Ready to start taking your passion for interior design to another level? An interior design business allows you to combine your creativity with business skills to design functional spaces for a wide variety of clients, and of course make a living doing what you love.
Working for yourself means you’ll be able to set your own hours and work on projects that are most meaningful to you.
So, how do you get started?
In this guide, we’ll go over everything you need to know when starting your own interior design business. Read on to find advice from professionals, understand which qualifications you’ll need, how to find clients, build relationships and establish yourself in the industry.
What does an interior designer and decorator do?
An interior designer is responsible for designing a space and meeting the needs of their client. The main tasks of an interior designer include:
- Determining design objectives
- Researching requirements and working with teams
- Formulating design concepts in line with the client’s vision
- Creating plans to communicate design concepts
- Specifying materials and equipment to be used
- Supervising the construction process
They can also collaborate with architects and builders on larger projects and are responsible for making sure the project remains within the stated budget and timeline.
An understanding of design style is incredibly important, especially considering interior designers work with clients who have very different style preferences.
An interior designer has a naturally good eye for aesthetics. They can look at a space and visualise how the components of colour, patterns, materials and lighting can come together.
In addition to a sense of style, another important skill interior designers need is the ability to communicate and listen well. They must be able to translate a client’s desires to other teams working on the project to create a beautiful design that is both functional and in line with the client’s vision.
“[Interior design] requires a wide skill set… exceptional listening ability, communication, salesmanship and organisational skills. The very best design will never leave the paper it has been created upon if it does not meet the client brief or cannot be successfully pitched," says Andrew Loader, Residential and Boutique Designer.
"Similarly, exceptional communication, not only with the client but with all of the stakeholders involved in delivering a project is essential to a successful project and the design truly coming to life.”
How exactly do you become an interior decorator, designer and/or stylist?
It takes more than just creativity to start your own interior design business. You’ll need formal education and training, as well as strong business and marketing skills.
1. Become qualified
Certifications and qualifications not only teach you the skills you need to be a successful designer, they add credibility to your name and business. These days, they can give you an edge over your competitors.
There are many courses available to help you gain additional training and knowledge in interior design.
Every level of qualification opens new doors for aspiring interior designers so it’s worth determining which one will work for you. Let’s take a look at these courses more closely:
The Diploma of Interior Design and Decoration is a comprehensive, nationally recognised course that covers all areas of interior design, from the fundamentals of design and working with clients to understanding briefs and working with suppliers to source materials. It'll teach you the technical, creative and conceptual skills you’ll need to succeed and prepare you for working in the industry. It's a nationally recognised qualification that can make a huge difference to your designer credentials.
The Certificate IV in Interior Decoration will teach you the theory behind interior design as well as the practical skills to establish a successful career in the industry. You’ll learn about colour theory and how to use furnishings and patterns to decorate spaces. You’ll also learn about all the administrative and legal requirements of running your own interior design consultancy. This is a great pathway towards more advanced courses like the Diploma of Interior Design and Decoration.
Open Colleges Interior Design Basics is a short course that will help you master the art of transforming a room through colours, textures, designs and lighting to create a professionally polished space in your own home. This is a perfect introduction to interior design that will help you understand what it's like to have a career in the industry.
Open Colleges Introduction to Interior Design Certificate provides you with an introduction to the principles of interior design and the influence of architectural and decorative styles. You might consider this course if you’re a beginner, or perhaps need to fill gaps in your knowledge.
The interior design landscape is ever-changing so it's important to keep your skills and qualifications up to date.
2. Gain experience
Once you have the qualifications, it’s time to get the experience! Some interior design courses will provide you with the opportunity to create an extensive portfolio that you can present to your clients right away.
But if you don’t have a portfolio, the easiest place to start is your own living space. Choose a section in your own home that best showcases your skill in pairing colours, textures and lighting. Take professional photos and use them to build your portfolio.
You can also reach out to your network – this could be friends, family or colleagues and let them know that you are looking for work experience. Extend your services to the local community; reach out to restaurants, hair salons, cafes or local charities.
You may even know someone who is having a wedding or other special event, so you can offer your services there too. There are plenty of opportunities available if you know where to look.
“Find an area of design that inspires you and research it. Find a designer or company whose work you admire and research the practice. If feasible, approach them for work experience. The industry is very buoyant at the moment; so many companies are looking for help”, says high-end residential specialist, Brett Mickan.
“This is an image-based industry, so a well-presented, enthusiastic prospect that presents themselves armed with a knowledge of your practice can go a long way,” he adds.
You might have to do pro bono work at first so that you have samples to add to your portfolio, but this will be invaluable for building your reputation as an interior designer and one of the best ways to grow your network.
The biggest piece of advice, however, is to get professional photos taken either by a photographer or with your own high-quality camera equipment.
Remember, you’re offering a professional (maybe even premium) service that relies heavily on the value of aesthetics so while it may be tempting to cut costs, amateur phone pictures just aren’t going to cut it!
3. Register for an Australian Business Number (ABN)
An ABN is used for taxation purposes as well as to identify your business in documentation. Despite how it sounds, registering for an ABN is a relatively painless process.
Every business in Australia requires an ABN, even if you just want to work on your own without hiring any employees (this is known as a sole trader). You can read more about registering an ABN here.
4. Establish a portfolio and create a website for your services
Now that you have samples of your work, it’s time to showcase them in a beautiful portfolio.
It is difficult, if not, impossible to get well-paid, ongoing work without a portfolio of samples for clients to look over. So, make it a priority to establish a professional portfolio and aim to have at least five high quality, professional photos to showcase your work.
In addition to your portfolio (which might be part of your website), it’s important to create a website designed specifically to sell your services. Your website needs to have your contact information, work samples, an ‘About Us’ section, FAQs and Terms & Conditions.
You'll have to register a domain (this will be your URL) and then direct it to your website.
You can easily create your website using sites like Squarespace, Google Sites, Wix, Weebly and more – the list of drag and drop builders is growing. You can check out this comprehensive list of website builders (some of which are free) and find what works best for you.
If you’re looking for something a little more advanced, you can sign up with WordPress and get a web designer to create something that’s tailored for you (or if you’re a WordPress whiz you can do it yourself!)
5. Find clients and build relationships
One of the biggest challenges in managing your own business is finding clients. Client acquisition is an ongoing process that’s all part and parcel of having your own business, and the most effective way to do it is to build relationships.
“Be confident and let people know what you're doing. The best opportunities come from networking and sharing your dream with people who will listen!” says Carroll.
So engage with people in your community, find a mentor and start networking.
“These days, the online world plays a much bigger part so having a digital footprint is essential. That means a great website, an easy way for people to search for you and contact you online, using social media to engage with potential customers and market yourself, and reading blogs to keep an eye on what the rest of the interiors world is doing,” says Jen Bishop, from Interiors Addict.
You can use your website as the portal to your business by sharing your website URL with your network. Add it to your Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram profiles.
If you enjoy writing, consider starting a blog about interior design and share some tips, advice and pictures that you find inspirational.
You can also become a guest contributor to interior design blogs or news websites to build your brand and spread the word about your business.
Become an expert and share your knowledge with the world. You might not think of yourself as an expert, but you'll be surprised at how much more you know about basic decorating compared with the average person!
6. Specialise in a chosen area
While this is not a compulsory step, specialising or developing a niche can help you stand out from the competition. Perhaps you enjoy café interior design, you might consider marketing yourself as a “café interior designer”.
“I think it’s worth finding your style and sticking to it. I’d rather have a niche clientele and business, and be great at that, rather than trying to be everything to everyone,” says Mel Hartwright, founder of Melinda Hartwright Interiors.
Specialising doesn’t have to mean only being a certain type of designer, it can simply be an area where you have more experience than other interior designers.
It’s also a great way to market yourself online, where the landscape is more competitive.
“Carve your own path, don't copy others or worry about trends, your style might be the next big thing but you'll never know if you're busy doing what everyone else is doing,” recommends The Block judge, Darren Palmer.
Think about the work you most enjoy, are you in your element when designing the interiors of an open plan office? If so, you can approach companies with your specialised experience and have a better chance at gaining them as a client than someone who has never designed an office space.
7. Organise your finances
Running a business means taking charge of your finances, which can often feel like the most confusing (and least fun) aspect of starting an interior design business.
But if you get it right from the start, this will mean fewer headaches later on. Your first priority will be to decide on your fees or how much you'll charge for your projects. This is something that will change over time as you gain experience. It’s a good idea to talk to someone within your industry to find out what is an acceptable rate.
You also want to be sure you’re getting paid on time, so you must have an invoicing process in place before you begin projects.
An invoice is simply a document you send to your client detailing the project and costs.
Invoicing has been made easier for small business owners with new tools like FreshBooks, Invoicera, Invoice2Go and many others. Alternatively, you can create your own invoices and keep track of your finances on a spreadsheet.
Need a mentor, or someone to model your career on? Check out our entire series of interviews with Australia’s leading interior designers and learn more about what it’s like to work in this thriving industry.
We hope this guide has made it easier for you to start turning your business dream into a reality. It might seem daunting, but the effort is definitely worth the reward of working for yourself and building a promising future in a growing industry.