’t really know how to start

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Getting serious about decorating or designing for a living

Most of us understand that if we want to get serious about learning a skill, we need to do some active learning about it.  

The difference between those who dabble in the decorative arts and those who make it their life’s work, is in the level of commitment.  

I have plenty of respect for many amazingly creative homemakers and decorators, of which my grandmother is a shining example. She will always be the most stylish person I have ever met, and her home was always beautifully arranged and infused with her strong sense of rustic-modern style.

I’ve known other people like my amazing grandmother, who are talented natural decorators, but only ever did it for their own home or for family and friends or for holidays.

If this is you, you do you!

There is a place for everyone in the world of design, and talented homemakers and ‘amateur’ home style-rs keep our Instagram feeds fun and fresh.

Rock on!

If, however, If you are in a position where you are considering a career in interior decorating or design, it makes sense to get all the information you can up front so that you can make a good decision about what it is exactly that you want to do, and then you can go about ensuring that you get there.

You know the jig: A goal without a plan is just a wish.  

So my advice to you, dear reader, is to stop wishing and start doing.


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Determine your designer ‘level’ goal

I wrote an article titled, “The Ten Types of Interior Designers, and the Education You Need for Each”, to help explain just how many types of interior design professionals there are, and to share some alternatives for those who aren’t looking to become a commercial contract designer in a large firm. 

If you don’t know about the different ‘levels’ or types of designers out there, give it a read.


Working on large, public projects is not for everyone, but if that was what you aspire to be, I would tell you to go and get your degree in interior design or architecture, because not having one is almost certainly a barrier to entry in the public and retail sectors.

If, instead, you were interested in working in the private sector, and specifically in the residential market, there are a lot of ways you could get started without going back to school.

Overall, I believe that self taught designers should focus more on the residential market and that is what I would advise.


There is no one-size-fits-all method to becoming a good or successful designer.  However, it’s hard to imagine someone becoming a self-taught designer who wasn’t an avid reader and a personal student of design, at least.  

Being self-taught means that you aim to learn as much as any trained interior designer, but that you do it on your own, theoretically making use of free or cheaper resources.  

Everyone is different, and some people are really good at teaching themselves, so I’m certainly not going to claim that this is impossible, but without a good guide map, it could prove difficult.

One way to accomplish getting hold of a good plan for self study would be this:

Hat the syllabuses of top interior design schools and other available courses online and compile the course information to get a really good plan drawn up for what it is you need to cover, then go about learning from there. In case you were wondering, yes, I have done this for architecture.

If you haven’t read my article on “The 4 Most Important Subjects for Interior Designers”, you can check out the link at the bottom of this post.


The 5 Ways to Be a Self Taught Designer

If you happen to be someone who knows, resolutely, that :

  • There is no way you would or could go back to school due to time or money issues, but-
  • You still absolutely wanted to work in interior design and you felt that you were good at it and had something to offer, then–

The following six ways to get into interior ‘design’ without going back to school are for you:

  1. You can become a self taught decorator
  2. You can become a self taught residential designer 
  3. You can become a “self taught” designer with a short online course 
  4. You can become a self taught designer the way these famous interior designers did 
  5. You can work in the industry without being an actual designer
  6. You can be a virtual interior decorator or designer

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1.You can become a self taught decorator

There are so many resources out there to get you started with decorating.  Home and lifestyle magazines are just the start: from short internet courses to published books on the subject, Pinterest boards and Etsy inspo, decorating advice is all around us.  

I think decorating is most people’s favorite part of interior design.  Interior designer professionals do decorate, but to differing degrees, depending on the type of design work they do.  

For example, a designer for retail shop-fitting probably doesn’t do much decorating, but a residential, solo-preneur or virtual designer often specializes in a niche decorating style.

With all the focus on style and seasonal looks, our so-called interior design magazines (outside of the strictly trade market) are all about decoration and styling.  


Fashion has reached the point where it is starting to have an effect on how we style our homes

Magazines like Elle Decoration are masters at showcasing the next big thing for interiors

If I was just starting out in decorating I would work on developing my eye for color and composition.  

Here are my best tops for getting started as a decorator:

  • Photography is a great addition to a decorating resume and I would highly recommend learning at least the basics
  • Keeping a personal collection of inspirational imagery, and maybe a scrapbook of ideas is great for developing schemes of your own
  • I would also suggest learning how to create great mood boards for playing around with ideas and for sharing with future clients
  • A vignette is a collection of objects, like a still life arrangement, and getting good at arranging small groups of objects and then expanding from there while bringing in new colors and textures could prove a great exercise for getting started
  • If you created a vignette a day as a challenge and then ‘instagrammed‘ your daily style composition, you would be getting practice while also developing a name for yourself
  • Holidays and special occasions are times when we expect to decorate, and many people are open to having someone else do it for them
  • You could even start decorating for charity and do it for free at first, just so you could build up a portfolio of work
  • Print up some name cards and keep your eyes open for opportunities like window dressing and decorating for retail

Decorating can be a lucrative, fun and very rewarding career, and there are many incredible decorators to draw inspiration from, so you will be in excellent company!


2.You can become a self taught residential designer

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The reason that it is possible to become a residential designer without going to school, is because the laws governing private and public land are different.

There are no laws, at least in 95% of the United States, which prevent you from making modifications to your own home as you see fit.  As far as I know, this also applies to hiring someone to suggest modifications or improvements and purchases.  Please do your own fact checking for your situation.

Enter your interior designer for the private home!

There is a lot of overlap in the residential field, but this is the traditional domain of the decorator, who shares the market with the handyman and DIY expert, the home goods store and the furniture sales industry.

Large interior design firms often have both residential as well as commercial projects on the go, and typically private homes are designed for wealthy clients who can afford it.  However, the middle class market is growing as newer, more internet-based design services become available.

If you learn enough about interior design to be able to create good schemes for your clients based on their visions, and then help them to bring those plans to life, you might be able to start your own interior design business.


You would need:

  • Name cards
  • A company website
  • Name cards
  • A portfolio of work
  • Good trade contacts for wallpaper, paint, lighting fixtures, furniture, flooring and mill work
  • Basic office set up with computer software

You’ll be happy to know that many residential designers who work for themselves work out of their homes.


One way to do design work could be to start out offering decorating services and keep adding more to your service offerings as you learn on the job.

You could decide if you want to do full-service interior design, or whether you’d prefer just to do the creative work, (also known as the design scheme), and let the client use their own resources to actually implement your design.

Full service is when you help the client to find the professionals to do installations, wall or floor treatments, painting and wallpapering,  and you oversee the design project from conception to completion. 

This includes providing drawings, managing as well as paying the various trade subcontractors who do the construction work.

There is also the option of blended design services, which offer packages tailored to the specific needs of clients and may include both virtual and physical services, but allow for more flexibility.


You can become a ‘self taught’ interior designer by taking a short course

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I present this as an option, because there are so many good short courses out there right now, and some that you can even access for free.  

Depending on the type you choose, there may be minimal commitment involved in following the material, or you may have to do specific reading and research, answer questions and submit work.

Decide how much you’re willing to invest of your time and effort and then choose the one that is right for you.

The reason I suggest doing a course is because it is structured.  That’s the biggest benefit to a design newbie.  

True, a short course may not qualify you to become a commercial design industry designer or give you the portfolio you need to start landing clients, but it will get your head right and get you thinking in the right direction.  

Once you understand what it is you need to learn, you can more easily continue expanding on your own.

A short course may also act as a ‘taster’ to help you gauge how much tolerance you have for the idea of studying further.

If you absolutely hate it, either the course did not meet your expectations in some way or maybe, maybe studying is not for you.

Or you might gently consider that perhaps interior design isn’t for you.

Hey, at least you can figure this out now, before you get too much further down the road!
Count that a win.

If you ever change your mind about going to college for interior design, a short course will give you a good idea of what you’ll be learning later, and it never hurts to be ahead of the ‘competition’ by getting a jump start on the concepts you’ll learn in more detail later.

For those of you with time or money issues, look for the low cost stuff or get yourself to a library and look around on the web. There’s plenty out there, I promise!

Fun fact: Many universities and online interior design programs offer short decorating courses for adult learners.  These sampler courses are there to interest you in their bigger offerings, of course, but if you want to mostly study design yourself, it doesn’t hurt to consider trying something lower commitment.


4. You can become a self taught designer the way these famous designers did

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Here’s one of those lesser-known facts people might not know unless they do some detective work:

Quite a few of our favorite celebrity and reality show designers got started in the industry without an interior design degree.

Luckily for you, I’ve played detective on a few of these for you so that you don’t have to.


Some of my favorite examples of designers who got unconventional starts or are self-taught are:

Martyn Lawrence Bullard, an absolute master decorator, who got started working in an antique furniture shop as a teenager and learned from there.  

–He famously arrived in California with $100 in his pocket, and begged his first wealthy client to hire him.  He worked on referrals from there and never looked back.

–Martyn is known for his starring role as a designer to the stars on Million Dollar Decorators on Bravo and Hollywood Me in the UK.  Martyn has a permanent place on Elle Decor’s A-List, features in Architectural Digest’s top 100 designers and is considered on the top 25 designers by The Hollywood Reporter.  

–His style is over-the-top glamorous, and has been dubbed Hollywood-meets-ethnic-exotica by some.  

Read more about Martyn here.


Kelly Hoppen was only a teenager when she started her own interior design business and she went on to have an extremely successful design career in the UK.

Kelly was only sixteen when she was given the opportunity to design a family friend’s kitchen.  She later went on to have several celebrity clients, including David and Victoria Beckham. 

–Kelly has designed everything from homes to yachts and jets.  She has done many large-scale commercial projects internationally and has written nine books.

–She has been called the second most influential female interior designer in the UK by the Daily Telegraph and placed in 2012’s 100 Inspirational Women list by Vogue magazine. The Evening Standard newspaper included her in a 2017 list of London’s most influential people.

–These are just some of her accolades, which include many interior design awards.   She has also appeared on several major television shows.

Learn more about Kelly here.


Vicente Wolf arrived in the US a Cuban immigrant with a family construction business background and worked odd jobs, including being a model before becoming a photographer.  

He later worked in a design showroom and taught himself about design by observation and going to art galleries in New York in his free time.  

–Vicente wrote the book, ‘Learning to See’, an absolute gem.  

–Vicente was named one of the 10 most influential designers in America and he was inducted into the House Beautiful Hall of Fame, while Architectural Digest listed him in the top 100 designers.  

–Vicente says he learned through experience and “a lot of hard work”.

Read more about Vicente here.


So don’t let not having an education prevent you from getting started in interior design, if that is what you feel called to do.  You can do absolutely anything with the right mixture of determination, patience and hard work.

I have a feeling that it might have been the impetus these designers had to prove themselves without falling back on qualifications that gave them their drive.  

Keep in mind, though, that the best way to become a self-taught design professional is likely to go into business for yourself.

If you would rather have a regular job, this leads nicely into my fifth point.


You can work in the interior design industry without actually being a designer

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This is one angle that I don’t think many people think of, but it’s what I always thought I would do if I wanted to get into architecture. 

If, theoretically, I absolutely loved architecture (and I do!) and I didn’t have the opportunity to go to school for it (I so far have not) but I really wanted to work in the industry (not something I’m planning on at present), I think I’d be willing to do almost any type of job in an architectural studio or firm, in order just to be around architecture.

Think about it.  There are many jobs in an office which are not design, but which support design. 

You could learn one particular skill, like drafting, or you could focus on photography for architecture or interior design.  You could be an office manager or a purchaser for a design studio, be a personal assistant to a designer; even try writing on the topic.  The potential here is near limitless.

What ideas do you have for working in the industry without being an actual designer?  


Virtual interior designer

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As interior design has become more readily available to the average homeowner through online-based services, so has the market for new types of designers to fill the vacuum for more inexpensive services than what larger design firms typically provide.

Enter the virtual interior designer.  A designer you could become in a matter or days or weeks.

The story of virtual design is a new one.   Virtual design is quite literally the new kid on the block, and has only really been around since about 2010.

I credit interior design professional Windsor Smith with the concept of virtual design, even though it’s totally possible that the idea or an iteration of it existed somewhere online before that.

Windsor’s ‘Room in a Box’ was the first virtual design service that I personally ever heard of, and at the time I was just starting my studies in interior design.

I remember being really happy at the time to discover that there were new avenues for designers to work with online, and that it was a good option for starting a low overhead business.

Room in a box offered discounted distance design consulting.

-Clients provided measurements and photos of their space and were provided with a physical box which contained samples, plans and instructions on how to decorate and install the items
-It was more like correspondence design than true virtual design as we know it now

The ‘Room in a Box’ idea was taken up by several big design firms and keen online design practitioners, but was met with critically limited success.

Virtual interior design, like video conferencing apps, never really took hold of public imagination or became mainstream until a catalyst to technological advancement arose in 2020: the novel coronavirus.

In 2020, changed to bring the virtual interior design market to life.  The gamechanger for this new type of design service was the rise of online furniture sales.  


It has previously been thought that furniture was too bulky and heavy to do well at retailing online, and returns were challenging for retailers to deal with.  Naysayers said that people wanted to shop for furniture in the traditional ways, they wanted to sit on sofas and try them out physically before committing to buying large and expensive pieces.  

But new online furniture giants like Wayfair and the online handcraft market Etsy were proving this forecast wrong, and in 2020 they were poised to deliver products for the home at a time when everyone was forced to spend more time living, working and studying, in their homes. 

Suddenly everyone needed a better home office set up or more comfortable seating, and the only place to get it was online.   Online furniture sales rose by 300% in the next six months.


This is where the virtual designer comes in.  

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With a huge increase in the number of choices for home products, comes the tremendous amount of work it can be to sift through all the options

Even those who have a general sense of what they like often find it hard come up with a good, original as well as practical design scheme

Some people would like to do it themselves, but don’t have the time.


A virtual designer typically works through an online application which allows them to communicate with potential clients and handle all aspects of the designing process from a computer.  The entire process, end to end, is done online.

Virtual designers typically find clients online or through referrals

Virtual designer advertise their services on their own personal design websites

Virtual designers often advertise in a specific niche of design work, focusing on a certain style or type of client

Virtual designers use a questionnaire to ascertain the needs of the client and get the design brief

The client brief may include which retailers the client prefers to shop with and their budget range

The client chooses one of several packages offered by the designer and signs a service agreement contract which states conditions

The client provides the measurements and photos of the space and any furniture to be included in the final design


The virtual designer typically furnishes one or several conceptual mood boards, color, materials and finish boards, a keyed furniture placement plan and a furniture shopping list with links to retailers, sometimes making use of the designer’s trade discounts.

The client is able to approve or reject individual items and a certain number of revisions are covered by the designer-client agreement.

Finally, the client is responsible for purchasing products and installing the furnishings

The typical virtual interior design job takes 3 days.  Virtual designers can charge well for their services and can take on several clients at a time.


If you are interested in doing this type of design, look out for fresh content on the topic with useful information on how you can get started with virtual interior design and even run your own business.

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vonsassy

Designer, writer & educator living in East Asia since 2001

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