The terms 'interior decorator' and 'interior designer' are often used interchangeably. However, interior designers are generally licensed professionals with academic degrees, while interior decorators usually are not (interior decorating is but one facet of interior design). Typically, certificate programs are available in interior decorating, while associate's, bachelor's, and master's degree programs are available in interior design.
Certificate in Interior Decorating
A certificate program in interior decorating familiarizes individuals with aspects of surface decoration, such as fabric, lighting, paint, and furnishings. In an interior decorating certificate program, students learn how to select appropriate colors and fabrics for furnishings; arrange furniture; choose accessories; and select complementary lighting, window treatments, and flooring. Accredited programs are available on campus and online. Interior decorating courses are taught at private and public schools throughout the country, with varied prerequisites.
Participation in college-level programs generally requires the student to have a high school diploma or GED. Because interior decorating can call for the creation of floor plans, some programs require students to have a basic knowledge of drafting and drawing to scale. The number of required courses included in the program varies by school. In some cases, courses need to be taken in a certain order. Students are required to have the basics down before exploring advanced material, such as the following subjects:
- Fundamentals of interior decorating
- Use of space
- Textiles and materials
- Color design and effective lighting
- Drawing interiors
- Styles of interior decorating
Associate of Applied Science in Interior Design
Students enrolled in an associate's degree program in interior design are introduced to kitchen and bath design, residential design, and commercial design. Hands-on training is stressed along with aspects of design theory. The program goes further than decorating to expose students to construction and safety principles applicable to design. Participation in competitions and industry organizations, field trips, and on-the-job internships are typically part of the degree program.
A high school diploma or GED, as well as a high school transcript, are usually required to enter an associate's degree program. Should an applicant not have a diploma or GED, a placement test may be required for admission. Schools encourage high school courses that reflect an interest and aptitude for the subject, such as interior design, art, art appreciation, marketing, sales, and architectural drawing. Solid computer skills are also strongly recommended. General education courses such as public speaking, psychology, and composition complement basic interior decorating courses, such as:
- Presentations and renderings
- CAD for interior design
- Residential design and construction codes
- Studio practices, design principles, and lighting
- Art survey
Bachelor of Arts in Interior Design
Programs leading to a Bachelor of Arts in Interior Design familiarize students with art history, theory of color, design, construction, digital and traditional media, fabrics, furnishings, finishes, and the effective, aesthetically pleasing use of surface space. Through the study of architecture and art, graduates are prepared to marry creative and technical skills to solve space utilization problems in an efficient and safe yet comfortable and emotionally pleasing manner.
Many interior design BA programs require minimum SAT or ACT scores and GPAs, along with an essay of intent and interest in the field of interior design. Some schools request letters of recommendation. A portfolio of work related to interior design must be submitted at the time the application is made. Students are encouraged to attend industry-related workshops and become familiar with AutoCAD, drawing, and composition. Most schools also require applicants to participate in a face-to-face interview.
General education courses concentrating on English and mathematics are augmented with required core courses and elective courses dealing with all phases of interior design. Typically, an important part of the core curriculum is an extensive, for-credit internship. Core courses in this curriculum usually include:
- Design fundamentals
- Theory of design
- Estimating and buying
- Floor plans
- Exhibiting and display
- Materials and furnishings
Bachelor of Fine Arts in Interior Design
While a Bachelor of Arts in Interior Design is an academic degree with some work experience requirements, a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Interior Design is a professional degree that focuses on building experience along with theoretical studies. The instructional approach sets the two apart. Whereas a BA program uses mostly lectures and discussion with some studio time involved, a BFA program emphasizes hands-on studio sessions. Interior design BFA program admission prerequisites are in most cases the same as those for BA programs.
Some schools require students to complete a general pre-professional core curriculum in their first year and then apply for a 3-year professional program. Admission is based on faculty review, cumulative GPA, and a portfolio of applicable work. Emphasis is placed on multiple studio courses in different areas of interior design, including:
- Interior design studio and systems
- Field study
- Materials studio and computer drafting studio
- Two- and three-dimensional design
- Space utilization
Master of Fine Arts in Interior Design
With an emphasis on formal theoretical, methodological, and technical aspects of interior design, the Master of Fine Arts in Interior Design is accepted as a terminal post-professional degree. Focusing on creative achievement, the MFA encourages professional designers to research a specific area to contribute to the general body of knowledge in interior design. Because the degree can lead to tenure, many MFA program graduates find positions at universities, which allow them the freedom to teach, conduct research, and publish. University employment also puts them in a position to function as independent contractors, with each assignment acting as a research and development project.
Although the typical 60-credit interior design Master of Fine Arts program can be completed in as little as five semesters, it generally takes a little longer. Usually, the program culminates with either a thesis or thesis-exhibition, depending on what better suits the subject area. Students who choose the thesis option submit original research work that solves a design problem. The thesis-exhibition option involves a model and an extensive exposition of research methods and objectives as well as the historical and theoretical context of the work. Academic courses cover:
- Human factors in design
- Environmental and social issues in design
- Historic preservation
- Design aesthetics
- Teaching methods
- Experimental interior design
Continuing Education Information
Although neither licensure nor certification is required of interior decorators, Certified Interior Decorators International offers the Certified Interior Decorator designation for graduates of approved certificate programs. Individuals who pass the certification test can use the designation 'C.I.D.' after their names.
Holders of an associate's degree qualify for membership in the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID). Participation attests to competence, and the society offers continuing education classes, some of which are required to maintain membership.
In 23 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, interior designers are required to become registered, certified, or licensed through an examination administered by the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ). Associate's degree holders are eligible to sit for the exam once they have 5,280 hours of work experience.
Individuals holding a bachelor's degree need 3,520 hours of work experience to qualify for the NCIDQ certification or licensing examination. This is about one year less than that needed by an individual who holds an associate's degree.
A certificate in interior decorating prepares students for entry-level work in the field. Although many interior decorators become independent contractors, some choose to start their careers working for furniture stores, restaurants, galleries, or boutiques. Some move on to become staff employees at larger institutions such as hotel chains, home building firms, advertising agencies, or architectural firms.
Generally, individuals holding associate's degrees in interior design start out as assistants to designers, specializing in residential or kitchen and bath design or as sales representatives. Some graduates practice interior decorating. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicted that jobs for interior designers would increase more slowly than average for all occupations, at a rate of 4%, in the 10-year period of 2018-2028 (www.bls.gov). The BLS reported that the median annual income for interior designers was $56,040 in May 2019.
While some bachelor's degree program graduates choose to become independent subcontractors as proprietors of their own interior design firm, others ally themselves with existing organizations. Over time and with experience, they advance to managerial or supervisory positions. Common job titles include:
- Chief designer
- Department head
- Interior design supervisor
- Design coordinator
Unlike interior decorators, interior designers are licensed professionals with degrees from an academic institution. As one gains more advanced degrees, the coursework topics widen to include history and theoretical context.