Life by Design: An Interview with Linda Watson, ASID, Interior Designer

by Nancy Solomon
Life by Design: An Interview with Linda Watson, ASID, Interior Designer

Linda Watson didn't start out an interior designer. As an English major at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she graduated with a bachelor of science degree and landed a job.

"I dated a guy from the school of architecture while I was in college. I was more interested in his studies than I was in him," Ms. Watson admitted. "Originally, I wanted to be an architect and that part of me still comes out in my love of space planning. But women were not encouraged to become architects 25 years ago."

So instead she kept working, and later earned an associate's degree in interior design from the International Academy of Design and Technology in Chicago. "I selected the Academy because my instructors were working professionals, it was accredited, and I could attend part-time and continue to work," explained Ms. Watson. The school's proximity to the Chicago Merchandise Mart also played a major role; through showroom visits and educational events, she gained first-hand info on commercial and residential lines rather than through catalogues.

She's a professional member of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), a registered interior designer in the state of Georgia and president of her own design firm, Watson Limited.

Interior design applications include residential, commercial, healthcare, senior living, hospitality and product design, and Ms. Watson handles projects in multiple segments. "I enjoy getting paid to meet new people, learn about their lives and make them happy in their surroundings," said Ms. Watson. "Each client brings a whole new set of design challenges. I never do the same thing twice. I never get bored."

Ms. Watson & Her Career

Tell us about your career. Where did it start? How did you discover your talent?

My career started in Chicago. I was doing residential design for friends before I graduated from design school. I thought I wanted to be an architect. That part of me still comes out in my love of space planning, but I really appreciate how interior design lets me put emphasis into sensitivity rather than structure. I probably would have been an unhappy architect. Interior design is a much better outlet for my creativity.

How has your career unfolded?

I've had a wonderful career so far. I've worked in the Midwest, the South and now in the West. Each region has its own character and charm. If I have a style, it's eclectic. My husband and I have traveled and lived in different parts of the country, allowing me to be influenced by a variety of styles and genres. I feel comfortable with mixing styles and I enjoy remembering how I developed those styles.

In design school, I was told my work was too sensitive for commercial projects. However, I was later hired by a hospital to use that very same sensitivity to soften and deinstitutionalize its image.

That was a fantastic time in my career. I got to work with a healthcare visionary. We created outpatient clinics, expanded emergency room services, and designed lobbies that looked more like hotels. We even put a baby grand piano in a maternity unit. Local music students performed to welcome patients and their families and set the mood. This was in the late 1980s. We were ahead of the curve and set the standards for healthcare design.

In the 1990s, there were opportunities in the senior living arena with the inception of assisted living and retirement communities. The idea was to create a residential feel that supported the residents' dignity as well as their physical and cognitive needs. This is the essence of what is now known as universal design - creating an environment that's pleasing and easy for everyone to use. I found designing Alzheimer's special care units especially fascinating. The challenge was to make healthcare and senior living look residential while conforming to an entirely different set of codes and an extremely different product. The design had to be regionally comfortable and charming as well as safe, functional and sturdy as a battleship.

What do you enjoy most about your career?

I get paid to meet new people, learn about their lives, and make them happy in their surroundings. Each client brings a whole new set of design challenges. I never do the same thing twice. I never get bored.

Who were the biggest inspirations for your career?

I was introduced to an interior designer in California who created stunning environments, ran an excellent business and raised her family of four girls at the same time. She was my inspiration.

What has been your personal key to success?

I'm flexible. I don't have a precise personal style. I try to create what the client is dreaming about. Clients set the direction. I apply all the essential interior design principles of scale, balance, color, proportion, texture, etc., to help make their dreams come true.

What was your biggest setback?

My biggest challenge has been that my career has followed my husband's. We've moved from Chicago to Atlanta and then to Denver. Jump starting a business again and again takes time, patience and just plain luck.

What are some of your personal or professional goals for the future?

I want to keep working with clients I enjoy and not work with difficult people. I want to continue to enjoy how designers refresh or put new spins on old products. For example, they put new color combinations on time honored patterns. Look at table lamps. Some of the lampshades look as though they're on upside down. They're fabulous. It's exciting. You don't always have to like the new ideas, but they're fun to see and they get your creative juices flowing.

Do you feel that is important for someone to be passionate about interior design to be successful?

Absolutely. Who wants dull and flat? With skill and creativity, I can help a client see the beauty in objects they already own. You have to impart your passion onto the client. Everyone needs to get excited about the changes being created. Personally, I feed on that excitement, and it makes me try harder and harder.

The Actual Work

What exactly do you do? What are your key responsibilities? What's a typical day like for you?

I wear way too many hats. Interior design involves many collateral areas. As president of my own firm, I develop all the marketing and public relations. I hire photographers and attend the shoots to get the exact shots I want for my brochures.

I am my company's bookkeeper and office manager. There are purchase orders, invoices, freight, delivery, installations and taxes to take care of. Computers must function and client phone calls must be returned.

I meet with perspective clients. Once I understand the scope of the project, I draft a contract that reflects my role and particular skills that will be needed. Projects can be similar, but they are never the same.

A project can be anything from tiny to huge. A project can involve helping a client get ready to sell her property; rearranging furniture and artwork for a fresh look; space planning for a new kitchen, bath or addition; working with the client, architect and contractor to build an entire new home; and everything in between. Some projects are completed in an hour or two. Others last for years.

I'm my clients' advocate. I fight for what they want to achieve. This includes making sure the trades people create what the clients expect, that the product arrives on time and everything functions correctly. There are almost always bumps along the way. Nothing is perfect. But problem solving is creative, too.

Then I find time to actually design the projects.

What are the tools of the trade that you use the most?

My eyes. I read clients' reactions, trust my visual sense of color, scale, proportion and balance. I can carry a color in my head, and I can also draw in scale without a ruler.

Is it important to collaborate with your colleagues? How have your professional collaborations benefited your career?

Yes, you can't possibly know everything. Colleagues share good sources and also tell you which sources to avoid. They help you solve problems, too. This is a profession of trial and error. Knowing what didn't work is very educational. In interior design, you learn from everyone's mistakes - including your own.

What are some common myths about your profession?

That it's glamorous. If you wear good shoes on a construction site, for example, you ruin them.

How do you use computers? Are there specialty software programs for interior designers?

I can sketch quickly by hand. I hire out CAD work. All our business transactions are done on computer. Quick Books is okay. I am in constant e-mail contact with my clients, trades people and sources. I try to save all correspondence. People forget what they decided sometimes.

What are the most challenging aspects of your job?

First, keeping in constant communication with my clients. Making sure they understand what is happening, and that they are okay with it. If not, everything stops until the miscommunication or problem is resolved. Second, knowing that when I am the busiest, that is exactly when I should be out marketing for the next project. And last, keeping up with sources, finding out what's new in products and technology. As a licensed interior designer in the state of Georgia (Colorado has not passed licensure), I am required to accumulate 12 continuing education units every two years. I think that's a good thing. It keeps me learning on purpose.

On a basic level, what skills does your job demand?

You have to have intuitive people skills and be able to read what people want. That applies not only to clients but also to trades people. You have to be able to think on your feet and solve problems quickly.

You have to have flexibility because events rarely go as expected and perseverance because you have to follow up on everything from the initial client contact to deliveries to installations to client satisfaction. And, finally, you have to be interested and excited about continuing to learn.

Why is interior design important?

Good interior design helps people function better because their spaces are safe, comfortable, pleasing and promote productivity.

Career Information & Advice

What's making an impact on design now?

Home improvement and decorating TV programs are having a profound effect on the public - good and bad. Lots of people are watching HDTV and other channels. The information is often incomplete; the costs are usually for materials only and the need to conform to building codes not usually mentioned.

What are the best ways to get a job?

Talk to everyone.

Does graduating from a prestigious school make a difference in landing a good job?

Sometimes. It all depends on what type of job you want. If you have exceptional talent, it will be evident and recognized.

How available are internships?

They are out there. You just have to research the ones you think will enhance your career path. Don't take just anything and don't be afraid to jump into something new or out of a bad situation.

How is the job market now in the industry?

Interior design is always affected by the economy. That's a negative part of the profession.

What kinds of jobs are available for graduating students who specialize in interior design?

The sky is the limit. Pick a field you like and go after it. If you find you don't like that particular field, or if you find people are not willing to spend money in that area, it's time to move on.

Who are your favorite interior designers?

I greatly admire the Italians. Their design is constantly new, fresh and so interesting in all areas of lighting, furniture and fabric and in traditional or contemporary styles.

What are your top pet peeves as a residential interior designer?

First, clients who won't tell you their likes and dislikes. It's as though you're supposed to be able to read their minds. This wastes an incredible amount of time. Second, the need to keep up on the status of sources; for example, which companies are having financial problems, who's merging with whom, what's being discontinued, whose quality is being compromised, etc.

What are some of the trends that you see in the field of interior design that could help students plan for the future?

Off-shore production of items like furniture will affect the quality and availability of products. It may affect United States manufacturing similarly to what's happened to the fabric industry.

Education Information & Advice

How can prospective students assess their skill and aptitude for interior design?

Read everything you can get your hands on. Art history books, interior design coffee table books, magazines, etc. Analyze sets from movies, visit art museums and galleries. Travel and read about other cultures. Learn about other people's customs, art, textiles, crafts. Find out why they lived the way they did. Begin to get a handle on what is a standard of timeless quality and what is a fad.

If someone has the talent already, should they go to school (or get professional training) and why?

Absolutely go to school, even if it's just to learn the responsibility you will have in the area of life safety. Clients trust you to keep them as safe as current codes and common sense can. Life is too litigious. Besides, why wouldn't you want to go to school to widen your knowledge and be the best you can?

In retrospect, what do you know now that you wish you knew before you pursued your education in the field?

I wish I had CAD skills.

How did you decide to study? And how did you find a school?

I lived in Chicago and researched all the area schools. I wanted a school that was accredited in interior design that would allow me to go part time. That the International Academy of Design was also across the street from the Merchandise Mart was a major draw.

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing a school?

Chose the best school you can afford. Time is money. I think it's good to work and go to school at the same time. You get a much better perspective with practical work experience. It may take you longer, but it's most informative. Working teaches you how to deal with deadlines, which is a reality in interior design. The large city schools usually have access to more experiences and course possibilities. You may consider taking extra or graduate courses at those schools, if just for a semester to gain the professional experience. It could be career changing.

When is it a good time to go after a graduate degree?

You'll know when you're ready. But with a little experience under your belt, it will be a most rewarding experience.

What types of majors can one graduate with that will lead to a career in interior design?

I've met interior designers with various prior majors, but you do need interior design skills to be successful. They are an absolute. How else can you communicate with your peers, let alone clients and sources?

In Closing

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed in interior design?

It's a most rewarding field. There are lots of applications for interior design - residential, commercial, healthcare, senior living, hospitality, product design. I would try to get as much exposure to each of these categories and see how they appeal to you. Some people spend their whole career in one segment. Others do projects in several areas. It can be as flexible a field as you make it.

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