How To Be the Best Interior Designer or Professional of Any Kind

Break the rules, learn the rules, Picasso quote

Be the Best by Learning, Always Learning…

Pablo Picasso reminds us to continually sharpen the saw and never stop learning. In the design world there is nothing worse than an interior designer or decorator who purports to be an “expert” – charging hefty fees, only to deliver the same design concept that they have used repeatedly for previous clients. They are not-so-lovingly referred to as “decorinas” by their more professional and progressive counterparts. What separates decorinas from outstanding professionals? The solid foundation of design principles AND the discipline to continually learn and update. Both are necessary.

To graduate from school is simply not enough to qualify greatness or expertise. In fact, some of the best knowledge I received was from design internships I had during design school. If you are in design school, get as much work experience as you can during those years. Try commercial, try residential- internships are easier to get than jobs. And jobs will be easier to get if you had internships. Working during school adds a learning layer that makes all the difference for your school projects and your future. One of the designers I worked for, Julie Lloyd, gave me an entirely separate design education that I will always be grateful for… she taught me elements of design that do not exist in textbooks or classrooms. There is so much to learn… always. Don’t ever get too comfortable with what you know in this fast paced world.

Did you go to Design School? Congratulations, now keep learning…

“If you view graduation as a commencement, a beginning, it can be a foundation for future value creation and service. That is the exact opposite perspective from those who mistakenly imagine that their credentials constitute entitlement…”

“It is no accident that leaders in various fields are voracious learners whose imaginations are defiantly unbounded by the often artificial strictures and structures of formal education or academic disciplines.” –Serve To Lead

How To Be the Best- From Your Client’s Perspective:

A good start point is to learn as much as possible about your client. Ask, then LISTEN. Always be respectful of the obvious fact that the client is the one who will have to live in the completed space, not yourself. The design should be 150% about them, not simply what you do well or have done before. Do not be so comfortable with your past work that you lose focus on the present job at hand. Listen listen listen, and focus on the client’s unique needs and desires for the space you are designing. Then do the necessary research and resourcing to exceed their expectations.

Meanwhile, whatever interests you in the design world, explore it, learn about it, allow it to be the inspiration for an even greater design concept. Flesh out the details now, because you never know how or when it will fit into a design scheme.

“Education is the kindling of the flame, not the filling of the vessel.” – Socrates

Study the greats.

There is so much to learn from those who came before us and those who work beside us. Why reinvent the wheel, just to replicate their learning curves? Sir Ken Robinson asserts that individual creativity is almost always stimulated by the work, ideas and achievements of other people: “As Isaac Newton famously said, if he saw further than others, it was because he stood on the shoulders of giants.”

“Study the past if you would define the future.” -Confucius

Ask questions.

Don’t just accept information, dig deeper if you don’t truly understand. Some of the greatest minds in history were the more curious types, like Da Vinci and Einstein.

“It’s not that I’m so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer.” -Albert Einstein

The truly impressive professionals have a sizable knowledge base to draw upon as they sort through modern design challenges for innovative solutions… they are the more interesting people to watch, not to mention some of the funnier people to converse with.

leraning curve, willingness to learn

“The ability to learn is the foundation of every other talent-” – Jessica Hagy

Do not ever get smug or self-satisfied because of your achievements. There are always people who have achieved more, and there is always room for growth and learning.

“Study hard what interests you in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.” – Richard P. Feynman

In today’s world, our mobile devices link us to infinite knowledge. This means that our clients are more educated than ever, and they have access to many of the same resources that you do. Therefore, we must deliver on a higher plane than ever before. They no longer need a middle man in order to access furniture or know what the trends are – technology has changed many aspects of the profession. Reality TV has tricked consumers into thinking they are design experts. Having said all of this, the great designers will always be successful. The lazy ones will fall by the wayside. People will gladly pay for quality and talent.

Look at it this way- if you had the choice of surgeons to operate on you, would you opt for the one who was a complete geek for the specialty that you required or one who had simply attended medical school? I rest my case…

Are we using all of the resources available to us to best hone our skills? Are we evolving? Are we bringing enough to the table? Lets raise the bar.




  1. Well said Courtney. The top skills of a great interior designer are listening and learning. Too often designers can get caught up in the all about me game, when what one did yesterday is only a stepping stone towards today. One must always expand their skill set and constantly learn more. The advantage of writing a design blog is always learning about something new. I love the Einstein quote about questions. Could we say a good designer’s conversation is peppered with significantly more questions than statements? We’ve got to be constantly asking, question every product, material and method to achieve the most appropriate result for the client.

  2. So true!! And all so inspiring!! I love how you mentioned Julie!!

  3. Such a great post Courtney! Love the inspiration and I agree we have to always keep learning! Learning is inspirational!


  4. really solid post Courtney. I love it when talented designers stress the importance of listening and continual learning, it sets a precedence to those that follow. Good designers try to be great but great designers are trying to be good – one implies knowledge already gained while the other implies the journey.


  5. One of my favorite blog posts of all times! Well said and so true. As designers we are forever students, I think that’s what keeps it interesting, don’t you?

  6. Courtney,
    Spoken like the professional that you are. Your words of wisdom are quite prescient as I’m considering taking some courses to expand my horizons. In my 20 years of working in the trenches with clients that listening is perhaps the most valuable trade tool I possess. It didn’t come naturally, I worked hard at it from an early age. It’s proved invaluable.
    Many posses the ability but few truly live this out as a designer. Sadly, the term “design diva” came from somewhere. Let’s raise a glass and toast to clients who appreciate grounded, talented, smart designers.

  7. Excellent post! I’m just going to have to share it with our ASID chapter. Thanks Courtney!

  8. Wonderful post, Courtney. Picking up on verbal and non verbal cues is crucial. My favorite is the body language when someone finally sees their ‘perfect’ color. It’s pure joy.

  9. Courtney:you are one of a kind.super talented and gifted.

  10. Learning should definitely be for life! Another wonderful post Courtney, thanks =)

  11. Brilliant post. When Leonardo & Picasso show up together I pay attention. Whatever we want to excel at requires constant learning listening and shifting to meet the next revolution in our cycle. Resting on laurels will not bring us to the genius zone.

  12. Courtney, this is a fabulous post and timely truth. After being in this profession over 30 years now, I still am learning something new everyday.

  13. Very good stuff! I have heard that “when the student is ready, the teacher appears”. We all need to be on the look out for teachers like you and be ready or we could miss it.

  14. So, I was reading along…and then I went back and started over. Then back through it again.

    Amazing post. Perfectly resonant.

    I’ve always said “rules are for people who have no judgement”…but I suspect that could be used by some to justify anarchy instead of fostering creativity.

    Your approach is nicely measured and very well said.

    Thank you.

  15. Courtney, I have no idea how I came across this older post as I was going through weeks of emails. No accidents, I guess. Just returned from Europe last night. You summarized my entire trip as a life absorbing sponge and goal as a designer. From time spent with Johnny Grey, questions and books flying off of his shelf, activity around his own kitchen, craning my neck at the architecture in the cities, touching history, clarifying my art history and the artists, their evolution. Unlike many today (wanting shortcuts) I believe deeply in the formal education as a base. From there, it’s a continuing education that should never be quenched – deeper questions and connecting dots at advanced levels.

    I plan to share this post with my friend who’s a fabulous designer as well as a college design instructor. It should be mandatory reading, first and last day of class.


  1. Mix it UP says:

    […] Mixing styles requires confidence and skill. Take for example this historical and regional Mix up- BAM! Quite a success. I love how well this works in a design sense. Today I am going to share some design inspiration from designers who know how to keep spaces interesting….Starting with the above chair and tribal textile, paired by Michelle Nussbaumer, who, as you will see as you scroll through this post- is the queen of pop for interior accessories. Her store Ceylon et Cie has one visual surprise after another, a treasure trove of unusual design finds (I have included four in this post).  Unexpected match ups can make for powerful visual experiences and conversation starters. This level of creativity requires a solid understanding of the elements of design, and a sophisticated imagination. “Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist”…  […]

  2. […] How to be the Best Professional of Any Kind […]

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