How To Earn an Interior Design Certification


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Interior designers make commercial and residential spaces livable and functional by incorporating consumer needs into their creative, material, and technical choices.

With an interior design certification, interior designers can distinguish themselves from amateur designers and interior decorators and showcase their knowledge and experience.

While the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects an overall decline in demand for interior designers from 2019-2029, the demand for design within new builds should remain. Professionals who use the latest technologies and can adapt to industry changes due to the pandemic should thrive in interior design.

What Is Interior Design Certification?

Requirements and regulations surrounding interior design certification vary by location. Some states only allow certified professionals to work as interior designers in commercial or residential buildings. Others limit the interior designer title to only professionals with certification, and some states have few or no certification requirements.

Even in locations with no industry regulations, becoming a certified interior designer can yield several advantages. Certification demonstrates that a designer possesses industry-standard education and experience in the field, which can lead to more job opportunities and higher earnings. Clients and employers also receive assurance that certified professionals possess advanced techniques and knowledge of local building codes.

In addition to general certification, interior designers can pursue specialized credentials to work in niche subfields. Professionals can specialize in certain design styles, such as sustainable interiors, or in particular aspects of design, such as lighting. Many professionals pursue interior design certification for specific types of buildings, such as healthcare interior design.

How Long Does It Take to Get Interior Design Certification?

The examination portion of the Council for Interior Design Qualifications' (CIDQ) national interior design certification (NCIDQ) takes up to three hours. To qualify for the credential, each candidate needs a two-year or four-year degree and a minimum of two years — or 3,520 hours — of professional experience.

At least 60 hours of the degree must cover interior design coursework, and students must confirm their work hours with eligible supervisors.

What's the Difference Between an Interior Design Certification, Certificate, and Degree?

Aspiring designers can take several pathways toward interior design certification. The NCIDQ welcomes candidates from various degree levels and disciplines, but the type of education affects the amount of experience required to qualify.

While an interior design certificate does not meet the certification requirements by itself, these condensed college programs can qualify candidates when used in combination with a non-design bachelor's or master's degree. The following section details certification pathways and credentials.

Interior Design Education Path Overview

Interior Design Certificate

Who Might Consider Pursuing This?

An interior design certificate appeals to aspiring interior designers in regulated and unregulated states. In states without certification requirements, these short and focused programs can lead to entry-level employment. In states with certification requirements, they can help graduates from non-design disciplines qualify for certification.

Exam Required?

Yes. Most certificates feature comprehensive program exams.

Prerequisite Education and Experience:

Interior design certificates typically require a high school diploma or equivalent for admission. To qualify for interior design certification, a certificate-holder also needs a bachelor's or master's degree in any discipline, along with a minimum of three years of full-time work (3,520 hours).

Interior Design Certification

Who Might Consider Pursuing This?

Any aspiring interior designer can pursue national, state, or specialized interior design certification. States with industry regulations may require national or state certification to practice or use the interior designer title. In unregulated states, certification can still help professionals secure employment and clients.

Exam Required?

Yes. Most types of certification require examination.

Prerequisite Education and Experience:

The educational and professional prerequisites for certification vary. The NCIDQ, for example, requires each candidate to possess a degree and a minimum of two years of professional experience. Available pathways include earning an interior design bachelor's or master's degree and two years of professional experience or an associate degree and three years of professional experience.

Interior Design Degree

Who Might Consider Pursuing This?

An interior design degree is the most typical pathway for aspiring interior designers in regulated and unregulated states. The training provides access to entry-level employment and most national, state, and specialized certifications. Degree-holders can also pursue more advanced training in interior design or a related discipline.

Exam Required?

Yes. Most degrees feature multiple course exams.

Prerequisite Education and Experience:

Degree prerequisites vary, but most associate and bachelor's degrees require a high school diploma or equivalent. Master's degrees usually require bachelor's degrees for admission. For certification, an associate degree-holder may need three years of full-time work experience, while bachelor's-level and master's-level candidates must possess two years.

Accreditation for Interior Design Programs

In general, regional accreditation at colleges and universities matters a great deal. Accreditation provides quality assurances for students and employers. It also ensures that the training qualifies for federal financial aid and certification.

Interior design students should seek institutional accreditation from the National Association of Schools of Art and Design. For programmatic accreditation, prospective enrollees need to look for a stamp of approval from the Council for Interior Design Accreditation.

How Do I Become Certified in Interior Design?

Certification requirements depend on several factors, including location, candidate education, and the type of certification. While candidates can pursue several pathways to interior design certification, the following steps highlight the most typical route.

1. Understand the Interior Design Employment Rules of Your State

Interior design regulations vary by state. Some require certification for all professionals, while others feature some or no limitations for non-certified professionals. For example, certain states require interior designers to possess national certification to use the title professionally. Some states, such as California, feature their own certification and examination.

Before choosing a pathway, prospective students should check their state requirements to ensure they choose the appropriate option.

2. Earn an Accredited Interior Design Degree

Aspiring interior designers can earn associate degrees in interior design and qualify for certification, but this route requires three years of professional experience. Students pursue bachelor's or master's degrees in interior design.

Within a four-year bachelor's or a two-year master's program, interior design classes may explore design and material culture, sustainable practices, and building systems. Interior design certificates may provide similar core training, but these programs only qualify for NCIDQ certification if paired with a bachelor's degree at minimum.

3. Gain Professional Experience

The work experience hours required for NCIDQ interior design certification depend on the level and type of education. A bachelor's-level or master's-level candidate needs 3,520 hours of supervised professional experience. Individuals with associate degrees in interior design and graduates who possess bachelor's or master's degrees in architecture need 5,280 hours or more.

Students can accumulate up to 1,760 hours before graduation through internships. Candidates must acquire the remaining hours through postgraduate employment with interior design companies or studios. They can also gain experience through self-employment or under non-certified professionals. However, those hours count at only a fraction of the standard rate.

4. Pass the Interior Design Certification Exam

The NCIDQ examination covers fundamental, professional, and practicum components. The fundamentals section consists of 100 scored questions, the professional section has 150 scored questions, and the practicum section includes three case studies. Scores range from 200-800, and candidates must score a minimum of 500 to pass.

In some states, aspiring interior designers must take a state-run exam, such as the test offered by the California Council for Interior Design Certification.

Interior Designer Career Overview

The career outlook and salaries available to interior designers vary depending on factors such as location and industry. The following information includes median annual wages in the country and the highest-paying states for designers. It also lists the industries that employ interior designers and their respective median annual wages.

2020 Median Annual Wage

Highest Paying States (May 2020)

Source: BLS

Interior Designer Pay, by Industry
Industry Median Annual Salary (2020)
Architectural, Engineering, and Related Services $62,620
Wholesale Trade $57,300
Specialized Design Services $54,330
Furniture Stores $47,710
Source: BLS

Interior Design Professional Organizations

Professional organizations offer benefits for interior designers at various stages in their careers, including job boards, scholarships, and mentorship programs. New graduates and experienced designers can benefit most from access to industry events, certifications, and professional development opportunities.

Below are some of the most popular interior design professional organizations.

Ask an Interior Design Expert

Portrait of Victoria Sanchez

Victoria Sanchez

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 would you recommend that students do — in addition to their interior design degree program — in order to stand out to employers?

When students are looking for internships, I think it's important to apply for positions that will really challenge them and strengthen their skill set. I recall being super nervous about my ability to contribute to a design firm, and it turned out that I did such a good job for them, they offered me a full time job after graduating!

Taking on a demanding internship demonstrates to a potential employer that the candidate is prepared to learn new things and work hard to contribute to the firm.

What was the most challenging, rigorous course you took in your interior design degree program? What advice would you give to students who are about to start this course?

When I was in graduate school, the most challenging course was CAD. In undergraduate school, CAD wasn't mainstream by any means, so hand drafting was all I really knew, and to this day I still prefer to draft by hand.

I think that all studies have their tough courses, and each student will have their own hurdle. But students nowadays are used to all sorts of computer programs, and I imagine that tackling CAD is no big deal!

Common Questions About Becoming an Interior Designer

What Does a Certificate in Interior Design Mean?

A certificate in interior design is a condensed training program from a college or university. By themselves, these programs can qualify graduates for entry-level positions in states that do not require licensure.

Can You Become an Interior Designer Online?

Yes. Aspiring interior designers can earn interior design degrees online. However, students usually need to complete the practical components of the training at nearby employers.

Is It Worth Getting an Interior Design Degree?

An interior design degree offers great value for many people. The training helps graduates qualify for entry-level positions and further training, along with national, state, or specialized certification.

What's the Difference Between an Interior Decorator and an Interior Designer?

Interior decorators help clients make spaces aesthetically pleasing, whereas interior designers help clients create functional and effective spaces based on their interests and lifestyles. Their roles differ considerably.

Portrait of Doug Wintemute

Doug Wintemute

Doug Wintemute is a Toronto-based freelance writer with professional writing interests in higher learning and entertainment. He completed his BA and MA in English at York University, graduating summa cum laude and earning academic merit, research, and writing awards at both levels. Since 2014, he has contributed content and editorial work for award-winning digital trade publications, global SEO copywriting projects, and hugely popular online brands. He can be contacted through LinkedIn.

Header Image Credit: andresr | Getty Images

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