You are planning a home remodel project. You know you are going to need some professional help to achieve the vision you have for your space. You get on Angie’s List in order to find a pro to work on your project. Your search gives you results for interior designers and interior decorators. As you peruse the listings you keep asking what is the difference, what do they do differently, and does it really matter which one you choose? The short answer is, yes, it does matter which you choose. However, the answer is not so cut and dry. Let’s look at each discipline to see what they do, what education they require, what professional licensure they need, and how all this applies to your project.
First things first, there is a fundamental difference between the two professions. According to the Rocky Mountain College of Art Design, “Interior design is the art and science of understanding people’s behavior to create functional spaces within a building, while interior decorating is the furnishing or adorning of a space with decorative elements to achieve a certain aesthetic.” In layman’s terms, interior designers look at how to make your home work for you and interior decorators make your home pretty.
So interior designers focus on function and interior decorators focus on aesthetics. Let’s take a deeper look at what each profession does. Interior designers utilize a systematic method to create functionality within a space. They look at the structure of the space, the needs of the customer, and create solutions that are both aesthetically pleasing and functional for the living and working needs of the customer. For example, a customer is wanting a bathroom remodel because they are aging and have a difficult time getting in and out of a traditional tub. The interior designer would assess the customers’ needs, measure the space, and create a roadmap to project completion. The project could be as simple as providing a floor plan or as involved as working with a customer through every step of the design process from picking out elements to final installation.
While interior designers are methodical and practical, interior decorators are creative. Interior decorators do not need to take functionality into consideration. Most if not all of the structural components of a project have been completed before the interior decorator comes into the project. They focus on color pallets, materials, textures, artwork, and how all these elements can be brought together to create a cohesive aesthetic. The interior decorator puts the finishing cosmetic touches on a space to pull the customer’s vision together.
Educational requirements between the two disciplines vary greatly. Interior design is a profession that requires a minimum of a college degree. Throughout the degree program, they study color, fabric, computer-aided design (CAD) training, drawing, space planning, furniture design, light design, architecture and so much more. Some designers even go on to get advanced degrees in design. It is also common for interior designers to apprentice with established professional designers before striking out on their own.
Interior decorators on the other hand require no formal training of any kind. Decorators are only involved in the surface appearance of the space. They are not involved in the structural aspects of the spaces which require a specific knowledge base. Interior decorators often have college degrees in related fields. Sometimes they have taken courses or done programs that focus on color, fabric, room layout, space planning, furniture style, etc. in order to authenticate their work. However, decorators do not need a degree in order to be professional decorators.
When it comes to professional requirements there is no one cut-and-dry answer. Depending on the state you live in the answer could vary. Some states require interior designers to register with the state proving their education and training. Some states require interior designers to earn the NCIDQ Certificate in order to determine their competency and expertise. However, there are states that do not require professional registration, licensure, or certificates at all. It is good practice to look up the required credentials for interior designers in your area when you are choosing one to work with
Interior decorators on the other hand do not require any professional credentials. However, much like with educational programs, interior decorators can complete continuing education programs in order to obtain certificates that prove their experience. There are organizations like C.I.D. (Certified Interior Decorators International) which provides programs for interior decorators to earn professional certification. Because there is no formal registration needed be sure to ask any interior decorator you want to work with for their credentials.
This is an area where the differences between the two professions are clearer. While there is overlap due to the fact that interior designers can do everything that decorators can do, interior decorators do not work with certain parties on projects. Let’s look more at what the differences are. Because interior designers work with the functionality of a space, they work
closely with project architects, engineers, and contractors in order to achieve the desired floor plan of the customer. Sometimes they have to liaise between contractors, architects, engineers, and the customer in order for the project to come together seamlessly. In some cases, the interior designer also acts as the interior decorator so they work with the customer on a more personal basis.
Interior decorators only work with the customers. As we have mentioned interior decorators are only involved with the décor of a space. Because of this, they do not have to be involved with the structural aspects of a build or remodel and therefore they do not have to work with the architects, engineers, or contractors. They do sometimes work with product suppliers, wholesalers, or other industry professionals. Most often their job consists of working directly with homeowners or business owners.
So which professional do you need for your project? This question comes down to what your needs are. Are you looking to create an ADA-compliant kitchen? Do you need to change the layout of fixtures in your bathroom? Are you adding a granny flat to your house? Or do you need fresh paint and some wall art to create the perfect aesthetic for your home? A good rule of thumb is if you need structural changes to your space, you will want an interior designer and if your space only needs a facelift, you will want an interior decorator. Keep in mind that interior designers can also moonlight as interior decorators, and many do both aspects of the project.
To recap, Interior designers vs. Interior decorators, two are similar professions with some key differences. Interior designers use a proven method to assess a customer’s needs and follow a step-by-step plan to create a functional space for a customer. Because they work with the structure of a building or space they not only work with the customer themselves but also with architects, engineers, and contractors. While an interior designer focuses on the surface appearance of the space in order to create an aesthetic and generally works closely with the customer only.
Interior designers generally have a high level of education in design. They also can gain certifications in interior design. Interior decorators on the other hand require no official degree, however, many interior decorators have degrees in similar fields, and they can earn certifications from continuing education programs.
When it comes to professional credentials some states require interior designers to have a professional license or register with the government while interior decorators have no such requirements. Some states may even ask interior designers to earn specific certifications.
So, what does all this mean when you are sifting through professionals on the internet? It means that you need to take into account your project needs and what you want the end product to look like. You need to determine if you want cosmetic changes to your space or if you need a more in-depth overhaul. Once you have determined the overall scope of your project you will be better able to decide which kind of professional you are looking for.
In the battle of interior designer vs. Interior decorator, we can confidently say that the two professions are not equal however similar they are. A good rule of thumb to remember is that an interior designer can decorate, but an interior decorator cannot design.