How to break into the design industry

We speak to our Co-Founder, Sharon Lillywhite, on her top ten tips for how to break into the design industry and what it takes to be an Interior Designer working at the very top end of the super-prime market today.

Tip #1: Get your qualifications

There are multiple routes into interior design, but as it’s such a competitive industry you need to get qualified. Our team have a mix of qualifications, from Masters and BA’s through to Diplomas from a variety of universities. While relevant fields like architecture or design are preferred, don’t be discouraged if your academic background is in something else. Consider taking some design-related courses like fine art, art and design, colour theory or computer-aided design to expand your knowledge and build your confidence.

If university isn’t for you or you are thinking of a career change then an intensive, shorter qualification like the KLC Diploma is a strong option, as are courses at Chelsea College of Arts and Inchbald; all of which offer distance learning courses. To build skills such as technical drawing, Photoshop or AutoCAD you can do short specialist courses – being proficient in AutoCAD is essential.

Tip #2: What type of designer do you want to be?

What do you want to design? Yachts and jets perhaps, or is it penthouses and country estates? Maybe it’s hotels or offices. Even though there is much overlap, particularly in luxury interior design, you need to ask yourself this question before you apply to a studio. If in doubt, intern in more than one place so that you get experience of different types of design to enable you to follow your desired path. Internships provide invaluable experience for your CV as they allow you to trial out different jobs, fields and studios before working out what is the best fit for you long term.

A moodboard created by one of our interior design team. Image via Oliver Burns Studio

Tip #3: Stand out from the crowd

The industry is very competitive. When sending your CV, ask yourself, how is this going to stand out from the hundreds of letters and portfolios we receive – think creatively and come up with something different to grab our attention. Some of the best we’ve seen have been video intro’s, boxed and illustrated CV’s, and handcrafted sketches to name but a few. If you want a job in the creative industry – get creative and showcase your skills! Have a print and online portfolio, and include your social media handles on your CV. You can find out a lot about a designer from their Instagram account!

Another way to stand out is to think about what you are particularly passionate about. Whether it is sustainability or the link between fashion and interior design, immerse yourself in your area of interest and become an expert on that topic.

Tip #4: Understand the job

Understand that the job of a designer is multi-faceted – you can specialise for example in FF&E (Furniture, Fixtures and Equipment) or decide you want to be a CAD (Computer Aided Design) technician, however at Oliver Burns we like our team to be able to do everything, from sketching through to AutoCAD to using InDesign.  You will be required to manage budgets and also run projects, so don’t underestimate how much of your time will be spent on the aspects of project management that are required to deliver your designs. Julie, one of our Senior Interior Designers, says: “At least 60% of my time is spent on client care, project management and delivery vs the creative elements of my role. You may enjoy one more than the other, but you need to embrace all of them to thrive in your career.”

A selection of leather samples in our studio library. Image via Oliver Burns Studio

Tip #5: Get work experience

Whether choosing a course that is structured to help provide a work placement or getting out there yourself doing a series of internships, nothing beats actual experience and it all helps to build your portfolio. It will help you understand what the job actually entails and the different types of studios out there – from commercial interiors and specialist studios through to the top end of the residential market like us. Technical skills are equal to creativity, but they are gained from experience which helps make the design process more fluid as you grow as a designer.

Get hands on – be prepared to do everything and never underestimate what are seen as menial tasks as you will always learn something from it. From ironing the sheets at a photoshoot to unpacking boxes at an installation, the on-the-job experience is invaluable.  One of our interior designers explains the benefit: “when I was a junior, I was always given the task to tidy the sample library. Although tidying books seems tedious, I spoke to suppliers and the Senior Designers to familiarise myself with different brands and what they had to offer in terms of quality, style and pricing which really built my confidence and knowledge.”

Smythson stationary with 'Thoughtful Luxury' embossing. Image via Oliver Burns Studio.

Tip #6: Client Care is crucial

Everyone wants and deserves great service, but nowhere more so than at the top end of the market. Our clients expect the highest standards in every area of their lives, and these standards are reflected in the exceptional level of service our team delivers. Balancing the demands of a challenging project whilst managing the expectations of your client is crucial. You must be thoughtful to work with; respectful, accommodating and discreet, as well as managing any issues swiftly and efficiently.

Luxury wall coverings at de Gournay's London showroom. Image via Oliver Burns Studio.

Tip #7: Be well read, network and keep up to date

As it’s such an evolving industry, being open to learning new things and meeting new people is key. For example, new manufacturing techniques, new fabric styles, and keeping up with new trends. Follow your favourite designers online, keep up to date with design and fashion magazines and blogs and visit Chelsea Harbour/suppliers at least every season. One of the benefits of this post-Covid world is there is greater accessibility to resources than ever before. Whilst travel has temporarily been off the cards, many exhibitions like Decorex and London Craft Week have hosted interactive and engaging digital programmes instead. Zoom and Microsoft Teams are also great tools to network virtually and participate in the design community.

You’ll also hear us talking about having a good “eye”, which is all about having a keen attention to detail. Developing and honing your eye for design is a crucial part of becoming a great interior designer and developing your own unique sense of style. Pay attention to the world around you and start to think critically about the designs and architecture you see. Look to your surroundings for inspiration, from museums and art galleries to clothing shops. Start to develop strong ideas about what kind of design – contemporary, classic, minimalist, maximalist – you’re naturally drawn to.

Staying up to date on LinkedIn. Image via Time Out Dubai.

Tip #8: Get to know recruitment consultants

As your career starts to fly make sure you get to know the recruiters for your industry or specialism. Unless someone approaches us directly, for senior appointments we almost always use specialist recruiters in luxury design and property to ensure we are only seeing the very best candidates.

Another tip is to follow the design studios you would love to work for on LinkedIn, as this will often be the first place they advertise any new opportunities. Set up job alerts so you are first to receive a notification when they are recruiting.

Oliver Burns Studio team hard at work on site. Image via Oliver Burns Studio.

Tip #9: Personality

Everyone that works at Oliver Burns is passionate about Thoughtful Luxury. We want designers that have a positive, can-do approach, that can work well in a team and lead by example. We are looking for something that stands out, a personality that will add to the creative environment in the studio. You also need to be prepared to take a risk and work hard. A rare find for us are designers who are not only talented creatively but that are great with clients, are able to lead a team and are also commercially aware.

Since interior designers are in charge of a design project from start to finish, its important they have excellent project and people management skills to stay organised, hit deadlines, communicate with clients, suppliers and contractors and ensure a smooth running of the project.

A sketch of the entrance table in our Belgravia Townhouse entrance hall. Image via Oliver Burns Studio.

Tip #10: Believe in yourself

Believe in yourself and persevere! It can be a tough industry to get in to but if you are passionate, show initiative and love what you do you will get there!