Peer to Peer: Practical Advice on Jumpstarting Your Interior Design Career from 4 IIDA Students of the Year

Whether you’re a recent graduate or career shifter, embarking on a new design career can be a daunting task. Polishing your resume and portfolio, asking meaningful questions during the interview, tackling the job search at multiple angles – we all know it’s hard work that takes time, patience, and confidence. But what exactly does that look like? We reached out to this year’s IIDA Career Bootcamp panelists — four IIDA Student of the Year recipients, including the 2018 Student of the Year — for their practical advice on what has helped them navigate their careers so far. Read on for part one of our interview.

Meet the Panelists

Tara Headley, Associate IIDA, is the 2015 IIDA Student of the Year and recipient of the inaugural award. She is an interior designer at Hendrick, Inc., currently specializing in corporate workplace environments. Tara was born and raised in Barbados and proudly represents her Caribbean heritage through her cooking skills and love of bright colors in her fashion choices. For Tara, designing is a privilege and a means to change the way we see the world.

Amy Leigh Hufford, Associate IIDA, is the 2016 IIDA Student of the Year and is a corporate workplace interior designer at NELSON’s Philadelphia office. When she isn’t working, she’s an active member of the IIDA Philadelphia City Center and PhilaU’s First Five alumni association.

Lindzey Duval, Student IIDA, is the 2017 IIDA Student of the Year and is working as an interior design coordinator at HDR in Chicago where she currently focuses on corporate and healthcare environments. Lindzey moved to Chicago in July of 2017 after completing her bachelor’s degree at Texas State University. She is a passionate designer who is dedicated to creating memorable, human-centered designs that have a positive and lasting impact.

Allison Brown, Student IIDA, is the 2018 IIDA Student of the Year and graduate of Utah State University. Allison’s dedication and eagerness to learn have helped her to graduate magna cum laude and become LEED Green Associate. She starts her career as a professional designer at the New York office of Perkins + Will in September.

Approaching the Interview

Tara: The most important thing to me is to be genuinely interested in the job. I know sometimes we need to take positions that aren’t our top picks, but if that’s the case, find something about the position or firm that you can get behind. If you can’t find anything, chances are you wouldn’t thrive there anyway and should maybe look elsewhere.

That said, if you can go into the interview with a sense of the company, it’s values and what they expect of you for your position, you are at an advantage to further the conversation beyond a typical interview. Definitely use this information to tailor your responses. One surefire way to show them that you’re the right candidate is to relate your portfolio/skills to how you can help the firm. For example, if you find out that the firm does renderings by hand and you have that skill, be sure to highlight that and mention how you can be an asset in that regard.

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Lindzey: Research information about the firm in advance of the interview. I’m not just talking about looking on their “About Us” page on their website. You can tell a lot about a firm from their graphics and how they showcase their work and themselves online. Find something that connects with your interests and have it in your back pocket to discuss during your interview. People can talk about themselves all day long in an interview, but a successful interview is when it turns into more of a conversation.

Amy: I’ve always felt that a good approach here is by tailoring your questions, conversation topics, and personal information (resume, portfolio, cover sheet) to that particular position at that company. That way you’ll be prepared before you arrive – there’s no need to only show an employer at a hospitality firm only hospitality-based projects, you can show them a breadth of work that you feel can drive a conversation about your varied skills that would make you an asset to that employer, doing that type of work.

Networking When You’re An Introvert

Allison: I think going with a friend or coworker or student can really alleviate the stress and nervousness of attending a networking event. Then, you know someone there and you can branch out little by little and network with other people at the event. I would agree that it’s scary, but you’ve just got to do it because it’s so important for your future! 

Amy: I personally feel like introversion and shyness are two different things, and you can tackle them both in specific ways. I’m an introvert, but I’m not shy. I feel that introverts are typically people who, by choice, spend a lot of time alone and don’t reveal a lot about themselves to others. Shy individuals are often uncertain of how to start conversations and sometimes keep them going once they’ve begun out of nervousness! For both, I’d suggest starting out by attending more “intimate” events. For example, in Philadelphia, we have events that draw crowds of nearly 300 and events with only 10 people. I think starting small helps to make connections and relationships, so at larger events you already know some people to talk to. General advice for introverts might be to come up with some talking points before attending events, so if the conversation begins to run out, you have a follow-up. “Have you read any good books lately?” is just an example and people often run with it.

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Lindzey: I have come to realize that many people in our industry are more introverted like myself, which may seem surprising because it is a very social industry. I found it easy to just start with a few people. Find people that have similar interests and that you enjoy being around. Then start branching out to meet more people to expand your network. There is no rush to know everyone. Developing your network connections is just as important has growing it.

Tara: As an introvert, I relate to this on a personal level. Introversion is only a setback if you let it be. I get mentally drained by being in social settings, meeting people, etc., which is true for most introverts. But what you need to tell yourself is that networking is for the betterment of your career. I started out by forcing myself to attend as many events as possible. I found that once I got over that initial hurdle, it became easier as time went on. The more you go, the more connections you make. And the industry is one where you can make friends and acquaintances easily. By the fourth or fifth time, you will walk into a room and know at least one other person you’ve met before. Volunteering at organizations like IIDA is also a great way to give back as well as meet people in a more casual way.

Cultivating Your Brand

Lindzey: Branding yourself on paper is a challenge! Our resumes and portfolios are the most important tangible items that we have to showcase ourselves and our work. Something I like to keep in the back of my head is less is more. Over branding yourself from a visualization perspective can be distracting to someone who is looking at your work. It is okay to have a little fun and embed your personality, though! Just be careful not to overdo it.

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Amy: I recently had a conversation with some professionals with 15+ years of experience that are also in a position to hire. They were saying they feel that students straight out of school brand themselves too much, which I thought was fascinating! A simple resume with a small touch of personality, as well as a matching portfolio and cover letter, are plenty. Photos on resumes and cover letters were discouraged, as well as a large amount of color and script fonts.

Tara: I feel like good graphic design goes hand in hand with what we do as interior designers. Understanding placement, alignment, and hierarchy is important in any presentation, and this is what I look for in a good portfolio package. A common element that ties the portfolio, resume, cover letter, and business card together is key, but what is also of equal importance is to not get carried away with creating a cool design that ends up taking away from your actual work. Keeping things simple is always good. Allow your work to take center stage instead of any bold graphics.


Stay tuned for part two of our interview coming soon. For more resources on starting your interior design career, visit the IIDA Career Bootcamp page.

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