How to Become an Interior Designer

So you want to learn how to become an interior designer? This useful guide will not only explain what interior design is, but will also give you a sense of what to expect in terms of salary, and how to become an interior designer should you decide to pursue this career path.

Why am I writing about becoming an interior designer you ask? Because one of my friends is currently pursuing this career path, and it was very difficult to find a comprehensive source of information that explained the whole process.

Furthermore, I have always had a fascination for interior design and I have had experience with multiple interior designers on a number of renovation projects we worked on in the past and it’s not just amazing how they can transform a space, but also add value to your home through these improvements.

It turns out that becoming an interior designer is a career path that can not only be extremely rewarding from a financial standpoint, but can also be very fulfilling at a personal level. Most interior designers would say that nothing beats that feeling of transforming an unusable, cluttered, and non-functional space into one that is functional, attractive and at the same time meets the needs of your clients. It surely sounds extremely satisfying!

Of course, it goes without saying that in order to be a successful interior designer there is a lot of hard work and dedication that comes with it as well. It can take up to 6 years to get all the right qualifications in order to start practicing interior design professionally.  However, everything good in life requires a little bit of hard work to get there.

What is Interior Design?

So what is interior design? The American Associating of Interior Designers perhaps puts best:

“Interior design is the total creative solution for a programmed interior. It encompasses the conceptual planning, aesthetic and technical solutions applied to achieve the desired result.”

As you can gather from this definition, interior design goes a lot deeper than simply throwing some paint on the walls, fixing up old furniture, and making a space look pretty. It’s a much broader concept that is not just about transforming a space into a practical and aesthetically pleasing environment, but more importantly, one that is aimed at optimizing the ability of the space to carry out its intended purpose in a safe and sustainable matter.

The intended purpose will be different for every space, and this is one of the most critical (if not the most important) pieces of information that an interior designer needs to know in order to do his/her work successfully.

In layman’s terms, interior design is all about configuring a space in a manner so that it’s better at doing what it is meant to do in the first place. In a home, you would be looking at optimizing and designing the space so that it improves the lifestyle or potentially increases the value of your home. In a business setting, you might be looking at ways of raising productivity or employee satisfaction at the work place. In a retail outlet, you would be looking at how to configure the space so as to increase customer conversions thereby driving sales. These are all desired outputs of the spaces mentioned, and interior design can be a very effective way of improving these desired outputs.

Ultimately, there should always be a targeted and measurable output that you aim to achieve before embarking on an interior design project and you should discuss these with your customer. The ability to understand and relate to the needs and goals of your customers is ultimately what sets the great interior designers apart from the rest.

Difference between Interior Design and Interior Decorating
Oftentimes people confuse interior design with decoration, but we would like to point out that there are some distinct differences between the two that you should be aware of if you are interested in learning how to become an interior designer. Interior design is generally more all-encompassing with a greater area of responsibility with regard to the overall design of a particular space, while interior decorating is more focused and is primarily concerned with improving the aesthetics of a particular space that already exists.

In the words of the Council for Interior Design Qualification:

“Decoration is the furnishing or adorning of a space with fashionable or beautiful things. In short, interior designers may decorate, but decorators do not design”.

To make it even clearer, we have put together the table below that elaborates on the main differences between interior design and interior decorating.

Area Interior Design Interior Decorating
Schooling Requires specific schooling and formal training Does not require specific schooling and formal training
Credentials & licensing Exam and licensing required in 20 States (see below) in order to adopt the title No credentials and licensing required, but training advisable and available
What they do Involved in whole process from spatial planning, design, renovation, to the last decorative accents in order to enhance the function of the space Involved in sprucing up an existing space by deciding on style, choosing a color scheme, assistant in purchasing of furniture, and accessorizing
Who they work with Close collaboration with architects, engineers, contractors, and suppliers to achieve desired outcome Limited interaction with contractors since structural work is generally completed already

What does an Interior Designer Do?

Now that we have a better understanding of the meaning of interior design, let’s examine what an interior designer actually does. As mentioned above, interior design is all about optimizing the space so that it can carry out its intended use in the most efficient way possible and this is the ultimately what an interior designer aims to achieve.

They generally follow the steps below during the interior design process.

Consultation and Communication with the Customer
Typically the first step of the process is where the interior designer will meet with the client for a consultation. The aim of this consultation is to get a clear understanding of the needs and wants of the customer, but also to make some preliminary suggestions. The first consultation will often be held in the applicable space so that the interior designer can make an assessment on how the space is currently being used, and what needs to be changed to reach the desired outcome.

This may involve observing how the space is currently being utilized, and noting down any potential improvements that can be made to improve the effectiveness of the space. It is also common for interior designers to take photographs of the space at this point in time, and ask for any other relevant information pertaining to the space that may be available such as blue prints, building permits, or any other special requirements.

An initial and approximate budget should also be discussed with the customer so that a realistic proposal can be worked up that falls within the budget of the customer. If the budget is unrealistic for the expectations set out by the customer, this is generally when the interior designer will also communicate that to the customer to ensure that there are no misunderstandings further down the line and that expectations are aligned. A more concrete budget and proposal generally follows shortly after the first consultation, once the interior designer has gathered all the required information and is able to make a more accurate assessment.

As the project continues, the interior designed should maintain close contact with the customer to ensure they are kept update on the progress.

Generate Ideas for Functional & Aesthetic Possibilities of the Space
This is where the interior designer’s creativity comes into play. Having seen and evaluated the space physically, the interior designer will start to brainstorm and generate ideas on how to improve the effectiveness of the space so as to achieve the desired outcome as specified by the customer. The interior designer has an endless amount of tools at his or her disposal and can play with anything from furniture, windows, lighting, color, materials, flooring, layouts, decorative items and a number of other factors to achieve the goal that is set out.

At the same time the interior designer will need to ensure the ideas are in compliance with safety standards and building codes and of course fall within the budget. Plans and drawing may need to be submitted to building inspectors to ensure that it meets building codes.

The customer may also have requirements and want the space to be designed in a way that is feng shui or eco-friendly. They must also work closely with architects, builders, mechanical engineers, and structural engineers to ensure that any ideas they may have are workable from those different viewpoints.

Creating Illustrations, Renderings, and Blue Prints
To help bring some tangibility to the ideas of the interior designer, and to help facilitate the communication with the customer, it is common for the interior designer to create an illustration or rendering of his or her ideas. This may be done through a simple sketch, but is nowadays more often done through computer-aided-design (CAD) software by companies such as Chief Architect and Home Designer Pro. There are also a number of free tools out there to for those just getting started. You can find a great list of them at Freshome if you are interested.

Illustrations and renderings are a great way to communicate a concept to a customer before the project, and so that a conversation can be held prior to the actual work beginning and alterations to the design can be made beforehand if required. This allows the interior designer and customer to agree on the work required beforehand.

Planning, Budgeting & Negotiation
Once the concept has been signed off on by the customer, the interior designer will typically develop a more comprehensive plan inclusive of a timeline with agreed milestones, and a final budget to go along with the design. This will form the final proposal to the customer.

It is likely also be some negotiation involved as you agree on pricing with your customer that both of you are ultimately satisfied with. The amount of bargaining power will largely depend on the experience that you have in the field, so if you are just starting your career as interior designer it may be wise to get a few successful projects on your belt to show a good track-record and hopefully get some referrals.

Finding and Managing of Contractors
When you and the customer have agreed on the proposal, it’s time to determine whether contractors will be needed for the job, and if so, what types of contractors. Contractors may be needed when there are structural changes needed, new flooring needs to be put in, shelves need to be installed, windows need to be enlarged, electrical wiring needs to be rerouted, or any other large tasks that are unable to be completed by the interior designer individually.

Most interior designers maintain a very close relationship with contractors, and build up a network that they can trust over time since the work of the contractor will ultimately reflect back on them. The interior designer is responsible for the outcome of the project at the end of the day so it’s in their best interest to have a solid network of high quality contractors to work with that they can trust.

The interior designer also needs to manage the contractors to the see the work through to completion within the timeframe that was agreed upon with the client. This may mean liaising with both the customer and contractors on scheduling the work, providing milestones to the contractors, and ensuring that the contractors are also held accountable for the quality they produce.

Selecting Furnishings & Fixtures
The interior designed will need to select furnishings and fixtures that match the illustration that was provided to the customer above, but also fall within the budget that was set out and agreed with the client. In order to do this, they must have an understanding of the materials and products that will be used, in addition to understanding how color, texture, lighting, and a number of other factors will combine and interact to make the space.

This will require the interior designer to be aware of the latest trends in design, and have a great relationship with a number of suppliers at the same time. Similar to with the overall design, the customer may have specific request with regard to the furnishing & fixtures that the interior designer will need to accommodate to without breaking the budget.

Seeing Project Through to Completion and Ensuring Satisfaction of Customer
Last but not least, the interior designer will have responsibility of seeing the project through to completion. Ideally, he or she would conduct a final visit with the customer to ensure the finished project is up to the expectations of the customer, and if not, to make any further tweaks required.

The success of a interior designer will largely depend on his or her reputation in the market, so making sure that the customer is satisfied is crucial. At this point, the interior designer may also take some photographs of the finished project to add to his or her portfolio, and potentially ask for a reference from the customer.

What Qualities and Skills Does an Interior Designer Need to Have?

Spatial Awareness & Creativity – In order to be a successful interior designer, you must have some innate ability and creativity to visualize a space differently than in its current form. You must be able to find creative solutions to problems that exist, and come up with ideas that not only resolve the issues, but complement all other areas of the space as well.

Communication Skills – You must be able to communicate your vision above to your customer in a way that he or she can understand and ultimately sell this vision to him or her in a convincing manner. You will need to be able explain why the vision you have is better than the status quo, and why it is worth the amount of money the customer will need to pay for it.

Awareness of Building & Safety regulations – As an interior designer, you have to be aware of the latest building and safety regulations. Your design and proposal will need to comply with these standards.

Project Management & Organizational Skills – An interior design project can be a significant undertaking, and you will need good project management skills to ensure that the project stays on track and within budget. You will likely also be managing contractors as an interior designer, so will also be dependent upon the work of others, which further emphasizes the need for good project management skills.

Technical Knowledge & Computer Skills – This is almost a given with any job out there these days, but in today’s world, being an interior designer means that you will be dealing with computer-aided-design (CAD) software on a regular basis as this will be your primary tool to communicating your designs to your customers.

Why Become an Interior Designer?

So before answering how to become an interior designer, let’s find out why you should consider becoming an interior designer. You’ve surely seen the number of TV programs dedicated to interior design quadruple over the last number of years on channels like HGTV, and that is not without good reason.

I’ve listed below a couple of reasons you should consider as reasons to be become an interior designer.

Expanding Market
The demand for interior design has grown significantly over the last couple of years, and is expected to do so in the future. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has estimated that:

“Employment of interior designers is projected to grow 13 percent from 2012 to 2022”

That is 2% over the average of all occupations, and nearly 6% over that of all other arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media occupations.  As you can see in the image below:

One thing to bear in mind, however, is that the demand for interior design jobs is heavily linked to the construction industry which can be volatile and uncertain at times.

More Freedom
Once you have some experience under your belt as an interior designer and have built a reasonable track record, it also becomes fairly accessible to start a business of your own if that is what you hope to do some day. The most important thing in internal design is to build the right network of contacts as that is what will ultimately give you business opportunities. Very little capital outlay is required to start a interior design business, as you can do much of the administrative work from your own home and you will be working with your customers, contractors, and suppliers the rest of the time.

The above also explains why there is a relatively large number of interior designers that are self-employed. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics around 30% of interior designers are self-employed, which is nearly 4 times the proportion for all other professional and related occupations.

Interior Designer Salary
The salary of interior designers exceeds that of the average. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median internal designer salary was $47,600 in May 2012. While this is not as large as some occupations, it’s still significantly more than the average of all other occupations which was $34,750 for the same timeframe.

It’s also important to note that the interior designer salary you get can vary significantly by location and state.

In some recent research it was found that the District of Colombia was where most money was earned, with a total average annual wage of $76,020, with Connecticut coming in second at $67,390, New York at third with $65,540, and Rhode Island and Utah at fourth and fifth with $62,520 and $61,770, respectively.

The states that had the lowest interior designer salaries were Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, and North Dakota whose salaries ranged from $31,110 to $40,180.

How to Become an Interior Designer

Now that we have laid out the background, do you still want to learn how to become an interior designer?

If so, bear in mind that it can be quite a lengthy process which can take up to 6 years without any prior education.

There are 20 states that don’t freely allow anyone to practice as an interior designer, and will require that you obtain a qualification beforehand from the Council for Interior Design Qualification (CIDQ).

The CIDQ is basically an establishment that regulates all licensing around interior design and regards itself as a leader in establishing standards of competence for interior design professionals. It’s the benchmark in the industry, and although not a requirement in all states, it’s certainly advisable to obtain the qualification.

These are listed in the table below.

  • Alabama
  • Arkansas
  • Connecticut
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Illinois
  • Iowa
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Maine
  • Virginia
  • Washington, DC
  • Maryland
  • Minnesota
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • Oklahoma
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Wisconsin

In order to even sit for that exam, however, the minimum that you will need is an Associate’s Degree in Interior Design, but a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in a Council for Interior Design Accreditation (CIDA) -accredited interior design program is favorable.

What is Council for Interior Design Accreditation (CIDA)?
The Council for Interior Design Accreditation is basically an independent body that aims to ensure a high level of quality in interior design education.

It is voluntary for schools and universities to apply for the CIDA accreditation, but once they do, the CIDA will evaluate the quality and level of the interior design course to ensure that it meets their standard. If it does, the course will get awarded with the CIDA accreditation which is viewed favorably by the CIDQ and will make it relatively easier for you to obtain your qualification to ultimately start your profession as an interior designer.

If you are interested in taking a course that has a CIDA accreditation, you can find a listing of them on the website of the CIDA.

What if my Course does not have a CIDA Accreditation?
If the course you took, or are planning to take, does not have a CIDA accreditation, there are 3 options that you have that I’ve listed below:

  1. Your Bachelor’s or Master’s degree is from a NAAB (National Architecture Accrediting Board) or CACB (Canadian Architecture Accrediting Board)  accredited program
  2. Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in interior design including no less than 120 semester or 180 quarter credits, of which no less than 60 semester or 90 quarter credits are interior design coursework
  3. Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in any other major including no less than 60 semester or 90 quarter credits of interior design coursework that culminates in a certificate, degree or diploma
  4. Associate’s Degree in interior design with no less than 60 semester or 90 quarter credits of interior design coursework that culminates in a certificate, degree or diploma

The Interior Designer qualification – the NCIDQ Examination
Once you’ve obtained the right education, you can start thinking about applying for the examination. However, before you can do so, you must satisfy the below:

  1. You will need to obtain a minimum amount of qualified work experience in the field of interior design, part of which may be earned while studying for the above.
  2. The total amount of work experience required depends on your prior education, but you will need a minimum of 5,280 hours of experience (with max of 3,250 hours while you are studying and the remaining 1,760 hours after you have completed your education)

Please download the detailed PDF explaining each of the qualification routes and their respective requirements by clicking here.

There are three parts to the exam, namely the Interior Design Fundamentals (IDFX) exam which can be taken regardless of work experience, and the Interior Design Professional Exam (IDPX) and the Practicum Exam (PRAC) which can be taken after you pass the IDFX and complete all necessary work experience.

As you can see from the above, becoming an interior designer is a serious investment. If you don’t have any qualifications to start with, the process of becoming eligible for the NCIDQ exam can take up to 6 years but can be well worth it in the end. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you can’t work for a firm specializing in interior design to build up your experience beforehand.

Final Recommendations

Once you have qualified as an interior designer, there are a couple of recommendations to follow

Join Society
After you have passed your NCIDQ exams you are ready to start practicing as an interior designer. It’s highly advisable that you join a society like the American Society of Interior Designers which is the largest of its kind with 24,000 members.

It’s a great way of staying in touch with the latest developments in interior design and to engage in networking with fellow peers and build a list of contacts. At the same time it has become a great knowledge sharing platform in the interior design community, and is also useful for finding careers in the field of interior design.

Set Yourself Apart and Specialize
If you want to become successful as an interior designer (or any other profession for that matter), you have to find a way of setting yourself apart from the rest of the crowd. It is important that before you start out you assess your strength and weaknesses and specialize in an area that you are strong at so that you are giving yourself the best chance of success.

You’ll have the best chance of succeeding if you position yourself that way from the beginning and become an expert at one particular area rather than spreading yourself too thin.

There are various specializations of interior design, and you can’t be an expert in them all. What you see most in the media and television are those that are heavily geared towards residential interior design. The focus here, as you would expect, is predominantly on residential properties (or people’s homes).  Some go as far as to specialize on certain parts of the home, such as the kitchen or living room.

There is also a huge, and perhaps less glamorous market, for commercial interior design. This specialization focuses on commercial properties such as offices, retail outlets, food & beverage institutions, or shopping centers, and any other establishment that has commercial purpose.

As you can imagine, the interior design requirements for say, a restaurant, will be very different than that of an office, which again will be very different than for a home. Specializing yourself in one of these areas can give yourself an edge over the competition because you can focus on becoming the best in that space.

Balance Business & Design
Finally, if you are hoping to set up your own interior design studio it’s important to find a balance between design and business. Many entrepreneurs in the field of design fail because they don’t understand or don’t see the importance that you are running a business at the same time.

For example, if a customer has given you a certain budget to redesign his kitchen (and there is no way that this budget can be increased), but you feel that you aren’t able to produce an output that you could be proud of as a designer, you’ll have to be able to evaluate what the implications are for your business. Deciding to not do it will mean that you will lose a client, but doing it may reflect badly on the brand you are trying to build and hamper business opportunities in the future.

There is no magic bullet here, and this is something that you will need to experiment with yourself in order to find the right balance.

This can be one of the most critical sides of running a successful interior design business, and it is one that many succumb to. It’s what will set apart those that fail and those that succeed. If you feel that this is not your strength, please look at the reading list below as there are some great resources for you that you can use to get acquainted with this.

Useful Resources

Recommended Reading
Starting Your Career as an Interior Designer by Robert K. Hale

If you are interested in starting your career as an interior designer this is a great resource, because it lays it all out in one single book and gives you a focused approach on how best to start off. It concentrates heavily on the business side of starting an interior design business and recommends a number of approaches to take that will give you the highest chance of succeeding.

The Business of Design by Keith Granet
Although not specifically geared at interior design, but more at the design business in general, this is a great resource on helping you bridge the gap between design and business. Keith Granet has a wealth of experience in guiding over four hundred design firms, and has drawn on this to create “The Business of Design” that helps you decide and focus on activities that make business sense but at the same time don’t stifle your creativity.

Interior Design Clients: The Designer’s Guide to Building and Keeping a Great Clientele by Thomas Williams In order to be successful as an interior designer, you need to have clients and more importantly, satisfied clients. This book helps you understand the client and how best to serve his or her needs, which ultimately creates a better environment for the client and the designer. Thomas Williams gives thorough examples throughout the book and suggested solutions to issues and difficulties one may experience when working with interior design clients.

Residential Interior Design: A Guide To Planning Spaces by Maureen Mitton
For those interested in practicing residential interior design, this guide will teach you the fundamental skills needed to plan interior spaces for all types of homes. It takes a room by room approach, giving concrete recommendations for each. Line diagrams are used extensively throughout the book, to convey proper designs but also show you how not to plan a space.

Blogs for Inspiration
Apartment Therapy – this may be the largest of blogs out there on interior design. It focuses predominantly on images of house tours, which it complements with practical hints and tips that you can follow in your own home.

Décor 8 – a great resource if you’re starting your own interior design studio and looking at how to get your name out through the internet. In addition to proving interior design inspiration, this blog provides a number of e-courses and workshops that teach you to blog your way to success as an interior designer.

Interiors Addict – an Australian based blog run by Jen Bishop who holds no official interior design qualifications, but has extreme passion for anything design related. Interiors Addict is a good source of inspiration from the other side of the world. It also has a job board for those looking to hire, or those looking for a job, in the design industry.

The Design Sheppard  – a UK based interior design blog that is particularly geared towards residential interior design. A great resource of you’re looking to stay on top of the latest trends in interior design.

Regulatory Bodies & Societies
Council for Interior Design Accreditation (CIDA)

Council for Interior Design Qualification (CIDQ)

American Society of Interior Designers (ASID)