The 10 Commandments of Interior Design

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13 minute read

Forget the rule of thirds and the color wheel for a bit. Ever wondered what goes into the actual job of interior design and what that process looks like from start to finish?


The Interior Design Process

You are about to read the “Ten Commandments of Interior Design“.

Think of it as part process, part “law“, or at the very least, interior design industry convention.

These represent the “Unbreakable” Rules of Interior Design Projects.

Pretty much all trained interior designers are taught to follow this general process.

Why?

It’s tried and proven and it works.


An Introduction to Interior Design Project Management

Included below are the all major steps in running an interior design project, from getting you prepared to take on an interior design project, all the way up through starting and running one.


Please note that although we briefly touch on some of the laws related to interior design, by no means should this be seen as legal advice. Please check for yourself to make sure you cover your practice’s requirements.



two woman in black sits on chair near table

In truth, each step on this list represents a topic which could easily be a whole study subject on it’s own.

Think of this as the condensed version.


How to Run an Interior Design Project from Start to Finish

What you will get from this article is a sense of how education, process, real world building sites and interior design clients all factor in.

This is essentially the bare basics of what an interior designer does over the course of a project.

An interesting aspect to this ‘bird’s eye view’ of interior design process is that it reflects all the different “hats” a designer must wear (at least in the standard profession!)


Bear in mind that in large firms these different ‘roles’ may be filled by different people, and sometimes even whole departments!


The 10 Commandments of Interior Design

  1. You Will Get Qualified
  2. You Will Find Clients
  3. You Will Listen to Your Clients
  4. You Will Conduct Site Visits
  5. You Will Create a Concept
  6. You Will Continue to Refine Your Concept
  7. You Will Pitch Your Design
  8. You Will Find Products
  9. You Will Hire Construction Professionals
  10. You Will Manage the Entire Process from Start to Finish

1. You Will Get Qualified

man using ballpoint pen

The first point to get out of the way is that as an interior designer you should be licensed and qualified to do you do.


Residential Sector

If you are residential decorator, you might want to simply register your business.

If you a residential interior designer, you needs may be as simple as a resale license for selling home goods and furniture, or you might need proof of training.

This depends on your local laws.


Professional Associations

Many designers in this sector in the United States choose professional membership association with NKBA (The National Kitchen & Bath Association), after which they may use the intitials CKBD (Certified Kitchen and Bath Designer).

There are educational qualification standards to be met, as well as testing and operating protocols for membership with these associations.


oval mirror near toilet bowl

Commercial Sector

In the commercial sector you will need to meet educational qualification requirements (usually a three-year undergraduate degree and sometimes passing a licensing exam like that of the NCIDQ (National Society for Interior Design Qualification).

At the more competitive national and international firms, association with ASID (the American Society of Interior Designers) is preferred.

In the UK the major association to know for interior designers is SBID (the Society for British Interior Designers).


Corporate Interior Design Firms

In some large, architectural-type firms new designers work their way up the ladder from intern or assistant to junior designer, through intermediate and on to lead designer and eventually even department head.

International projects are more demanding and require adherence to international law as well as local laws.


Sole Proprietorship

As a sole proprietor you will need to be qualified or hire qualified people.

This commandment also covers building permits required for projects.

Yes, you have to have your plans approved by your town council in many cases when you are doing renovation work or making changes to structure.


2. You Will Find Clients – Prospecting

a woman and man talking together

Clients are Your Bread and Butter

In order to stay in the black financially, you’ve got to keep those clients coming though the door.

Case Study: Karin Bohn

For talented business owners like Karin Bohn, this business outreach or client prospecting is done primarily by the business owner herself.

Karin Bohn is an award winning design professional with a very successful interior design practice in ‘design-mecca‘ city Vancouver, Canada).

She is always working to promote her brand, House of Bohn, and stay noticed in the business landscape.

Besides running a busy design firm she frequently speaks at events and also runs her own media company and YouTube channel. Karin Bohn also starred in Canadian Netflix series, “Restaurants on the Edge

From watching the many ups and downs of Karin’s days owning a highly successful design office on YouTube, it was easy to conclude that the days were mostly up.

However, Karin has not simply stumbled upon her success. She has most assuredly worked for it.


Playing the Long Game

It’s not uncommon for clients who finally start a project with a firm to have been “in talks” or negotiations with that design firm from anywhere from six months to two years prior.

Depending on company practice sometimes a certain portion of the payment for a project doesn’t finalize until after it’s completed


3. You Will Listen to Your Clients – Discovery, Programming, Brief

photo of people talking to each other

Discovery

If you were one of those kids whose mom complained that you functioned as though instructions went ‘through one ear and out the other‘, you might want to reconsider becoming an interior designer.


The Client’s Wishes, Not Yours

You can follow your own creative vision as a designer when it’s your own project, but you’ll also be footing all the bills.

When you’re doing it for a client, the success of the project depends very much on you delivering what the client has asked for.


Programming

man and woman having discussion

Discovery

We discover what the client wants, (also known as the parameters of the design) in what some graphic designers call a “discovery session“.

In interior design this is known as the “programming” phase.


We are taking in any data about the project from a variety of sources, almost all of which are provided by the client.

This includes existing plans, blueprints and measurements as well as any existing information or reports related to the prospective project property.


The Design Questionnaire

Usually there is an interview with the client during which they may answer questions on a questionnaire.

A design questionnaire is specially developed by the interior designer for their business and may be unique to their process of working with clients


Brief

Once the designer compiles all the data, he will write the project brief, outlining, a) what the client asked for, b) what data from the project shows, and c) whether the project is feasible or not.

Sometimes a feasibility study based on precedents will be used.


4. You Will Conduct Site Visits – Site Survey

architecture building construction daylight

Before you think you know this one, there is more than one type of site visit in interior design practice!

In fact, there are four types: a) the initial site survey, b) the ‘architectural’ site survey, c) project management progression checks, and d) final walk-through.

At the very end, the finished project is handed over to the client.


a. Initial Site Survey

The first survey is usually done before accepting any payment as a way of vetting the feasibility of a project, and even before agreeing to anything. This is a sound business practice.

In the case of finding a structurally unsound building envelope, a fire hazard or a severe case of building rot (don’t ask!), it would be wise for an interior designer to decline proceeding any further with the project.


b. ‘Architectural‘ Site Survey

This type of site survey is used by the professional interior designer to gather material, calculative, and de facto data.

For this the designer will need detailed records and measurements (this sometimes includes quantity surveillance).


Measuring Tools and Methods

close up photo of a diagram with drawing compass

Measuring can be done a number of ways, using various implements (such as tape or laser measures and measuring rods) as well as new technologies, like apps which can calculate measurements in photos.

It’s best to use more than one method and to double check.

Small mistakes in this phase could prove costly later!


Creating Existing Plans

After compiling the measurement data, up-to-date and accurate plans for the building or premises can be drawn up.

The designer will need to study these “state of the site” plans carefully when working through the conceptual and schematic phases.

Then, when the time to produce the new construction documents comes, the plans will be modified to reflect the new design.


floor plan hanging on whiteboard

c. Project Progression Site Visits

If you thought you were finished with site surveys after photographing and measuring everything, you aren’t!

You will need to conduct regular site visits throughout the course of the project, especially at pivotal or key phases where you may need to check progress, quality of the work, and troubleshoot problems that arise.

This is part of project management.


Even when you aren’t physically at the site, you will need to stay in regular contact with the the construction foreman you have hired to do the construction.

This is true for any other trades professionals who work on the project as well.


d. Final Walk-Through and Handover to Client

You guessed it! When the work is finally done you will have to sign off on it and pay your contractor.

You will likely make a special event of handing the finished design over to your client!

You may also want to have a photographer come along for finished shots of the newly staged home for your portfolio and any media outreach you do.


5. You Will Create a Concept – Conceptual Design

silver imac on top of brown wooden table

With the initial programming phase and the client brief out of the way, you and your client should now be on the same page about the creative direction for the project.

It’s time to get more creative!


Conceptual is All About Ideas

In the conceptual design phase you will work with some standard concepts and tools which help you to come up with the best proposal for your client.

This proposal will consider all aspects of the needs of the project when looking for design solutions.

However, at this point the actual ‘design’ is still fairly open-ended, and all of the details have not yet been decided.


It is unwise to get into too much detail too early, as you will still need your clients input before proceeding with drawing up official plans, such as construction documents.


Mock Ups and Diagrams

In this phase you may use adjacency studies and bubble diagrams for space planning ideas, mood boards and sketches for the visual and aesthetic concepts.

You might also compile material, color and even furniture boards.

It’s not uncommon for early iterations of concepts to include several options for the client, who may request changes.


6. You Will Continue to Refine Your Concept – Schematic Design

renovation in light room with wooden laminate

Iteration

Wouldn’t it be great if we could just create one perfect conceptual package and then call it a day?

I’m about to introduce you to a word that almost all designers know all too well: Iteration. This is also known as revision or amendments to the plan.

But don’t worry.

Actually, this is all a part of the plan, believe it or not.

It is an expected part of the design process and ultimately it helps to produce the best possible design.


Reasons for Iteration

time for change sign with led light

Design Development

There are many reasons to revise or change the plan.

Sometimes the client realizes they don’t like a certain feature or a piece of furniture.

Sometimes designers make small mistakes.

Many times, specific products will be out of stock with suppliers or there are expected delays with orders and delivery.


Design Evolution

Every time a designer does another version of the design to reflect a new change, this is called an iteration.

The latest iteration of any design is the newest version of it.

Think of it as the evolution of the design.


7. You Will Pitch Your Design – Design Proposal and Presentation

man in sweatshirt in front of people

Proposal

Your design is only so good as your proposal.

You put together the best of your data and analyze it. You take the brief and work from there with creative ideas until you are able to come up with your vision of a solution.

It’s time to pitch it.


Presentation

You need to sell your ideas, explain why your solution is the right one.

You will need good conceptual imagery from rendered 3D models.

It needs to be backed by solid evidence and statistics.

You will need to explain your rationale; your why.

Once the client has been sold on your proposal, it comes down to the next phase: The planning and execution of the project.


8. You Will Find Products – Sourcing

man and woman in furniture shop

Once the client approves your idea, it’s time to start ordering some products. Anything necessary to the design (generally bought by you on behalf of the client) needs to be dealt with.


Furniture, Finishes and Fittings Schedules

For this you will create furniture schedules and use specification software for logging, tracking and installing what is known in the industry as FFE, or fittings (i.e.: light fixtures, furniture (i.e.: reception counter) and equipment (central air conditioning).

Everything in the interior needs to be accounted for and planned for by you, including the adaptive reuse or riddance of existing furniture.


Furniture schedules are not limited to stock keeping. They are also form part of the final package presented to clients, who will need to sign off on each selection, in a process known as specification.

It is not uncommon for full plans of FFE items to be kept alongside product description sheets for each item which bear information about all relative material and safety data.

In other words, you need to fully research each product you recommend to your client, as well as guarantee it’s successful purchase, delivery and installation.


9. You Will Hire Construction Professionals – Plans, Bidding

man polishing the ceiling

Hiring Construction Professionals

You know you want to. Hire a professional. After all, they actually know what they’re doing.

All jokes aside, this is an integral part of the interior design process, and one that needs to be handled and managed with finesse.

We are talking about the relationship between design firm and their chosen construction company.


Make Friends with a Licensed Structural Engineer

When it comes to any remodeling and resconstruction of the interior, you should make sure you err on the side of caution.

When doing your feasibility study, if any interior (partition) walls needed to be demolished it would be up to you to consult with a structural engineer.


Vet Your Sub-Contractors

The reason for this is that you need to be sure that you are not causing structural damage, or indeed, making any changes to the structure of the building.

Do your best to avoid all liability and maintain industry safe practice conventions.

Make sure that the professional trades persons are licensed to do their jobs (i.e.: electricians, plumbers or carpenters, and that they stand behind their work.


Give Credit

Working with quality construction professionals makes an interior designer’s job easier and guarantees a better outcome for their project.

The better the outcome of your project, the more your workforce should also be properly credited for their work.


10. You Will Manage the Entire Process from Start to Finish – Project management

man people crowd music
Photo by AfroRomanzo on Pexels.com

Design as a Symphony

I think of the role of the interior designer as that of a conductor on an orchestra podium, conducting a piece of music.

If the conductor is also the composer, even more convincing!


Orchestrating the Magic

An interior designer understands every part of the final arrangement in isolation. They also understand how to make it all come together.

Remember the interior designer is the one to research the data and compile that data into meaningful insights.

From there the designer sparks a creative vision based upon the data.

It is later orchestrated and implemented by the designer.


Designers Plan for Success

The final outcome is both planned for as well as realized by the designer.

Success for a designer is a) conceptualizing the perfect plan and b) executing perfectly on that plan.


The interior designer will draw on many resources and professionals in executing the average project.

Thus, the result of an interior design project is always thanks to a lot of teamwork effort.


Sound like magic?

It’s as close as it gets.


upholstered bed near cabinet

This is by no means the end of the story. If you are interested in knowing more about project management or professional standards for interior design check out this great resource from Northern Arizona University.

Thanks for reading “The 10 Commandments of Interior Design“. If you enjoyed this, you might want to check out another Design Baddie classic:

Happy Designing and Design Project Management!

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vonsassy

Designer, writer & educator living in East Asia since 2001

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