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How to Master 9 Essential Skills for Virtual Interior Designers

CEO Khai Intela
You probably realize that the skills needed for full-service interior design are not exactly the same skills needed for virtual interior design. Although virtual interior design is easier than traditional full-service interior design, there are...

woman using laptop

You probably realize that the skills needed for full-service interior design are not exactly the same skills needed for virtual interior design.

Although virtual interior design is easier than traditional full-service interior design, there are still some important differences and areas of special focus.

For decorators and aspiring designers, virtual interior design can be straightforward to learn if you have the aptitude and desire to do so.

On the other hand, for experienced designers coming from a full-service design background, switching to the fully virtual models does take some adjustment as you will need to change some of the ways that you do things. Many professional designers are actually surprised to find out that going fully virtual with your design practice can be a steep learning curve if you aren’t prepared.

If virtual interior design is something that you are interested in, don’t worry, we’ve got you. We’re going to give you the scoop on the most important skills that virtual interior designers need to focus on so you don’t have to spend your precious time guessing. If you’d like to take your design practice to the next level and operate in the virtual plane, this is for you!

The 9 Essential Skills for Virtual Interior Designers

  1. Organizational Skills
  2. Digital Communication Skills
  3. Simple Website Management Skills
  4. Product Sourcing Skills
  5. Graphic Design Skills
  6. 3D Space Planning Skills
  7. Listening Skills
  8. "Translation" to Design Skills
  9. Patience and a Sense of Humor

For starters, if you’re new to all this virtual design stuff you might wonder if virtual interior design really is "next level" interior design, or whether it’s just a cop-out for those who can’t cut it in traditional interior design. Nothing could be further from the truth. We believe that as technology continues to improve, the virtual model is going to become ever more the norm. Even traditional firms are using more remote tools all the time. Time to get a leg up on the competition!

To get you started on the right foot, you might consider reading some of these introductory articles which explain why you should consider virtual interior design and what its pros and cons are:

  • The Story of How Interior Design Went Virtual
  • How to Become a Virtual Interior Designer - 3 Ways!
  • 7 Things to Know About Getting into Virtual Interior Design
  • Ten Rules for How to Run a Virtual Interior Design Business

To summarize the main points of the virtual vs. traditional interior design argument, we think it comes down to individual preference and how you personally like to work. Having said that, there are some really great reasons to go fully virtual, which include:

  • Lower overhead
  • Less time spent on projects
  • Less hassle with inventory and product management
  • Higher opportunities for working remotely as a solopreneur

Who is Virtual Interior Design Suited For?

Virtual interior design is excellent for two types of people:

  1. Graduates of traditional interior design schools and business owners who want to scale down and go digital
  2. Those looking to get into online interior decorating but don’t have the full design education yet

A traditional interior design education prepares designers to operate in a full-service world. This type of education is very broad and covers a lot of knowledge that is beneficial for large-scale commercial projects but may not apply to small residential businesses conducted online. Thus, depending on your goals, if you are new to interior design, you will want to evaluate your needs for your specific situation.

woman working at home using her laptop

If you haven’t actually studied interior design yet, virtual interior design may be of special interest to you. If, for example, you know that you want a career in home decorating or residential design, then you might not need to get the standard education. This is especially true if you prefer to run a small business or work from home.

You will undoubtedly still need to learn how to be a decorator or designer, but your route to starting your own practice could end up being quite different than for someone who already has a design education or works in the commercial sector. If it’s virtual interior design that you choose, you might have cut your design education journey in half. Why? Well, it’s fair to say that learning virtual interior design is quite a bit easier than learning standard interior design.

It helps to think of virtual interior design as being slightly more niche and focused than full-service design. The difference is that a standard interior design education involves a lot of practical and physical knowledge, as well as some skills that are not necessary for virtual interior design. Of course, it never hurts to have those tools in your arsenal, but the truth is that there are some things that you just won’t need to use in a purely virtual interior design practice.

Keep in mind that a purely virtual interior design education with a focus on decorating is a completely different path from that of a certified or licensed interior designer. There are educational requirements for becoming certified and operating in the public sector, but these do not always apply to residential decorating and design services. For decorating and home design, you can often get by with a focused short course on design instead of the standard three to four-year education required for commercial designers.

While a short or highly focused online crash course will not qualify you to work on buildings where public building codes need to be adhered to, there are still a lot of applications for the virtual interior designer or decorator. These continually emerging opportunities in the virtual design space are accessible to beginner designers, and even those who are new to design in general. So let’s say you’re not a designer yet. Is it possible for you to become a virtual interior designer anytime soon? As covered before on this blog, there are multiple ways to break into virtual interior design, but the two main ways are:

  1. Being an existing interior designer who wants to go fully virtual.
  2. Being a creative or someone interested in design who wants to learn specifically the virtual interior design model.

In other words, virtual interior design can be a great place to start a design business.

Let’s Talk Design Skills

It goes without saying that you will need design skills to run a design business. What if this is not your strong point? Let’s face it. It may not be practical for everyone to learn interior design in the standard and traditional way. Not everyone has the time or the means to go back to design school. I don’t believe this should preclude these people from learning design skills or taking the path of the virtual interior designer.

As I often say on this blog, you can start with decorating and continue learning from there.

Design studios often need to hire or outsource people with specialized skills, like CAD drafting, 3D modeling and rendering, or graphic and visual design. The person who fills these types of roles does not necessarily have to have an across-the-board design education. When working as part of a team, they can focus purely on their individual skills.

I’m speaking specifically of digital design skills here. Keep in mind that some of these skills can be learned with a concentrated course in a matter of three to six months, or even on your own with YouTube.

When it comes to virtual interior design, I know many self-taught CAD specialists who freelance for established interior designers. I also know many virtual interior design business owners who outsource aspects of the design work to others.

Two ways to approach virtual interior design:

  1. Hire people with the technical skills while you run the business of interior design.
  2. Acquire a valuable skill and work for or with another designer who has the education.

Bottom line: Choose whether you want to be a business owner or work as a freelancer in virtual interior design. There are also other supplementary and supportive roles necessary for a successful interior design practice open to design enthusiasts, like photography and organizational work. Don’t let the lack of a traditional education prevent you from starting on this path.

1. Organizational Skills

turned off laptop computer

Organization for virtual interior design does not need to be complicated, but you do need to have a system. The best way to create a system is to understand how you work. To understand how you work, you need to have gone over your process many times.

When you first start designing, you might be all over the place. This is why in design school, you’re given specific steps that you’re supposed to follow. The longer you design, the more you develop your own ways of working.

In the traditional design sense, we start off by sketching and coming up with very loose concepts then slowly narrowing them down to specifics. Outside of the actual design process, there’s the business process. You will need to mesh these two sides together—the conceptual design and presentation side along with the communication business and delivery sides of your business.

The wonderful thing about virtual interior design is that you are able to fine-tune and streamline a lot of what would be stretched out over longer periods of time and are usually more complex with traditional interior design. You will be able to develop a more straightforward approach to your projects in the form of a repeatable process.

Getting organized simply means that you thought about the way that you work and you’ve gotten it down to a method that works for you to save you the most time and also to help you be the most efficient that you can be.

Virtual organization comes down to:

  1. Having good systems on your computer for filing digital files and keeping things organized in folders.
  2. Having good methods for working between computer programs.

At each stage of your design process and at each stage of your communication with the client, you should know exactly where to find the things that you need, many of which you will be using over and over again and will not have to create from scratch each time.

When it comes to the design side, you will want to know the general order in which you will be creating your designs and how the general process will go. Nonetheless, there will still be some things that you will have to do differently each time you tackle a project. For example, each design job will require different furniture according to the desires and needs of your client.

If you have been asked to find specific things with specific looks, it can take you time to source and find those things, so here it at least makes sense to have a good list of resources under your belt. The more focused and niche you tend to be in your design work, the easier it will be for you to find the suppliers whose furniture and decor suit your style and to find the products that work best for your creative look.

As a virtual interior designer, if you are a one-man show, it doesn’t make sense to try to do everything from scratch each time. You'll only wear yourself out trying to be everything to everyone, and you'll be running a wild goose chase looking for completely different things every time. You are much better off working with a well-thought-out system in which you source a set group of favorite suppliers for 80% of your sourcing needs. You can always find special accessories and add unique touches to your designs on top of that.

Spend time getting your process smooth and really hammering out your system. Remember that it is a business, and as such, you should be able to come up with a repeatable process that is both enjoyable for you and also works to be as efficient as possible, which ultimately benefits both you and the client. So get organized! Enough said.

2. Digital Communication Skills

photo of person using smartphone

What are digital communication skills? The term "digital communication skills" is just a fancy way of saying that you know how to use email and that you know how to communicate with the client from a virtual setting.

A basic computer setup, a smartphone, access to Google Workspace and Google Meet, or Zoom are likely all that you will need for communicating with your client. Gone are the days when we wrote letters and sent tons of faxes and hard copies of documents. These days, everything is digital.

Make sure that you know how to create, edit, send, and open the basic types of documents common to design work. You should also know which sizes to use for your construction drawings and presentations. Be sure that you have standard templates and example emails prepared for each stage of the process. You can always refine these over time, but having them set up prior to taking on work will help you run your projects more smoothly and get your work done more efficiently.

You will want to add a welcome package that explains how you work to your client, as well as a final presentation package. Once the design work has been completed, you will want to send a follow-up that asks the client how they’ve enjoyed their design and if they have any feedback for you. This is an important step in the process. It’s at this point that you can ask your client to write you a review for your social media or pass on recommendations so that you can find other clients.

A note on design office work: If you are one of those people who are more creative-driven and more focused on the design side, you may be able to outsource some of your office work to a design virtual assistant or a personal assistant. When you are first starting out or are in the early stages of your business, make sure that you know how everything works and that you can do it yourself before outsourcing to anybody else.

3. Simple Website Management Skills

Here’s another thing that’s almost non-negotiable if you want to be a virtual interior designer: you will need to have a working website to advertise your design services. Below you can see the example of my own interior design website, Saskia Interiors.

woman at laptop

It doesn’t need to be fancy. It’s a little bit more like having an online portfolio and a portal for your clients to be able to find you, see some of your work, and make inquiries or bookings without you needing to be there.

Part of the beauty of virtual interior design is that you can access clients all over the world, and people can find your services day or night, anytime of the week or even on holidays. Make sure that what you put online best represents your work and shows the highest quality that you are able to offer.

While it is totally possible to do without a proper website, and there are designers who have done it, I don’t recommend that you skip this part. People who don’t have a website tend to have gotten their clients via word of mouth. Nonetheless, even those who start off without a decent website to advertise their services eventually come around and find that they need one.

A great website is the best advertisement that you can have as a virtual interior designer. Let’s be honest. The entire appeal of the virtual interior design model is based on the notion that you are able to attract clients from across the world. Whether you happen to be sleeping or on vacation when a client discovers your website, it should stand as a glowing beacon, advertising your services, inviting them to see your work, and drawing them into wanting to make inquiries and requests for your services. A good website will sell for you even when you are not able to sell or you are busy with other things.

These days, it’s becoming easier and easier to set up a website, even if you’re not tech-savvy. There are also designers who specialize in interior design websites and know how to help you market yourself if you require assistance. No matter your needs, there are plenty of website design options that can suit your budget and your skill level. Make sure that your virtual interior design business is properly represented online. It’s your bread and butter!

4. Product Sourcing Skills

stylish spacious lobby in modern design

You’re not going to get very far in interior design or virtual interior design if you know nothing about furniture. In fact, even before you get into the heavier design aspects of the job, it’s important to get an education in the basic types and styles of furniture, how they’re typically used in homes, and where you can find quality products.

A lot of people just starting out in interior design and decorating tend to take the easy way out, which is sourcing from the general home stores that their clients shop at. While this is certainly not the end of the world, and it’s totally okay if you source some of your products this way, you will almost certainly want to look into more wholesale and trade resources.

You’ll need to do some research to find out where interior designers source products for each use case scenario or area of the home. If you are new to all of this, I suggest that you take on decorating as your focus at first. Learn as much as you can about furniture because it is an important part of the job.

True, some clients and some jobs are more casual. Some clients may even want you to shop at specific stores that they like the look of. However, if you are going to be valued as a professional, try to have some resources up your sleeves that are not obvious to the client. Think about supporting a local store where you may be able to acquire good trade discounts.

However you choose to go about it, make sure that you know how you will source your furniture, your decor, and your home products well ahead of time before taking on your first paid jobs. Knowing that you’ve covered your bases for the most important and general things your clients will need makes it so much easier when you take on a real job. Then, when you’re hit with those little extra things that you need to source, you won’t feel overwhelmed and like you have to find everything from scratch.

No one can prepare 100% for every job or project ahead of time. However, it is good to have a general plan. Do your prep so when the time comes, you can present as a professional and also be a far less stressed-out designer.

5. Graphic Design Skills

nothing to see here neon sign

I often talk about how new interior designers and architects are surprised when they find out just how much of the job is actually graphic design. Let’s be clear: being an architect or interior designer won’t automatically make you a great graphic designer, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t an important and pretty big part of the job.

You can certainly learn your graphic design skills as you go, but it really helps if you have some background, and even better if you’ve played around with 2D graphic design tools before starting your business.

One of the best ways that you can practice your graphic design/interior design skills is to do some small projects for yourself, friends, or family members. Another way is to make a lot of digital design boards.

I do realize that it’s kind of a joke at this point how some people think that creating boards is all an interior designer does. However, there is a lot that you can learn from working on boards, putting boards together, and critiquing them yourself, as well as sharing them with others on social media.

Working with Mood Boards

If you’ve ever spent time creating boards over any length of time and then gone back to look at your old work, you’ll see what I mean when I say creating boards improves your design eye. Practice really does make perfect.

One of the reasons for this is economy of materials and time. If you have a good mood board maker, it’s really cheap and easy to throw together ideas and see how they will look using this method.

Drawing by Hand

It’s worth mentioning that sketching and drawing by hand is also an invaluable way of developing your design and allowing yourself to start noticing design details as you grow into your role as a designer. However, where graphic design really shines is that mood boards have that element of text, which is a little bit harder to get right when you’re doing it by hand.

Good design board and mood board programs offer users things like paint samples from real-world product lines and the most popular fonts and typefaces typically used by designers.

How 2D Design Complements 3D Design

You can practice your composition, your color plays on form, negative space, shape, and other spatial relationships, and move things around and swap them out with ease. Because you are working in two dimensions, a lot of what you’re doing is still fairly unrefined and will need to be worked out in greater detail in a 3D environment.

The graphic skills, however, start to improve as you practice in a two-dimensional space in preparation for later 3D application.

6. 3D Space Planning Skills

green palm tree near white and black dome building under blue sky

One of the biggest differences between a graphic designer and an architectural designer is that the graphic designer is working much more with two dimensions, and an architectural designer is working with three-dimensional space.

What makes architectural design more difficult in some senses is that you need to switch between two different dimensions with ease. This process grows your spatial intelligence in a way that only architectural and interior designers can ever fully understand. Graphic designers who work in three dimensions also understand this principle.

Having said that, three-dimensional design skills are hugely important in being an interior designer. After all, you are planning for a real-world environment in three-dimensional space. Your plans, on the other hand, need to be executed in two dimensions.

After mastering the two-dimensional aspects of design work, you will need to be able to show your finished design proposal in a way that looks realistic and as it would in three dimensions.

Traditionally, interior designers would draw to scale and make perspective drawings and renderings to show the finished design. They would also create physical models. These days, you will be using a mixture of drawing and CAD modeling to showcase your design ideas.

If I had to point to one skill that is challenging to learn, it would be the three-dimensional modeling side of interior design. It might help to know that to get started, it is not necessary to offer three-dimensional design services to your decorating clients. It’s totally possible to work mostly in two-dimensional programs and level your way up to offering three-dimensional design.

There are four main types of software needs that virtual interior designers have:

  1. 2D only
  2. 2D and easy 3D design software
  3. 2D and professional 3D software
  4. Interior design project management software

Bear in mind that 3D skills are something that clients should be prepared to pay more money for. If you offer three-dimensional design services, make sure you are charging appropriately to reflect the expense of subscriptions and time spent modeling in 3D.

If you find that you’re especially challenged by this side of the work, it is possible, when you have large jobs, to outsource your three-dimensional modeling to specialists. Just make sure that you are able to visualize three-dimensional furniture and three-dimensional space and accurately represent it in the two-dimensional plans that you offer to your clients. It is important for interior designers to be able to think in three dimensions even if they are doing a fair bit of the actual planning and design work in two dimensions.

7. Listening Skills

man wearing white headphones listening to music

Wouldn’t it be great if you could cut to the chase and magically get your client’s brief right the first time and never have to do any revisions? Although the realization of this idea is tempting, in actual fact, skipping past the iterations and rushing to the end can have a negative impact on your ultimate design. Remember that design is a process, so try not to rush it.

In order to be able to get from a few inspirational images or notes to the final, finished product, you are going to need to do a lot of listening to your client. The better you are at listening to and understanding your client, the better your first design draft will be. The better your first draft is, the fewer revisions you’ll have to make, and the closer you will be to nailing the final design.

In the process of working with your client on a design, there will almost certainly be things the client will ask you to change. Make peace with it from the outset. You yourself will likely find that you will need to make revisions and new iterations as more information becomes available. Unavailable products, unseen design issues, and last-minute changes to the plan are normal, and you should expect them to happen.

The skill of listening to your client helps you to understand what the issues are and address them. When working with a client, try to avoid having an emotional reaction and really get to the bottom of what they are saying. For example, they may not be saying you have bad taste when they hate something you chose, but what they are saying is that it’s not to their taste and not for them.

It doesn’t matter how well it goes with your scheme or why you love it, if the client doesn’t resonate with it, don’t try to convince them. Listening means understanding and adjusting. No one said it was easy, but it’s the best way to move forward together.

8. “Translation” to Design Skills

male constructor drawing draft on paper roll

As a designer, you have a special ability and a gift that others don’t. What is this gift? It’s the ability to take in information and translate it into a design plan. Your client might have some of the pieces to the puzzle, but you are the one who needs to find the missing pieces and help put it all together in the end.

Don’t be intimidated by clients who have great taste or who know a bit (or even a lot!) about design. Architects and designers hire other designers all the time. If the client had the time, patience, or the wherewithal to do it themselves, they would have. Instead, they asked you. This means that they are coming to you for help because they trust that you can solve their issues.

I like the quote, “Clients don’t have answers, they have problems.” A thorough understanding of the different aspects of your job and getting your design vocabulary down will help take you from vague generalizations to a concrete, final design.

Design has its own language, but non-designers don’t tend to speak it. The more clients you work with, the more likely you are going to understand what people mean when they use layman's terms for design vocabulary. When this happens, you can translate what they said to what that would mean for you as the designer.

Clients like to hear you explain how you arrived at your conclusions. If your design is sound and your reasoning is sound, it helps for you to convey that.

Think of yourself as a guide and a translator, as well as a designer. Translate the concept to the tangible, and the hazy ideas into a crystal clear vision.

When you find a way to translate what your client is asking for into your best vision, you might both be surprised and delighted by the results. Design is a discovery process, and the more you do it, the better you will get at putting the puzzle pieces together and creating the final masterpiece.

9. Patience and a Sense of Humor

delighted young multiethnic women talking and laughing in a green park

Design work necessarily has a fair bit of back and forth between clients, designers, suppliers, and other professionals who may be involved in bringing the design to life. With every iteration and change, there is a new round of reviewing and waiting on approval or feedback. This means waiting.

Sometimes a supplier you want to use doesn’t have the items in stock and you have to look elsewhere, or you have to wait on new inventory. These types of issues can stress you out and push your schedule back at times.

One way to deal with this is to try to plan for suppliers’ stock issues by having backups and alternatives ahead of time. When you can’t do this, however, try to relax and let the process play out however it needs to. You can only ever do your best, and some things are out of your control.

With virtual interior design, the job is most often held up on the client’s end if they are not good at communicating or are indecisive. When this happens, you will need to know how long you will give them before you check up on them. While you don’t want to nag your client, you do want to keep your projects to a certain time frame and avoid going over. In the meantime, having a lot of patience helps.

Life happens to all of us, and not everything will go according to plan or as scheduled. Remember to stay professional in your communication and take the high road when there are discrepancies or disagreements.

Having a good sense of humor is really valuable in a job where you work closely with people, and design is definitely one of those jobs. True, you might be remote or working virtually, but communication is even MORE important in such a scenario. Be patient with yourself and others, and try to have a laugh about the little problems that you can’t do anything about. Focus on the eventual success of your project and let the little snags iron themselves out!

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading "How to Master 9 Essential Skills for Virtual Interior Design." If you’d like to catch up in real-time, please follow us on Twitter and Pinterest. We’d love to hear your feedback and answer your questions!

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