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International Interior Design Association

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The Power to Reinvent

By Michele Bowles

Gone are the days of staying in one career and working for one employer for 40-plus years. The modern workforce has kissed its collective chance at a gold watch and blow-out retirement party goodbye.

These days, it’s not uncommon for professionals — hungry for career progression and personal fulfillment in the workplace — to have upwards of 10, 15, even 20 jobs in their lifetime. That’s a far cry from the one or two jobs held by our parents and grandparents throughout the course of their working careers.

But a growing number of Interior Designers have taken the notion of career movement to the extreme. While many designers were “born and bred” in the profession, others have taken a roundabout route, spending a few years — or several decades — in another field before making the switch.

“I knew I wanted to find a job that didn’t always feel like a job,” says Jason W. Wong, Student IIDA, who entered the Interior Design profession after 10 years in graphic design. “I asked myself, ‘What can I do for a living that won’t always feel like I’m doing it for a paycheck?’”

Wong, like many others, went in search of new challenges and deeper personal fulfillment, and found Interior Design was the answer.

Some second-time Interior Designers set out on their journeys to benefit themselves and their careers. But the experience gained in other professions is also profiting employers, clients and the profession as a whole.

“People with other experiences bring professionalism and another perspective [to Interior Design],” Wong says. “Someone from finance could end up being an excellent project manager. Someone with a retail visual merchandising background could be excellent at picking furniture and finishes.”

MAKING THE LEAP

The decision to switch careers is not an easy one, whether it’s made five years or two decades into a career.

Soon after graduating from Vanderbilt University in 2004 and landing a job in corporate recruiting for Wachovia, Erika Thompson, Student IIDA, realized something was amiss. “Ever since I graduated, I had been looking at Interior Design programs,” she says. “I told myself, ‘Erika, you can’t go back to school; you just graduated!’”

Since high school, Thompson had an interest in design, but because Vanderbilt didn’t offer an Interior Design program, she never pursued it.
“Ultimately recruiting was not where I wanted to be for the rest of my life. I wasn’t passionate about it,” she says. “I decided [changing careers] was now or never.”

So in January 2009, after three years of recruiting, Thompson headed back to school — this time to Watkins College of Art, Design & Film in Nashville to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Interior Design, which she plans to receive in 2012.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Jackie Nigh, Student IIDA, who spent 20 years as an apparel designer before making the switch to Interior Design.

Nigh’s distinguished fashion career included designing for Unionbay Sportswear, ReUnion Menswear and Columbia Sportswear. It was while heading up women’s sportswear at Columbia Sportswear that Nigh began to re-evaluate her career.

“I got to a point where I had been there for a long time and had outgrown the company,” she says. “So I left to look at other options.”

In searching for new opportunities in fashion, Nigh came to the realization that her future might not be in apparel design.

“The more I started looking around, the more I realized I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do this anymore,” she says. “My priorities no longer aligned with the fashion industry’s priorities.”

Nigh worked with a career counselor to help her assess her future, honing in on her skills, strengths and goals. “Interior Design felt like a good fit. It used both sides of my brain,” she says.

After four months of soul-searching, Nigh enrolled at the Art Institute in Portland. Her decision to go back to school and leave a well-established career was re-confirmed along the way. Midway through her degree program, she received what she thought was her dream job offer to work for 7 For All Mankind in Los Angeles.

“It was something I had always wanted to do, so I moved to L.A. and accepted the offer,” she says. “The job only lasted six months; they ended up shutting down the whole department. It was great confirmation that I made the right decision about going back to school.”

A TRANSFER OF SKILLS

With the right training, when bridging from one design profession to another, a host of skills can directly transfer for the benefit of everyone from firm owners to team members to clients.

Nigh experienced this firsthand after making the switch from fashion design to Interior Design.

While working for Columbia Sportswear, she recognized the importance of functionality in design, whether designing functional cargo shorts or creating shirts with UV protection. She now applies the same concepts as an Interior Designer.

Wong first realized the cross-over of graphic design to Interior Design during a freelance job he took prior to going back to school. A planning and architecture firm hired Wong to create presentation materials and vision books.

Now an Assistant at Orlando Diaz-Azcuy Design Associates in San Francisco, Wong taps into his graphic design skills when creating client presentations.

“Clients need to be able to see what Interior Designers are trying to conceptualize,” he says. “You're presenting to people who can determine the fate of a building, which will affect so many more people over the course of many years.”

DIVERSITY IN DESIGN

Cross-over skills from one design profession to another might be more obvious. But that's not to say skills honed in seemingly unrelated fields can't be put to use in Interior Design.

Yvette Otterman, Assoc. IIDA, LEED AP, spent five years in the legal profession as an administrator before going back to school to earn an associate degree in Interior Design.

Now an Interior Designer at SoL Harris/Day Architecture in Canton, Ohio, Otterman taps into the skills she honed in her former profession. “In my legal career, I learned organizational skills and to be very meticulous with correspondence, documenting everything,” she says. “That's definitely helped.”

Otterman's understanding of how attorneys work, and knowledge of the technology they use, should prove to be useful not just in the design of law offices, but any corporate office.

As an added bonus, should Otterman ever go into business on her own, her knowledge of contracts and legal issues should prove extremely useful.

When Thompson enters the working world of Interior Design this summer as an intern at a commercial design firm in Nashville, she expects several of her recruiting skills to come into play. “As an Interior Designer, you have to listen to clients and really get to know their needs,” she says. “As a recruiter, that's exactly what we do. Recruiters have to listen to clients to find the qualities they want in their next employee — and most of the time, they're very specific.”

And later in her career as an Interior Designer? “As a recruiter you learn how to gauge people and their interests, and how they get along with others,” she says. “That experience could help in putting together the right project team.”

Others share similar experiences. For example, it may be difficult to imagine financial skills directly applying to the Interior Design world. On the contrary, says Heather Ploeg, Industry IIDA, who spent several years in investment banking before making the switch to Interior Design. “Being an investment advisor, you have to think on your feet and make decisions quickly based on the information you have in front of you,” she says, adding it's a skill that directly crosses over to Interior Design.

IN IT FOR LIFE

Dropping a safe, dependable career to start from scratch is no doubt risky. But it was a risk Otterman was willing to take.

“I went to school whenever I could — at night, occasionally during the day. I made up the hours I missed at work during off times,” she says. “I didn’t realize what I was getting into with some of the final projects and some of the late, late nights trying to get everything done.”

Between all the ups and downs, the uncertainties and risk, would these Interior Designers do it all over again?

The answer is a resounding “Yes.”

Adds Wong, “One of my other previous jobs was advising art students. I used to tell them, ‘This is a generation where you shouldn’t expect to have one job your entire career.’ It finally came time for me to practice what I preach.”

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