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Interview with Interior Design Professor, Jennifer Farris

Jennifer Farris, 35, works as an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond, Va., a position she's held since 2009. Farris, who lives in Richmond, also has 11 years of experience working as an interior designer -- currently she's with the firm Baskervill, which was founded in 1897 and is one of Richmond's oldest businesses. Jennifer teaches classes on a range of topics, including an introduction to the principles of interior design and business principles for interior design.

Interior Decorating

In this interview with Career Colleges, Jennifer reveals the inner-workings of a modern interior design program, and shares what students can do to find the most success on their educational journey.

Q. What made you become interested in teaching this program?

A. I worked in professional design for about seven years in New York before moving to Virginia, and I had the opportunity to be a guest lecturer and critic. I really enjoyed it, so when the opportunity at VCU opened up to get involved in teaching I was really excited. I also had a few teachers in my undergraduate studies who were huge mentors and had a big impact on my life. Teachers can change your destiny, and I wanted to have that kind of impact on others.

Q. As an instructor, how do you define the success of a course or program?

A. It is interesting to see the level of improvement from start to finish. If you look at projects at the sophomore level and set them side-by-side with senior-level projects -- that is how you can gauge success. The change is mind blowing. How students grow in that short time defines if a program is great or not.


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Q. What are some challenges typically associated with technical instruction of this program?

A. There are two sides. One area is hands-on skill sets. Students will build models, draft by hand, and mark up renderings -- there is a lot of technical instruction teaching students how to craft with their hands. The second part is the computer programs that are critical to our industry and critical for students to advance and excel in. They have to learn those technical skills, and they are skills that they can infuse with their own creativity once they get a grasp on their technical ability.

Q. What are some teaching strategies you use to help students master difficult concepts or subjects?

A. I feel very strongly that people learn through repeating a process over and over. When I teach the process of design, I try to break it down into methods they can approach with a step-by-step solution, so they have a chance to practice the same five or six steps applied to the same problem.

Q. Do you have any experience incorporating newer educational technologies into your courses?

A. I let the students use the programs they are learning in other classes for work in my classes. The most important change in the last 10 years is 3-D rendering programs, particularly Revit, a computer-drafting program that gives you the ability to model in 3-D with photorealistic materials and lighting. Students have to be able to use that program to be competitive when they get out of school.

Q. Interior designers use software on a regular basis. Do any of your courses offer preparation for software?

A. I don't teach courses specific to software, but I have had students who went to community college and took drafting classes -- they were leaps and bounds ahead when they got to school.

Q. Are there specific skills or background experience that will help prospective students?

A. What worked for me was getting involved in extracurricular programs in high school that offered exposure to art. Secondly, any introduction to computers is a good thing to have before going into college because the courses are pretty computer intensive. And anyone that has an understanding of art history has the advantage of understanding the concept of interior design as a whole.

Q. How can students best prepare for the challenges of the program?

A. It is a lot of mental preparation, particularly for a design program. It requires a tremendous amount of time and energy. Students should mentally prepare themselves for the sacrifice it takes to get through a design program. If they are preparing for a party life, that is not the case [with this program].

Q. Do you recommend students get certified or licensed as interior designers?

A. I don't take a personal stance one way or the other. It is a heated debate. I present them the pros of getting a certificate or license, but there are plenty of people in great jobs who are not licensed. It really boils down to your personal goals. If you want to operate an independent business, it is critical, but there is not one right or wrong way. Each state has its own legislation about who can practice and what titles can be used, but you can work in a firm under other licensed professionals without having a certification.

Q. Are there any materials you recommend students purchase before they start an interior design program?

A. I recommend that students don't purchase materials before they get to class. Most professors have very specific requirements, and if you go out and spend a bunch of money on what you think you need and the professor has different ideas, that can be frustrating. However, the number one thing to buy is a sketchbook, and to start drawing every day. Even if your drawings are terribly ugly, the idea of starting to find comfort expressing visual ideas on paper is the best $10 you could spend in your life.

Q. Are there any kinds of individuals you would recommend to completely stay away from this program?

A. If people are genuinely lazy and don't care. They can't come into a design program and not be willing to give 150 percent.

Q. What skills will your students not be able to learn in the classroom?

A. Reality. There is a point that you get all these ideas on paper, but there is a whole other part that takes place from idea to completion, the actual building of that physical space. That doesn't happen in school, and until you are actually out there in the world working the projects are not getting built. That is priceless experience you don't get until you get your first job.

Q. What types of internship or volunteer work do you recommend your students pursue while taking your classes?

A. I am a big fan of any type of internship or volunteer work -- I did a ton of that stuff when I was in school, and it helped me. When I got my first job, I really had a lot of experience that put me above people who had not done that. Go work at a theater company, an art museum or gallery space, or go to your local Habitat for Humanity office and see how they build houses and how the construction process goes. The more students do before they get out of school the better off they will be in their first job.

Q. What associations or professional groups do you recommend to your students?

A. I don't have any favorites or try to steer students in one direction. I do recommend they get involved in their student chapters of interior design. But all professional associations are recommended.

Q. Can you explain some of the differences between interior design and decorating?

A. Interior decorating is more concerned with aesthetics and the surface quality of spaces. That is a very important part of our profession, but when you get into the discussion about decorating and design, the difference is when health and safety issues come up. Space planning, lighting and more technical things in interior design require more education experience to really grasp and develop so you can offer the end-user something that functions but also speaks to the health and safety of the end-user group.

Q. Can you explain some of the differences between interior design and interior decorating?

A. Interior decorating is more concerned with aesthetics and the surface quality of spaces. That is a very important part of our profession, but when you get into the discussion about decorating and design, the difference is when health and safety issues come up. Space planning, lighting and more technical things in interior design require more education and experience in order to offer the end-user something that functions but also speaks to health and safety.

Q. What is your outlook on the future of interior design?

A. As a profession it is only advancing forward. Our industry really only started in the early 1900s -- 1904 was first interior design course [offered] at the college level. It'll be exciting to see what happens in the next few decades - to see how we will continue to move forward and become more critical in the eyes of the greater public, and gain more respect as a profession.

Please note: Unless explicitly stated otherwise, any job outlook predictions, career/educational advice, and salary information found on this page are based solely on the opinion of the interviewee and not that of CareerColleges.com or any other organization.