New Designer Perspective: College vs. Real World Experiences

I recently graduated from college and began a career as an Interior Designer all within a month! While this has been an exciting time in my life and a moment that I have been looking forward to, I needed to take some time to reflect on my last 4 years and ponder if my education really prepared me for what I was about to embark on. Just like a high school student going to college for the first time, preparation is key when transitioning to this next phase in life too…the “real world”. In both levels of education, you study so hard to pass tests and nearly kill yourself on senior projects that showcase your newly polished skills. But what about the shift from one to another? No one ever prepares you for the schedule changes and huge amount of independence going from high school to college. And NO ONE is ever ready to give up summer/fall/spring/winter breaks (aka time off) for *maybe* one week of vacation time for the WHOLE YEAR. I mean, this is real life, and knowing what I know now, I wish I would have prepared my younger self for today.

This preparation also translates into what specifically I learned for my degree in college. We are taught how to design spaces but never given the opportunity nor the tools to see a project come to life. Had I been given (even a piece of) a move management project in college like the one I jumped into just weeks into my job, I would have had a better understanding of how to, for example, organize detailed utility requirements or spacial footprints and adjacencies for lab users. I could have jumped right into this project had I received this experience, or one like it, in school. It goes without saying but I will say it anyway, Interior Design is not just about coordinating pillows to wallcoverings. It’s so much more and these real-life scenarios would be golden to have throughout my time in school. College allows design students to be creative in their own style while honing specific skills but doesn’t equip students fully as to what they may be given to work on in their first job.

Most projects I did while in school were based on a single perspective. I was able to choose what my design looked like with space planning, furniture, fixtures, and equipment. This was great at the moment and allowed each student to develop different design skills but again is not fully what an Interior Designer does for their clients. Many times, we were given overinflated budgets and space plans that really only happen once in a blue moon. We were limited in real-life, actual scenarios that design firms face every day: budgets, time constraints, material/vendor choices, daunting specifications, and how to work alongside other professionals (inside and outside of the organization). If we could have layered in some of these other experiences, this would have rounded out some of the skills I found missing when I entered the “real world”. However, I was able (and fortunate) to work on different types of projects from residential homes for veterans to a community center for a Native American tribe and finally a healthcare clinic. These projects allowed me to use various skills to create and curate the feelings evoked by the end-user in these environments, but still, there was more missing.

Two main points I have learned by being at IDO, that were not taught in college, are budgets and the client relationship you build. As a designer, you have to choose materials carefully while keeping your client’s budget in mind. From transitions to furniture, everything is included in client budgets. Unlike in school when we finished a project over budget or didn’t have one to start with, this is not the real world and a skill that will take time for me to perfect. This has been a good learning curve and a reminder to be more conscientious about everything. As for building client relationships, it has been a wonderful experience to create that relationship through the entirety of a project. This starts off with the first meeting to discuss the scope of work from selecting finishes, to walking through the finished space. Relationships are important and are a big part of every aspect of my job.

Being a newbie in the “real world”, I feel like I have transitioned better than most. I have been fortunate to have a group of seasoned designers that have shown me the ropes and will continue to guide me. While I do not know it all, I am on a path to do so thanks in part to the fundamentals that I learned in my college experiences. I can’t stress this enough to students and recent college grads, nothing can prepare you enough until you learn from firsthand experience. If I could tell my younger self what I know now to help me back then, I would say ask for more real-life, firsthand experiences pertaining to budgets and client relationship building from your professors. I am so excited to continue this journey in Interior Design, develop more with the IDO team, and see where it will take me in the future.


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Breck Jackson
Written by Breck Jackson