How to Color a Chameleon, Contract Design

Yes, the economy and the job market overall have improved in the last 18 months. So why are many architects and interior designers still having trouble finding work? Because there is a glut of architects and designers in the marketplace, and the schools are graduating more each year without counseling them about job opportunities or helping them to find jobs. Today's recent graduates are competing for jobs with people who have six to eight years' experience. And they're all hoping to land the same basic job—one with a major architecture or interior design firm.

Traditionally, working for a design firm meant status, glamour, a chance to use one's creativity and skills without much in pay or benefits. That's still true today. Unfortunately, the jobs are harder to come by when even some of the largest firms are beating the bushes for business or outsourcing when the projects come in.

The bottom line in the '90s is that design professionals must be willing to be chameleons and change themselves to meet the needs of the marketplace. The first question any employer will ask is, "Do you know CAD?" Designers who studied it five years ago and have not used it since will need to take a course to understand the newest programs. Even firms that don't have openings often have temporary assignments for designers with CAD. And once that proverbial foot is in the door, a "temp" position could become "full-time."

Note that the word "permanent" isn't being used. Today no job is forever, and that may be good. Quality of life issues, personal fulfillment and enjoyment of work are important themes for the '90's, so that changing jobs as your life changes may make great sense. However, deliberately planned job hopping is a new mindset. It means thinking of your career as a series of job components that allow you as a design professional to move among job opportunities as personal needs, interests and the economy dictate.

Employed design professionals as well as recent graduates should be open to jobs that are an alternative to the traditional design firm career path. The logic is simple: that's where the opportunities are. All of the following positions complement and build on a design professional's basic skills and knowledge. 

Sales representative: it's not profane to pronounce the "S" word 
While "sales" is a dirty word to some design professionals, this is their number one area of opportunity. It turns their design background into an asset—manufacturers respect architecture and interior design degrees. Plus, sales offers good income and benefits as well as flexible hours. Because designers already understand the technical and aesthetic feature of furniture, textiles, wall covering, floor covering, lighting, window treatments and building products (the potential list is endless), they can explain them to other designers in their own language. They can use a design library for inspiration, contact manufacturers directly or check the classified pages of Contract Design or the industry newsletters, Monday Morning Quarterback and Officeinsight. 
Specification writers and project managers for furniture dealerships: needed right now, whatever you think of them 
Another area with abundant jobs today, dealerships complement the work of design firms. A design firm may order 500 work stations, but a dealer and a manufacturer must provide the technical expertise to "spec" out the stations. Literally hundreds of designers are hired to fulfill that role and that of project manager. Again, while many designers may look down on dealers, they're the fastest growing area in the industry. Dealerships offer good wages—$50,000 plus—as well as assignments that increase a designer's experience level for the next job. 
Managers for facilities, project and furniture management companies: go where the outsourcing often ends up 
These are usually small companies that act as consultants to large ones, managing facilities, acting as an owner's representative on projects, recommending furniture dealers and negotiating furniture prices. As corporation downsize their facilities departments, these services are outsourced. To find these firms, designers may need to network with manufacturers reps. The same reps who call on design firms also call on these consultants to get their products specified. In fact, the reps are a great source for where the jobs are in general—who has the projects and who's hiring. 
Corporate facility managers: how many hats are you willing to wear? 
Designers are excellent choices for facility-related positions, whether they're hired in-house or on a per-diem basis. In today's economy, however, facility managers are wearing many hats. A facility manger may be involved in new projects, downsizing, purchasing, telecommunications and insurance issues, to name just a few. It's an opportunity for the designer to expand his knowledge and skill base. 
Professional freelancer: when variety is your security 
There are agencies that place design professionals as temps who are not looking for full-time positions. Variety keeps their work interesting and secure, they carry their own insurance and consider temp work their own small business enterprise. Architects and interior designers can also keep busy on a temp basis through their own contacts with design firms and dealerships, of course. 
Outsource resource librarians: my brains, your binders 
This area is a new one. These librarians set up a design firm library and then update and maintain it weekly or monthly, on an as needed basis. They arrange appointments with the manufacturers' reps on the days they are in and do a lot of work out of their own home offices, for example, ordering special samples for new projects. This arrangement allows librarians to have several firms as clients and saves the firms the expense of full-time librarians. 
In-house architect/designer for real estate developers: are tenants your cup of tea? 
Here, the design professional would plan the lobbies and common areas of an office building, and help the developer lease space by providing tenants with the critical space plans and design services that can make a leasing transaction go forward. 
Residential designer: customer service is key 
Contract designers are often concerned with the customer service aspect of residential design, but there is a lot of work in the residential arena today. Many designers who can't find work should consider stores like the Ethan Allen Galleries, the design studio at Bloomingdales, Bombay Company, Crate and Barrel, Pottery Barn and Home Depot. Ethan Allen spends almost one-half million dollars a year in help wanted ads for designers to work in its galleries.

One large Midwest department store just hired a designer fresh out of school for $40,000/year. Home Depot hires a number of retired architects and designers. Granted, these jobs may require working some weekends or evenings, but salary plus commission should total twice that of an entry-level position at a major design firm. 

Showroom sales: are you fresh out of design school? 
The residential showrooms for furniture, tile and textiles are particularly receptive to hiring design professionals fresh out of school. 
Kitchen, bath and closet designers: why not? 
Designers who have spent the last six months sending their resumes out to design firms and getting nowhere should send them to a kitchen, bath or closet design company. They'll be hired overnight and trained about the product. Design professionals might also look to other creative industries, such as food, fashion and writing for opportunities. For instance, there are a few design editors and journalists who are architects or interior designers by training. 
Misunderstood opportunities: marketing and specifying may not be what you think 
There are two areas where the opportunities are misunderstood. The first is design firm marketing. Most applicants think the position is about organizing events and public relations, when marketing is mainly "new business development"—getting work for the firm. The position requires sales experience and a connection with the real estate community. Caveat emptor: firm principals get very impatient if new business doesn't materialize quickly, so the marketing position tends to turn over rapidly.

Another frequently requested position is that of the designer in a firm who specifies furnishing and finishes. The truth is that there are few of these positions available. In most firms across the country, the function is combined with other design functions, and knowledge of CAD is a requirement. 

Future employment: why your next job should not be your last 
Jobs will remain tight in the traditional design firm market throughout the United States for some time to come. On the other hand, the alternative careers discussed in this article should continue to be plentiful. Design professionals and recent graduates looking for work should keep an open mind and go on as many interviews as possible.

Interviewing is a good experience and the only way to really find out about an area. Before turning a position down—and this situation will arise, believe it or not—architects and interior designers should remember that it is advantageous to look for work when you have a job. Having a job shows your initiative and a good work ethic.

And, as mentioned earlier, as a design professional, you should look at each job as a component in your career, going off to try new areas and returning to others. It's the secret for personal fulfillment and of being employable for life. Consider it perhaps your one and only project that will never wind down.