What does it take to become a kitchen designer?

sjerinFebruary 23, 2013

I know there were posts on the subject several years ago, but times change and I decided to ask the newer batch of gardenwebbers for opinions as well. A friend with a very good sense of functional design would love to ease her way into the business, without going back to school for a new degree. Is there any way this can be done? As I understand it, she'd rather not be on the selling end of cabinets, etc., only the design end--is this possible? How does one dip a toe in to get started? Thanks in advance.

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Sophie Wheeler

Without an educational background in design, there is no real way to become an independent kitchen designer. It's not something that a bored trophy wife with a good fashion sense can just take up and just call themselves, like the term "decorator" is done. Even those who have the education and many years in cabinet design find being an independent business hard. It's not something that there is a big demand for at all, despite that being a constant question on this forum. Plenty of independents have failed and have taken jobs at paint stores, furniture stores, and even Home Depot just to pay the bills that design wasn't paying. Ask GreenDesigns on here about that. She did a post last year about that very reality.

The best route into it is to get a job at a cabinet shop. But, be aware that there are tons of people who want just that and they have their pick of whole new crops of design graduates every year. Without some type of design degree, it will be very hard to break into the business, but it can be done if she's willing to begin at the bottom. My friend's daughter just graduated design school and went into a local cabinet shop as a greeter. She is making $10 an hour and isn't allowed to do any design work at all. Just greet customers and escort them around the showroom and make a design appointment for them if the designer isn't available. If she sticks that out for at least a year, one of the designers might start to train her on 20/20. And then if one of the designers moves on to something else, she might get a shot at being an assistant designer. And that doesn't even really involve a lot of design work.

Or another route would be to take a $8 an hour job in the paint department at Lowes and work that for 2 years and keep applying for the non tech jobs in the kitchen department, and then when you get that job, work it for a couple of years before you prove that you are savvy enough to take the training courses that even Lowes requires to be placed in a design position. 10 years later, you're making $15 an hour.

One of the best suggestions would be to join the NKBA and attend every single meeting of your local chapter. Networking and getting your face and name known is part of any professional job, and being a KD is no exception. Once you are a member, you can take many of the training classes that they offer at a discount and can buy the $600 reference set that she'll need to memorize in order to actually do a kitchen design. There is a LOT more to being a KD than most people realize. You have to know building codes, safety standards, appliance specs, and thousands of other technical things. Plus thousands of different cabinet choices and posibilities. And the 20/20 software. And 7 years later, if you have gotten the coursework done, you can sit for the exam to become certified.

It IS doable. But it's not going to be overnight that she would be called a KD.

    Bookmark   February 23, 2013 at 4:21PM
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Thanks, hollysprings, for your thorough and thoughtful explanation. She's definitely not a bored trophy wife, but enjoys the whole process so much that she hoped she could funnel her energies into an paying job. I will pass your advice on to her--thanks again.

    Bookmark   February 23, 2013 at 6:32PM
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After school and drudge work as a specifier and then paying my dues in the cabinet shops for 20 years, I thought I had what it takes to be a success as an independent. I did OK for a couple of years, but the housing downturn really took a bite out of even positive word of mouth recommendations. It was either give it up or declare bankruptcy.

I took a job at a box store. Part time. Some weeks are 40 hours, and some weeks are 12. The full time positions are few, but I'm assured of one when one of my co-workers retires. If I want it. He's 70, and he just can't take the pressure from management for "more more more with less less less" anymore. Management took away the commission structure which made up the difference between the low salary and affording your light bill. And they did that with 3 days notice. What's a 70 year old guy going to do when they reduce your salary by 3/4ths? Retire and let the 50 year old have the pleasure of working twice as hard for 3/4 as much. And just being grateful to have the steady income.

Even for those with experience and skill, the jobs are few and far between. The economy is picking up though, and I do hope that eventually it will translate to a job outside the box store for me. But, as Holly said, design schools are graduating more and younger every year. And they will usually work for less. Which is all a lot of corporate America cares about.

Sorry, didn't mean this to be such a downer, but my advice to anyone thinking about trying to enter a design field would be to be sure and marry an electrician or plumber. You'll need the more reliable second income, and a business degree these days doesn't insure that. However, people will still pay to fix a short or unclog a toilet. Find a trade school in your town and learn HVAC. Anything like that is in high demand and pays well and will continue to do so.

This post was edited by GreenDesigns on Sun, Feb 24, 13 at 18:38

    Bookmark   February 23, 2013 at 7:02PM
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Wow, Greendesigns & hollysprings- you make the industry sound…. well awful.

Largely the kitchen design industry is an unregulated one (by state or federal government). You need no formal training of any kind to begin working in the industry, just a useful skill set that will encourage an employer to hire you. Kitchen designers often have a wide diversity of backgrounds in architecture, interior design, decoration or construction and there are even a few wonderful designers, whom I have had the pleasure to work with, who have a natural talent, but no formal education.

There are two types of business structures, a designer who sells and does all the work (design, drawing, field measure, pricing, ordering, manages delivery and final completion) or a designer who only sells and has a support staff who does all the other work. The former structure is far more popular here in the New England states. Often the showrooms here are small & owner operated by family. The larger companies focus on volume work. (Each sales person is expected to sell about $500K of product per year to start- these companies provide the most basic of services, limited design, drawing and delivery- limited follow thru during the installation process. Lowes & HD are examples of this type of shop. A volume shop can have each designer ordering 6-12 kitchens per week)

There are two ways to get into the industry, one is start low and work your way up or to come in as a sales person. In order to sell you need to understand the products (cabinetry, appliances, how things go together and why). A good sales person can sell anything, furniture, tile, appliances, construction, plumbing fixtures etc. When starting at the bottom you could be doing anything from administration, greeting, bookkeeping and working it into deign assistant or draftsperson.

Now in order to gain the knowledge base to successfully design kitchens there are several places to start- you could join the NKBA, order the Professional Learning Library (which is $700 hard cover or $600 e-book) "it is about $100 less if you join a study group (another $350 there)) and read it completely. You wont be able to sit for any of the exams without experience, but you certainly can read the books. I recently ran a study group through our local chapter and I must say that in the 7 years I have been a CKD, the material you need to know has doubled. Is it impossible to learn as a novice? No- but you need to be able to put in the time. The trick is that the academic knowledge is good, but you need hands on to become proficient. (I will get to the NKBA certifications shortly) The other option is to pick up and read every book you can find not only on design, but also construction, architecture and interior design. Our industry is very very broad, you could learn to design with cabinetry and know nothing about construction. Or know everything about construction but not have the creativity to design a kitchen beyond placing boxes.

Now- to become a certified kitchen designer there are two tests you have to take through the NKBA. The first is the AKBD ( Academic Kitchen & Bath Designer) you need (2) years of documented experience & (2) professional references. This test is very difficult and you need to read & comprehend the complete PRL books. This test cannot be passed without proper preparation. The second part is the CKD (Certified Kitchen Designer), you need (7) years industry experience to be eligible to take the part + (2) professional references & (2) client references. (The first and second parts can be taken together once you meet the latter criteria) The CKD exam is a design exam and is 4 hours. You are given a design problem that you must solve. You have to produce a floor plan, elevation, construction plan, mechanical plan and a design statement explaining what and why you have made your design decisions. The exam is graded on the proficiency of the design solution, including adhering to the client survey (ie listening to the clients wants and the site constraints), the design guidelines and the interpretation of the design solution and the assessment of health and safety guidelines.

You mentioned that your friend wants to only design- to accomplish this she would need to become a draftsperson. Often a draftsperson or technical designer as I call them, has to know everything. The products, appliances and their requirements, construction… A good draftsperson can draft by hand or by computer and can draw perspective or do computer renderings. Draftspersons are subject to the tools that the showroom supplies. I will tell you that high end shops do not use 2020, they either hand draft or use more sophisticated CAD programs such as AutoCad or ChiefArchitect. (2020 does not have the capability to do custom cabinets with any level of accuracy) Draftspeople are responsible to support the sales designer and make the design & product work. We do not only drafting, but also cabinet estimates and orders, we can order appliances, hardware & countertops, we also do tile takeoffs. Would your friend be comfortable ordering kitchens? Cabinet orders are easily $10K to $120K, it is a lot of responsibility. This industry is known for the potential of errors and omissions and each person has to step up and be responsible for their portion. This is a very detail orientated industry. I have been working in this industry since 1990, mostly as a technical designer. If your friend wants a fun design job, this could work for her if she can put in the time. The advantage of the K&B industry is that you get the start designing a lot sooner than in architecture or interior design. But if your friend wants to make money, or needs to make a living wage to survive, then she may be better off as a sales person or even in interior designer.

As a last note, many people come into the K&B industry from a parallel course. They may start in related industries, not limited to interior design, architecture or construction, but also thru tile, appliances or cabinet manufacturing companies. There are a lot of factors that contribute to becoming a successful K&B designer, I hope to have touched on a few for you.

    Bookmark   February 23, 2013 at 8:18PM
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Thought your friend may be interested in checking out Rebecca Robeson's trajectory. Shis is a very successful designer in San Diego that appears to be self taught. I've see her work in San Diego Home & Garden magazine which led me to her website. Aside from obvious talent and developing a network of craftsmen to work with, she seems to be personable and extremely ambitious with a big following on YouTube for her interior design tips and before and after big reveals. She may have started with decorating her own home, her friends and thru word of mouth, but YouTube has brought her jobs across the country and I think international. http://www.robesondesign.com/about.html

    Bookmark   February 23, 2013 at 10:20PM
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GreenDesigns, I'm so sorry you've had such a tough time and hope you can pick up soon. Are you in a smaller town where most of the economy is still in a bad way? Thanks to everyone for taking the time to give my friend your views on the subject. I know she will greatly appreciate all the advice.

    Bookmark   February 25, 2013 at 2:26PM
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I know this thread has a bit of age on it, but there is a path I haven't seen anyone mention yet which allows a person to gain experience without a huge outlay of cash on the front in to see if the industry is something that is even a good fit for an individual. Kitchen design *is* a lot more complicated than it seems and to go into business for oneself can be tough even if a person has been a designer for awhile.

The trajectory I took is perhaps not typical, but it worked for me. In my former career, I worked in marketing and had quite a bit of experience in graphic design. I was looking for a change and so I sought out an arrangement in which I became a freelance designer for a cabinetry shop. I was not an employee. Rather, I was an outside partner to that business. I actively found my own client base/ leads and then ordered my product through that business. I was 100% commission, but since I didn't have the overhead of a showroom, I was able to 'earn while I learned'. This experience gave me the opportunity to find mentors and teachers, make connections in the building industry, receive training from a wide array of vendors, merchants, and folks in the trades. It also allowed me to become proficient in 2020, Prokitchen, and Chief Architect.

The benefits of that partnership to me should be obvious. I learned a new trade and was able to transition from one career to the next without the downtime of going back to college. The benefit to the cabinet business was that they would collect a percentage of each sale I brought in and they spent no money on me as I was not an employee, and no money on client acquisition since I was the one digging the leads. I also accepted the risk of mistakes, so the risk to the existing business was nil.

This worked well enough for me that when I took over management of that business a few years later, I continued to allow and even expand this freelance partner/ designer arrangement. Our freelance designers are welcome to come to manufacturer and CAD training we hold a few times a year if they wish. They are welcome to bring their clients to the showroom, if they wish. But at the end of the day, they are responsible for themselves because they are our partners in business, not our employees. We have both part time and full time freelancers. I imagine their paychecks vary widely, but since I do not cut them a paycheck, I couldn't comment on that part of it. Some have been in the industry for 25 years, some have been at it for less than 5. All are happy with the partnership, and the business does fine with it as well.

Regardless of which path a potential designer takes, there's no doubt it takes grit and a whole lotta hustle. There's a lot of ways to get into the industry and all of them require hard work. Good luck!

    Bookmark   March 2, 2015 at 8:21PM
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