Designer v. Decorator

The terms “Interior Designer” and “Interior Decorator” are often used interchangeably. However, this is a common misconception, and as you’ll see below, the two are definitely not the same. This article will hopefully dispel any confusion and help you to choose the right personnel for your project.

Interior Designers

The American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) defines an Interior Designer as one who “…is professionally trained to create a functional and quality interior environment. Qualified through education, experience and examination, a professional designer can identify, research and creatively resolve issues and provide a healthy, safe and comfortable physical environment.” At its heart, Interior Design is the art and science of understanding people’s behavior in order to create functional spaces for them. And, Decoration is the furnishing or adorning of a space with fashionable or beautiful things. In practice, Interior Designers may also decorate, but Interior Decorators do not design. Interior Designers apply creative and technical solutions that respond to, and coordinate with, the occupants’ life and culture, the building shell and its physical location, the social context of the project, the codes and regulatory requirements, and the principles of environmental sustainability, ergonomics and universality. The Interior Design process follows a systematic and coordinated methodology including research, analysis and integration of knowledge into the creative process, in order to satisfy the needs and budget of the client.

Interior Design is a more specialized career field, requiring a certain combined level of education, work experience, and licensing. Typically, Interior Designers have attended 4-year colleges or universities that are CIDA or FIDER accredited, and have majored in Interior Architecture or Interior Design. They have completed internships within the field under the supervision of licensed professionals to gain real world experience. And, qualified Interior Designers have either passed, or are working towards passing, the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) exam in order to test their competency and to attain state recognition of their profession. Passing the NCIDQ is a critical step in becoming licensed. Licensing certifies that the designer is a qualified professional who is competent and expertly able to make complex decisions about interior spaces.

And, also important, is that Interior Designers usually have vast knowledge of the History of Art, Architecture, Furniture and Design. They can put everything into a historical context, and because they have studied all of the influential periods, styles, trends, motifs, etc. they can better apply and manipulate them to positively affect the space at hand. They can also design new elements from scratch using this knowledge and their studied skills in sketching, drafting, modeling, and rendering.

Interior Designers are also encouraged to stay current in their field and are required to complete a certain number of Continuing Education Units (CEU’s) each year per state licensing and/or organizational membership requirements. Many Interior Designers are members of organizations such as the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA), and the United States Green Building Council (USGBC), just to name a few.

Thus, a primary difference between an Interior Designer and an Interior Decorator is that the Interior Designer is certified on many levels and has obtained, through their education, a wide range of technical skills needed to provide a full range of interior design services to augment their natural artistic talent.

When you hire an Interior Designer, you get the benefit of an experienced professional who can solve problems, help you avoid costly mistakes, and most importantly, create an attractive, affordable space designed specifically to meet your needs. In addition to their in-depth knowledge of products, equipment, materials and finishes, professional designers have the training and expertise to plan, schedule, execute and manage your project from start to finish. They can prepare CAD construction documents for bidding and permitting, as well as supervise the construction and installation of the work. They can handle matters relating to acoustics, sound transmission, lighting, hvac, plumbing, exterior elements, structural modifications, flammability ratings, off-gassing properties, ADA requirements, durability, maintenance, 3D building modelling, and more. They become your liaison to deal with licensed contractors, building departments, vendors, and other relevant professionals.

Having the ability to work efficiently with all of these different entities is great for the client if the client doesn’t have the same experience, or if they simply do not have the time or inclination to be so involved. Interior Designers spend a large portion of their time learning about architecture and the structure of buildings. Therefore, they fundamentally understand and speak the “language” of architects and engineers, which allows them to more thoroughly comprehend how a space can function, which in turn can lead to more compelling, useful and safe designs. Thus, the Interior Designer typically goes beyond aesthetics and places further value on the functionality, usability, efficiency and safety of a space. And, because of their in depth training, Interior Designers can work on all types of projects from commercial (offices, medical facilities, retail shops, restaurants, hotels, retirement facilities, schools, etc.) to residential (single family homes, townhomes/condominiums, apartments, lofts, vacation homes, etc.).

Interior Decorators

Interior Decorators are primarily concerned with decoration: paint, fabric, furnishings and accessories… items that change the look, aesthetics or visual impression of a space. They are able to alter the color of the walls, the types of finishes, and add decorative elements to the space, but they are not qualified to remove or alter any standing structure, make electrical/mechanical changes, or anything else of a more complex nature. This is because becoming an Interior Decorator requires absolutely no formal training. Interior Decorators sometimes attain a two-year Associates degree from a community college, vocational or online program that may, or may not, be accredited. In many cases, however, the individual might have gone right from high school (or other phase of life) to working without any higher education. And, there is no government regulation regarding the work of an Interior Decorator. Accordingly, Interior Decorators typically stay within the residential realm of interiors because there are fewer codes and regulations to abide by. Commercial projects require much stricter adherence, attention and prerequisite knowledge of building regulations because making changes to more complex elements requires special training since each have the potential to cause harm by disrupting the health, safety and welfare of the occupants.  It is also important to note that the majority of Interior Decorators do not use formal contracts or letters of agreement spelling out what the services are that they are going to provide and/or how much they are going to charge, which opens the door for ambiguity, and leaves the buyer unprotected. And, many Interior Decorators charge just as much as Interior Designers, if not more. Also, unlike most Interior Designers, many Interior Decorators are not bonded and/or insured.

In Summary: Be Careful!

Colorado has an Interior Design permitting statute which means that Interior Designers who have met the education (2 years minimum), experience (6 years of education + experience minimum) and examination standards (pass NCIDQ) are permitted to prepare interior design documents for filing and obtaining building permits. However, there is no state board and there is no title that is regulated. And, because Colorado is not yet a title state, anyone can call themselves an “Interior Designer” regardless of the above qualifications. So, it is very important to ask the right questions. To find a qualified Interior Designer, it is best to go to the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) website, and locate certified designers by state.