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Will Gen Y Go DIY?

As traditional interior design opportunities remain elusive for Generation Y, many are looking to set out on their own. Here’s how established designers can help.

By Lisa Henry

As traditional interior design opportunities remain elusive for Generation Y, many are looking to set out on their own. Here’s how established designers can help.

What is happening to the shrinking pool of our next generation of designers? Among the groups hardest hit by the economic slump are the young adults seeking to enter the workforce and begin their careers. According to an August 2011 report from the Labor Department, 13.9 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds were unemployed in July. That’s almost double the percentage of those over 30 who were unemployed.

Sometimes referred to as Millennials or Gen Y, and roughly defined as Americans born from the mid-1970s to mid-1990s, this cohort of 80 million will surpass even the baby boomers in sheer numbers. Finding themselves blocked from pursuing the traditional route of using a college education as a springboard to a career, they are opting to do it themselves, carving their own path—and their own economy—outside the established professions and institutions. And this is happening not just in areas like IT and entertainment, but in interior design as well.

The numbers tell the story. In its most recent survey of 179 interior design programs, the Council for Interior Design Accreditation (CIDA) reports that during the past three years, these programs graduated 15,984 students. Of those, 3,412 were employed as interior designers. That comes out to a placement rate of about 21 percent. In the previous survey from 2009, CIDA reported 13,679 graduates, and of those 3,565 were employed in interior design, or about 26 percent. The surveys overlap by a year, with the decline coming within the past two academic years. The impact of this drop in interior design graduates will be felt in the future as companies look to replace workers who are leaving the workforce completely or cutting back on hours as they phase in a retirement.

In addition, the most recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that there were approximately 40,120 employed interior designers in the United States in May 2010. That represents nearly a 25 percent decrease—some 13,170 designers—since May 2008. That is the lowest employment figure for interior designers since 2002. (These figures do not include self-employed designers.)

The notable decrease in students getting jobs after they graduate with degrees in interior design, combined with a marked decrease in the number of students now graduating with interior design degrees should be a cause for concern for interior design firms and professional associations. We all need a continuous influx of talent and leadership to ensure succession and skills to execute the work in a competitive world.

Perhaps more alarming to those of us who have labored to advance the profession are the number of young designers who, like so many of their generation, have abandoned their search for employment with an existing firm and simply set up shop for themselves. Forty percent of those in Generation Y envision starting their own business, and about 20 percent already have, according to a report published last fall by The Affluence Collaborative, a research partnership.

Scott Gerber, the 27-year-old founder of The Young Entrepreneur Council, observes “The reality is if you don’t want a lost generation, you need to start thinking about the future. They understand that if they want security and they want to be assured of having a job, now more than ever, it makes sense to create your own job.”

Design has always been a field where talented entrepreneurs can successfully build their own businesses. But those of us who have been down that road know the value of first gaining experience with the guidance of a knowledgeable mentor. We realize the difference between what we learned in school as designers and what we learned in practice. Today’s talented young designers have much to offer, but how much more effective might they be with the experience many of us now take for granted?

At ASID we have our finger on the pulse of this demographic reality. The influx of new professional leaders in our own organization will be impacted by these declines. We conducted a survey of principals of interior design firms recently and asked the following question: “What advice would you give emerging professionals who have been out of school for some time and have not been able to secure employment as an interior designer?” This is a summary of what they said:

  • Stay active in the profession, including taking an unpaid internship or volunteering with your professional association or on a community service project. Keep up to date on developments in the industry.
  • Seek employment in a related field, such as a furniture retailer, home improvement store, home builder, contractor or manufacturer. 
  • Learn new skills like SketchUp or Revit. Update your portfolio.
  • Keep your networking activity going.
  • Stay positive and confident; focus on your abilities and strengths.

This is also an opportunity for professionals to respond and help keep our newest designers from becoming a “lost generation.” We need to make a concerted effort to engage recent graduates and those underemployed designers who have not yet found a place in their chosen field.

What can we do to help? Make yourself available! This is a perfect role for members of the greater professional community. We all have an established design network already in place. Let’s share it! Invite emerging professionals to chapter and industry functions. Design and provide educational and business networking programming at local events. Host speed mentoring activities and a career day that focuses on emerging professionals. Include alternative career path ideas and contacts.

If you are in a position to encourage, inspire, mentor or employ a new designer, do it. The future of our profession and professional organizations depends on bright new talent entering into it, and evolving thinking and our influence.


ASID President Lisa Henry, FASID, LEED AP is the Knoll Denver region architecture and design director. ASID can be reached at (202) 546-3480 or, and on the web at