UAL Graduate Diploma Interior Design | An Honest Review

From 2017-2018, I took a Graduate Diploma in Interior Design at Chelsea College of Arts, which is part of UAL / University of the Arts London. I got a bunch of questions about why I was doing it, what it was like, and whether it was worth it, so today I’m dishing the deets.

Chelsea’s Graduate Diploma Interior Design is the equivalent of the third year of an interior design undergraduate course. It’s full time – around 35 hours in the classroom and an additional four to six hours of homework every week.

Probably 50% of the other students on the course were straight out of a BA (mainly in design or architecture). The rest were a little older. A few were around my age (34 at the time), and had worked in practice for a few years or were shifting their career focus. I was only one of three who had kids.

I was also in a very small minority – maybe four out of the 56 students on the course – with no academic design background. The standard was high, which was both very exciting and a little bit unnerving!

Why Study an Interior Design Course At All?

There are plenty of successful designers who don’t have any academic qualifications. I did go back and forth a bit wondering whether it was really worth spending the time and the money (nearly £10K at the time, which has since increased), especially when my business was starting to take off without it.

Initially, my main reasoning for biting the bullet and actually doing it was that, should I ever want to go and work for an interior design firm, it’s really hard to get a job with no formal qualifications, regardless of experience. I also wanted to learn more about the practical aspects of running a design business, which would be hard to teach myself.

Why Choose UAL Chelsea?

UAL Chelsea has an excellent academic reputation. I wanted a course geared toward professional practice, rather than learning things like how to coordinate patterns when you’re decorating your living room. I also didn’t want a course that just anyone could do. Hence choosing a graduate diploma over a certificate or something similar – this course assumed you already had a background in design, even if it wasn’t necessarily interiors.

I considered other schools before I picked UAL Chelsea, including RCA, the Inchbald, and KLC. I applied to and got offers at both KLC and Chelsea. KLC is a private school, and their Interior Design diploma course is £26K. Honestly, I couldn’t justify that even if I had had the money. KLC does have a cheaper online-learning option, but I really wanted to meet people through whichever course I did, so that steered me back towards Chelsea.

1 bed 2 bath open plan NYC apartment with bonus room - floor plan
Floor plans that formed part of my application to KLC

UAL is in the top five art and design schools in the world, and in the top two in the UK. RCA is number one, but they didn’t have an equivalent program (only an MA, if I remember correctly). Initially, I had concerns that the program would be more weighted toward the arts and not as practical as I wanted. During my interview, though, the course leader resolutely assured me that that was not the case.

What Is UAL Chelsea’s Graduate Diploma: Interior Design Actually Like?

The first couple of weeks into the course had me doubting my decision a little bit. Contrary to what I’d been told in my interview, the course most definitely is arts focused. A lot of the early content covered spatial design, installations and visiting art galleries. There wasn’t a lot of actual interior design.

That said, I learnt a few new practical skills – model making and a bit of AutoCAD, most notably. And the course bombarded me, in a very good way, with mountains of inspiration.

Barcelona Pavillion model Lizzie Ravn for UAL Chelsea Grad Dip Interior Design
An early assignment – build a scale model of the Barcelona Pavilion and Photoshop it to add materials, setting and furnishings.

The course is split into two main units – one residential and one commercial. There is a third unit that focuses more on the theory, history, language and methodology. That unit ran throughout the course and informed the two more practical units.

Unit One: Residential Design

Our residential design project involved a new-build space in Hackney Wick, East London. My “client” was a single woman, early-30s, avid traveller, bit of a fitness nut, recently relocated to London for a long-term work project. Basically me, sans kids. The space had to display a collection of something – in my case, travel souvenirs.

The building itself was comprised of 3x3x3 meter cubes, which we designed collectively as a group. Each unit, designed individually, was comprised of a certain number of cubes. My space was a one bedroom flat made of eight cubes.

The project included models, floor plans, sketches, site visits, materials selections, building reg considerations, etc. Basically everything you’d do in an actual design project but with free-reign on budget. F*** yes!

UAL Chelsea Grad Dip Interior Design coursework - space planning sketches by Lizzie Ravn
Space planning sketches in development, part of Unit One

I’ll post more of my work from this project at some point. It was a great brief and I really enjoyed it.

Unit Two: Commercial Design

The second unit was the same deal as the first, except it was for a small business. There was, additionally, a heavy emphasis on branding and marketing for that business. I’m not sure why there so much focus on the branding and marketing, over and above, say, electrical or lighting design. But I suppose it did make us consider a more hollistic approach to commercial interiors. Maybe?

Unit Two required more space planning, models, visuals and all that. By this point in the course, the commercial project that I was doing in real life (a local spin and fitness studio) had become more than a full time job in itself. Aside from just designing the space, I actually ended up co-founding and running the business.

This was the point where I almost quit the course – everything was so full on, and I was struggling to keep up with the workload. The compromise was a crossover. I used my existing business – whose branding I had already designed – and translated it to a second site in Brighton.

Visuals & floor plans from Unit Two – dodgy angles on that bench though!

I could have gotten more out of the course if I’d been able to devote more time to the second project, obviously. My point here is that I would highly recommend not working elsewhere while doing a full-time design diploma, if you can help it! But the tutors supported me and convinced me to stay, and I’m glad I stuck it out!

Our end-of-year exhibition at UAL Chelsea | June 2018

Was It Worth It?

At first, the conceptual focus had me feeling frustrated more than anything. I was so keen to learn more about the practical aspects of running a design business, and I didn’t get that from Chelsea’s Graduate Diploma Interior Design.

What the course did do, though, is make me a better designer. You can go to somewhere with a more practical focus like KLC, and learn about decor schemes and throw pillows and become a good designer. Or, you can go to somewhere like Chelsea, expand how you think about space and design, and learn the tools to become a great designer.

The practicalities of running a design business are things that you can learn on the job. Exploring and expanding on the way you consider space and design is more suited to a creative classroom environment. And that’s what I did get out of Chelsea.

Grad Dip Interior Design Assignment - Fake Magazine Cover
Another early assignment – mock up the cover and contents page of an existing magazine as if it were featuring our imaginary client

Interior design is about how we experience and navigate spaces, how we relate to our environment, and how spaces can influence our experiences. Design can foster community and make people happier.

It’s about so much more than just picking out curtains and cushions. That sounds all a bit artsy fartsy, but it’s the sole reason I got into design. It remains the foundation for every space I design now. So in that regard, Chelsea hit the nail on the head.

I also met some lovely and incredibly talented people on the course, and that’s definitely winning!

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