By Jan Bast
Less than a generation ago, lifelong careers and "gold watch" retirements were the norm; once embarked on a career, you were there for life. Times have certainly changed; 20-year-olds entering the workforce today are predicted to switch jobs at least nine times. As an educator at Design Institute of San Diego, I know that there are many people wanting to follow their lifelong dreams of becoming an interior designer. Several of International Interior Design Association's (IIDA) "Ten to Watch" include emerging professionals who turned to interior design later in their professional lives. One of those is a former student of mine, Viveca Bissonnette, who appears on the cover of this month's Interiors & Sources. My niece, Beth Jay, who decided to return to school for her interior design degree after 16 years in a different career, is another example of a second-career professional.
Whether embarking on an interior design career at 20-something, or as a second or third career at 40-something, it's hard to ignore the plethora of television shows that exhibit interior design as a quick-fix, stage-set solution to a homeowner's dilemma. Graduates of accredited interior design programs know that good design does not typically happen overnight. I spoke with Bissonnette and Jay because I wanted to learn more about their encounter with career transitions and what they thought about the public's perception of interior design.
Bissonnette had felt unfulfilled in her previous career for a number of years and had entertained several other avenues, including law school, but nothing clicked. She recounts, "one evening, my husband and I were discussing my professional future and he blurted out, 'You should become an interior designer; you live and breathe design.' And I thought (about) what that really meant in terms of education and licensing requirements. Even though I had grown up surrounded by design—with an architect father and an urban planner mother—interior design had never been presented to me as a career option." Bissonnette said the idea sparked her interest, so she began to research the profession and immediately became intrigued with the opportunities interior design provided.
Jay, who was a dental assistant for 16 years, had an interest in interior design for a long time. When she was 36 she told me, "I always wanted to be an interior designer, but if I go back to school now, I'll be 40 when I graduate." I told her that she would be 40 anyway—wouldn't she rather be 40 with a degree doing something she enjoys? Happily, she chose to turn 40 with a Bachelor of Arts in Interior Design.
After researching multiple interior design curriculums, Jay and Bissonnette both determined that a program accredited by the Council for Interior Design Accreditation (formerly FIDER) was for them. Bissonnette states, "As I became more educated about the profession it became clear that Council accreditation was a must when it came to selecting a school." Jay, who attended Kent State University in Ohio, adds, "Council accreditation made a difference in selecting which college I would choose. I heard from several people that KSU had a very challenging program and I experienced that first-hand."
Having worked in the corporate world for more than 10 years, Bissonnette understood the value of work experience and was elated to know that an internship was required as part of Design Institute's program. After researching firms in San Diego, she pursued an internship at Carrier Johnson. "I was fortunate and was accepted into their internship program. Upon completion of the required 135 hours, I was offered a part-time, paid position during my last year of school, which turned into a full-time position upon graduation. After four years, I am still excited to be associated with such a wonderful firm."
Jay worked part time at an office furniture dealership while attending school. She was hired full time when she graduated and adds, "my experience has been positive and I have learned many different aspects of commercial design. I have worked with a total of six designers; two of the six were National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) certificate holders."
Upon graduation, one of Jay and Bissonnette's goals was to pass the NCIDQ exam in addition to gaining appropriate interior design experience. Bissonnette recently passed and Jay is preparing to take the exam. Bissonnette recounted, "It was a little daunting to prepare for the exam. I put an incredible amount of time and assets toward taking the test. However, it was worth it and it felt great to achieve the goal I established for myself."
"I think networks like HGTV have been both good and bad for the interior design profession," says Bissonnette. "On the one hand it has given the profession incredible exposure. However, like most reality TV shows, they hardly represent real life. Most of what is represented on do-it-yourself design shows is superficial and definitely leans toward the interior decorating side. The general public still perceives interior designers as decorators. This is definitely a perception we need to break."
Jay voiced similar frustration over people questioning her profession. "I have had many people ask me, 'You went to college for four years to be a decorator?' I find this frustrating. I take my career very seriously and often feel we are not valued for our education and experience." She continues, "I live in Ohio, where designers are not licensed by the state, which I think leads to our profession not being respected. I think all states should require professional licensure—it would be a positive step for our profession." Indeed, and to the public which our profession serves.
Bissonnette shares similar sentiments. "Interior designers need to focus on strengthening our profession as well as continuing to educate ourselves. Legitimate interior designers are highly educated and should not have to compete with those who in many states can pass themselves off as such (without education or examination). Legislation throughout the United States and Canada should be our highest priority."
Returning to school full time to pursue a passion is not to be taken lightly. However, Jay and Bissonnette both told me that their spouses were their greatest supporters. Surrounding yourself with people who support your pursuit of a lifelong (or recent) dream, and help make that path plausible, is key to achieving a career transition.
Going For It
When I asked Bissonnette what advice she would give to people wanting to pursue interior design today, she enthusiastically responded, "Find what you are passionate about and then go for it. If you don't have passion for what you do, get out. It's never too late to make a life change like that. Find the best program and put your heart and soul into it. That goes for any profession." Jay added, "Research the field and talk to professional designers. Interior design is more than selecting carpet and wall covering … you are responsible for adhering to codes and maintaining a safe and healthy environment."
Earning a gold watch upon retirement is seemingly not on either of their radar screens. Perhaps Bissonnette's forward- looking, in-the-present attitude best sums up pursuing one's passion. "I attribute a lot of my success to taking risks. You don't get anything in life sitting on the sidelines and I don't have any time to waste. I'm elated I found the interior design profession fairly early in my professional life and look forward to many more years in the field."
Jan Bast is president-elect of NCIDQ. She is currently the program director at Design Institute of San Diego. Prior to that, she spent 15 years as a partner in Bast/Wright Interiors, providing programming, space planning, contract documents and project administration for both commercial and residential projects. She is an NCIDQ certificate holder and a certified interior designer in California.