New professional journeys can be daunting. That’s why we’ve asked some of our experienced Accredited members to share their insights on some key topics related to starting out your career in the decorating and design industry.

Members: To get direct links to the DDA discounts and exclusives referenced below, make sure to login and read this article from the resources section.

The tips below are simply recommendations from a variety of members. Some tips will always be applicable while other only in certain situations.

Many of the links direct to associated discounts in the members only section of our website.

More information on membership with DDA can be found here.

Skip to: Safeguards  Essential Tools  Lessons Learned


What are the first steps someone should take when starting their career as a decorator or designer?

Prepare a portfolio of your work.

Decorators and designers are visual workers and prospective clients may not understand what you’re thinking by description alone. Whether it is board form, a word document, PowerPoint presentation, or a website, it is important to show your work off in a competent, professional manner.

Do a practice project

Do a project for a friend, a family member, or client to practice your work. Keep track of the time it takes to do the project, money spent, and take pictures at every stage so that you keep learning up until completion of the final product.

Join associations

Join associations, community legions, business centers and/or your local chamber of commerce. Associations offer members special discounts on just about anything and everything that has to do with business.

Get involved with the DDA. Attend events if you can and if not, contact other members in your area. There is enough work for everyone, so look to your peers as your support network and not as your competition.

Get business cards

Usually, joining a professional association will allow you to use a member logo on your promotional materials. This can add credibility to your promotional materials (such as business cards).

Look the part

Buy one or two outfits. What you wear doesn’t have to be expensive but should present you as professional.

Pay for good services

Get a website, business cards, a logo and have a look/feel for your business. Look as professional as you can as soon as you can.  Fake it ‘til you make it!

If possible, hire a writer to provide content for your website, and other marketing materials. You will need content about you, your business, the area you work in, etc.

Paying a photographer to take fantastic shots of work you have done is also important. Even if it’s just close-up vignettes in your own home or a small project you did for a friend. Do not skimp on this, it will show. 

Tour

Go to vendors and suppliers and ask for tours of their facilities, showrooms.  Ask for information interviews of anyone in the industry that could help you beat the learning curve.

What are some of the most essential things to do/keep in mind about running a business in the industry?

Never stop learning

The decorating and design industry can be very fast-paced. It is important to keep up with changing trends and computer technology. Go to industry events and product launches. Try to keep up with industry standards and ‘happening’ trends. Subscribe to newsletters and magazines put out by others in the industry.

To ensure that DDA members keep learning, Accredited members are required to acquire .5 CEUs (equivalent to 5 hours of learning) each year to renew their memberships. While not a requirement for other membership types, all members can take advantage of these courses.

The DDA Video Vault contains some useful discussions that will help anyone in the industry learn.

Make time for admin

Set aside one or two consecutive days of the month to do your accounting and other administrative duties and be consistent with it on a monthly basis.

Create in/out/to be filed folders for digital files and snail-mail.

Track your professional contacts digitally in Microsoft Office or a professional tool like Salesforce or even physically in a binder/rolodex. Whatever way you like to keep your contacts, keep them in one place.

Stay connected

Keep in touch with suppliers, vendors and other industry colleagues as much as possible. They can be a great resource, especially during slow periods. There can be many ups and downs in the decor and design worlds. Not only is it nice to share stories with someone else in the field, but it’s great to have a person to call when you need quotes or product knowledge quickly.

It’s not humanly possible to know everything about everything. As principal business owners, you must wear many hats: decorator; designer; artist; accountant; contract negotiator; project manager; administrative secretary; sample coordinator; draftsperson; technical advisor; visionary; and the list goes on and on. Keeping in touch with industry people and knowing when to collaborate is key.

It’s not all design

At the end of the day owning your own business is 20% design and 80% running a business (accounting, contract negotiation, admin etc.).


What does a decorator need to do to safeguard their business?

Get Insurance

If you are starting your own business, professional insurance is an expense you can’t afford to live without. You will be dealing with other people’s information, belongings, and property. Make sure you are protected.

Accredited DDA Members receive a significant discount on professional insurance as linked to above.

Related Reading: Five Things I Worry About, So You Don’t Have To

Ensure Your Finances Are in Order

See an accountant if you are not sure about the accounting and good business practices. Amongst other things, they can help you decide if you should be a sole proprietor or incorporated. They can also help to keep you on track for tax time, if you are unable to do this yourself.

Make sure you have a standard template for invoicing (or use a tools like DesignDocs and Return on Interiors to help).

Related Reading: 5 Accounting Tips for Decorators & Designers

Consult A Lawyer

While it is not necessary to retain a lawyer when starting out, it is still a good idea to get introduced to one. It is smart to have a lawyer review contracts if you are involved with projects that require government offices, building codes, removal of walls and construction and if you are coordinating other trades.


What are the essential tools of the trade?

Business Plan

Figure out what you want to do and how you are going to get there. This is something that
an accountant should be consulted on in relation to your finances. Neighborhood business centers often have free seminars for help with creating business plans and looking up stats; creating a business name; research; and, other companies you will be in competition with.

Business Cards

Marketing Plan

Business Bank Account

Business Credit Card

Tax number (HST, GST)

It is easier to set up trade accounts with a tax number even if you do not make over
$30,000/year

A Website

Accounting Software

i.e. QuickBooks, DesignDocs etc. You can start with Excel, but as you grow you will need something more comprehensive

Drafting Software

i.e. SketchUp, AutoCAD etc. If you avoided this when you were at school, go back and learn or research who can do drawings for you and how much they will cost.

All of these tools help to make you look, feel and present yourself as a professional to the trades, to vendors and to your clients.

Related Reading: Resources for Canadian Decorators/Designers: BDC Funding and Advisory Services


What were some lessons you learned when entering the industry? What do you wish you knew?

“Not asking the enough questions when signing on with a new client or even with another designer; especially with regards to money. I have lost wages because I did not confirm upfront how many hours could be used on the project.”

“Have a list of questions to ask clients, so you can get a good idea of whether it is a serious project or not.”

“When creating a budget and getting a signed contract make sure that you are working with the person who issues the payment, not a subordinate.”

“Ensuring that I knew how I will be compensated for travel time, gas and/or mileage before a project starts.”

“Remember to include correspondence time in your pricing because this is one area that is often not thought about. The back and forth between you and your client can take a significant amount of time and you should make sure you are paid for it.”

“I wish I knew more about types of signed agreements. There are so many things that can go sideways when you first start out, so having some insight into what a proper agreement looks like is a good idea. Many of us assume others are trustworthy, but it has been my experience that those paying out the money don’t always review time frames, status of project and budgets until they have to pay you. Having a signed agreement, even with another designer, makes life easier for everyone involved.”

“You don't have to know everything.  You can ask questions of suppliers and other trades.  Lean on them for their skills and expertise.  You can't be an expert in all areas and can bring in a flooring supplier to explain the details to the client (for example) or a lighting expert to go through the lighting plan for the client.”