What Does a Career in Interior Design Look Like?

by Genevieve Carlton
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Interior designers create beautiful and functional indoor spaces by drawing on architectural training and a keen business sense.

What is interior design, and what do interior designers do? This guide answers these two questions and explains how to become an interior designer. We also cover the educational requirements, work experience, and licenses necessary to become an interior designer.

Before enrolling in an interior design program, prospective designers should consider their strengths and career goals. The field requires strong creativity and an artistic sense. Interior designers also rely on their business knowledge to land clients and complete projects.

What Is Interior Design?

Interior design shapes how people experience all sorts of spaces; for example, homes, businesses, and hospitals. Interior designers select furnishings, lighting arrangements, and layouts for indoor spaces.

Unlike interior decorating, which focuses exclusively on furnishings, interior designers consider a whole space, and they integrate architectural features into their designs. And unlike architects, who design the structure of buildings, interior designers focus on a space's look and feel.

What Do Interior Designers Do?

Working closely with clients, interior designers create practical and beautiful indoor spaces. They analyze blueprints and work within building codes to design welcoming spaces. Interior designers choose the color scheme for a residence or building, determine the lighting needs, and select furnishings.

At the beginning of a project, interior designers meet with clients to understand their needs. Then, they create sketches for their design. With an approved design, these artistic professionals source materials like flooring, wall finishes, furniture, and fixtures.

Interior designers also coordinate with contractors and architects. Interior designers make sure to complete their projects under strict timelines and budgets.

Where Do Interior Designers Work?

Interior designers work in design firms, architectural offices, and their own firms. Some interior designers also work in wholesale trade or furniture stores.

The work setting affects the designer's schedule and responsibilities. Freelance interior designers set their own hours, but they must also recruit clients. Designers employed by a design firm benefit from more stability.

Many interior designers work in offices while making on-site visits as part of their design process. Because they work closely with clients and devote time to sourcing unique furnishings, interior designers often travel as part of their job. The career may also require evening and weekend hours to meet with clients.

Skills

Interior designers bring soft skills and hard skills to their role. Designers need a strong artistic eye and a creative approach to design. Clients also look for design professionals with solid communication and interpersonal skills. An important part of the job is interacting with clients and collaborating with architects, designers, and engineers.

Hard skills — like knowledge of design software programs and computer-aided design — help interior designers earn their license. The career also requires strong project management skills and business knowledge. Many interior designers launch their own firms, which requires training in negotiation, finance, and business.

Soft Skills

  • Communication
  • Innovation
  • Attention to detail
  • Time management
  • Organization

Hard Skills

  • Problem-solving
  • Visualization
  • Computer-aided design (CAD)
  • Color theory
  • Budgeting

Steps to Become an Interior Designer

Prospective designers wondering how to become an interior designer should start with this step-by-step guide. From earning a degree to gaining work experience to taking an interior design exam, each step moves candidates closer to becoming an interior designer.

1. Earn a Degree

An interior design degree trains students in architecture, design theory, and business. Interior design classes also introduce learners to fabrics, textiles, color palettes, lighting, and furnishings.

Interior designers typically hold a bachelor's degree. However, certificates also prepare graduates for careers in interior design. With a certificate, candidates will need additional work experience to qualify for a license. Similarly, interior designers with a bachelor's degree in another major can complete a certificate to start their interior design career.

Students should earn an interior design certificate or degree from an accredited program. The Council for Interior Design Accreditation grants accreditation to interior design programs.

2. Gain Professional Experience

Before working as an interior designer, candidates must build their professional experience. . Learners should complete a supervised interior design internship so that they may begin logging work hours that count toward their licensure and certification requirements. Work experience requirements vary depending on the student's education.

The National Council for Interior Design Certification (NCIDQ) exam requires at least two years of full-time work experience for candidates with a bachelor's in interior design or a bachelor's degree in another field with an interior design certificate. Candidates with an associate degree, high school diploma, or certificate must complete three years of full-time work before taking the exam.

3. Pass the NCIDQ Exam

Most interior designers need to take an exam to qualify for a state license and earn certification as an interior designer. The NCIDQ exam tests candidates on design development, bidding, and project completion. In some states, only candidates who pass the NCIDQ exam can use the title Interior Designer.

Requirements vary depending on the state. For example, rather than using the NCIDQ exam, California requires a different exam. As a result, interior designers should research the requirements in their state.

4. Build a Design Portfolio

Landing a job as an interior designer requires a strong design portfolio. Most designers begin the process as students. During an interior design program, students add projects and assignments to their portfolio.

An interior design portfolio should express the designer's vision and approach to potential employers or clients. Sketches, moodboards, and photos help bring that vision to life. Interior designers continue to add to their portfolio throughout their career.

5. Get Hired or Start Your Own Firm

Interior designers work in a variety of settings. Around 27% work for specialized design services, while another 20% work for architectural or engineering organizations. Finally, 22% start their own firm and work as self-employed designers.

Each career path offers benefits and drawbacks. Interior designers who start their own firm benefit from flexibility, but the path can lead to unstable hours. It also requires a great deal of time to bring in clients. No matter where they choose to work, interior designers must network to grow their career.

Things to Know Before Becoming an Interior Designer

Interior design appeals to many people. But what should you know before pursuing an interior design career? While researching how to become an interior designer, consider the following topics.

Interior designers can look at a space and determine the best lighting, furnishing, and color palate. While programs train students to think critically about spaces, natural ability plays a major role. Before enrolling in an interior design program, prospective designers should assess their natural abilities and design aesthetic. Interior designers and decorators overlap in key ways. Interior design requires additional architectural training and the ability to think critically about interior spaces. Decorators choose stylish furnishings for rooms. The careers require different training, so choose between the two early. What is interior design? The field is about more than style, fashion, and fabric. Interior designers need strong architectural and business skills. They work with architects to understand a space, collaborate with clients to meet their needs, and create budgets. Interior design programs help students build these skills.

Interior Designer Salary Information

Careers in art and design offer a range of earning potentials. Interior designers fall at the lower end of art and design salaries. However, interior designers can increase their salary with experience or by pursuing specialty certifications. Location and industry also affect interior design salaries.

Art & Design Career Salaries
Career Median Annual Salary (2020)
Art Directors $97,270
Architects $82,320
Landscape Architects $70,630
Drafters $57,960
Interior Designers $57,060
Source: BLS

Interior Designer Professional Organizations

IDS represents residential interior designers. The society offers professional development resources, information on educational programs, and job listings. IDS also awards scholarships for interior design students. ASID encourages interior designers to expand their skills and connect with each other. The society promotes education and knowledge to grow the profession. ASID offers student awards and scholarships. IIDA counts over 15,000 members in nearly 60 countries. The association promotes commercial interior design and advocates for interior design education. IIDA offers a student membership that connects learners with professional development opportunities. ALA connects lighting specialists with potential clients. The association's website includes information about showrooms, designers, and certified lighting consultants. Interior designers can also join this organization to find networking opportunities.

Ask an Interior Design Expert

Victoria Sanchez, one of America's premier design professionals, has been creating one-of-a-kind interiors for hundreds of prominent clients over the past three decades. Dubbed a home décor "style maker" by Luxe magazine, Sanchez is an award-winning designer who offers services ranging from project management and space planning to kitchen and bath design and furniture selection. She and her team are backed by the region's leading contractors, painters, architects, kitchen and bath pros, flooring specialists, and audio-visual experts.

What are the most rewarding aspects of your career?

I have been known to share tears of joy when we reveal a project with a client. It is the most rewarding part of a project, to see clients so happy and share that moment when it all comes full circle.

The same clients I share tears of joy [with] are the same clients whose graduation parties I attend, family birthday celebrations, and even travel with. Having a business that turns clients into friends is a gift that keeps giving!

What are the most challenging aspects of your career?

The most challenging aspect of this industry is educating clients [about] not only the design process, but also why every designer has a different fee method, process of procurement, etc. It's confusing for the consumer to understand why pricing is so random and why everyone seems to have such varied business plans. It's a hurdle that certainly can be overcome, but it makes our industry look a bit unorganized.

What type of person is successful in an interior design career? What type of person may not be the best fit?

The successful designer is one who understands how to run a business and has a degree in interior design from an accredited program.

As in most industries, a designer must respond to what the consumers are asking for. Not necessarily what kind of sofa or table, but contracts, liabilities, resources, pricing, and more.

The old saying "The devil is in the details" certainly applies to interior design! So if a person is hoping for pretty fabrics, wallpapers, and only yeses from their clients, this is not the business for them!

What's a typical day for an interior designer? What tasks do you typically work on?

A typical day is never the same. As I have shared with students, interior design is 20% design and 80% admin.

I prefer to spend most of my time working with clients directly, visiting sites, and specifying product, but many times I am working with my vendors to hash out custom details, negotiate pricing, etc.

What kind of hours do you keep?

We tend to work 9-5, or later if we have a deadline. As the owner and lead designer, I will also put in half a day on the weekend when all is quiet to work on a project or other tasks.

Who are your co-workers?

Here in Santa Fe, I have an assistant designer who graduated in architecture and is well versed not only in CAD, but also in finishes and space planning, which helps tremendously with our construction projects.

Additionally, I have a project manager who keeps proposals, purchase orders, and invoices flowing, not to mention accounting.

We are currently looking for a new design assistant, but needless to say, it's been challenging to hire in the past year.

What knowledge do you utilize?

On a daily basis, I utilize my diplomatic skills! Whether it's with a client, a vendor, or staff. One of the most important tools in my toolbelt is the relationships I have cultivated in my decades of being in this industry. This truly enables us to get things done, meet deadlines etc. Without the personal relationships, it's a very different scenario, trying to run a successful business with just a phone.

In addition to that, I enjoy the selling process. If the ideas don't turn into dollars, then there really is no business.

Since becoming an interior designer, has there been anything about the role that you didn't expect or anticipate?

So often, in many disciplines, there is much practical knowledge that is not taught in schools. I think this is a big problem that interior design curriculums need to pay attention to.

I believe that instead of one design curriculum that fits all, there should be three: residential, commercial, and technical presentation. In this way, each student will have the benefit of taking marketing, business law, accounting for business, etc.

If we can emphasize the business end of the profession, I believe we will be graduating more business-minded designers, which in turn will enable more designers to be successful in the industry.

Common Questions About Interior Designer Education Paths

What Qualifications Do You Need to Be an Interior Designer?

Most interior designers hold a bachelor's degree with training in design or architecture. Many states also require an interior design license to work as an interior designer.

How Do I Start My Career in Interior Design?

Many interior designers start their careers by enrolling in an interior design program. These programs train students in color theory, lighting, computer-aided design, and interior aesthetics.

Do Interior Designers Get Paid Well?

Interior designers earn an above average salary. Pay varies depending on location, industry, and experience. For example, interior designers who work in architectural services earn more than those who work in wholesale trade.

Can You Be a Self-Taught Interior Designer?

Yes, interior designers can be self-taught. However, many states require a college degree to become a licensed interior designer.

Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University. After earning her doctorate in early modern European history, Carlton worked as an assistant professor of history at the University of Louisville, where she developed new courses on the history of science, Renaissance Italy, and the witch trials. Carlton has published five peer-reviewed articles in top presses and a monograph with the University of Chicago Press. She also earned tenure with a unanimous vote before relocating to Seattle. Learn more about Carlton's work at genevievecarlton.com.

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