As I travel around the country, speaking at various functions on behalf of ASID, I am often asked by students about the qualities today's employers are looking for in interior design graduates. While I don't pretend to speak for all employers, I do have some definite thoughts on the subject, both as a designer and as the principal of my own firm. I find in talking with my colleagues in other firms and other areas of the country that they generally agree. And I dare say that much of this applies to more experienced job candidates as well.
"When you finally do talk with a firm you are interested in, show that you 'get it.' Demonstrate that you understand its business needs and how you can help the firm achieve its goals."
Probably the most difficult adjustment for students entering the workforce is to shift their focus from their work to the work of the firm. Projects are driven by what clients need and want. Employers are looking for talented and skilled individuals who can help them meet, and preferably exceed, their clients' expectations. So before you go knocking on a prospective firm's door, get to know the firm. Do some research. Use the Internet and search the firm's Web site, if it has one. Find out what kind of work it does and who its clients are. Visit the Web sites of its clients, too. Look for newspaper or magazine articles about past or ongoing projects.
Another thing first time job seekers often overlook is the culture of the firm. Keep in mind that to be successful you have to be comfortable in the work environment and get along with the other employees. From the employer's perspective, interpersonal conflicts can undermine a firm's morale and are a drain on productivity. Find about the firm's style, the personalities of the people in the firm and the working conditions. Talk to clients about their impressions of the firm and its employees. If possible, talk to someone who works at the firm or a former employee. Weigh carefully what you hear. What may be a good working environment for you may not suit someone else.
In addition to doing your homework, develop a plan to market yourself. Become known as a design resource consultant. Study the latest trends and issues and become an "expert" at something, whether it be sustainable design, universal design, some area of technology or another "hot" area. Talk with manufacturers' reps to get information and resources to help you out. They are a tremendous source of knowledge and experience. Also consider getting involved in community activities. This is a great way to get know who's who and what is going on in the community, and it shows an interest in others around you. Join a professional association, like ASID. Go to local meetings and events, and start networking with other designers and reps.
When you finally do talk with a firm you are interested in, show that you "get it." Demonstrate that you understand its business needs and how you can help the firm achieve its goals. Explain why you think you would be a "good fit." Tailor your portfolio to showcase relevant skills. Emphasize the work you anticipate doing, not what you accomplished in your classes. Don't overstate your accomplishments, but don't be ashamed of your lack of experience. Employers are looking for candidates who are eager to do the work of the firm, who bring a lot of energy and enthusiasm, and who are confident in their ability to make decisions. Ask questions. State what your expectations are and ask about the firm's expectations for you.
Perhaps the most difficult thing in looking for that first job is not to fall into the trap of believing there is only one job out there for you. Don't be afraid to trust your gut and walk away from a situation that does not seem right for you. Likewise, do not give up too easily on a position you really want. My philosophy is that if something is in your way, you've got to go around it. Know what you want and then go after it. Interior design is a wonderful and diverse profession, with opportunities of all kinds. The best advice I can give is: "Love what you do!"
ASID National President H. Don Bowden is founder of his own firm, H. Don Bowden-Architect, in Mobile, AL. ASID can be reached at (202) 546-3580; fax (202) 546-3240; www.asid.org.