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How to Become an Interior Designer

Find out how to pursue a career as an interior designer.

Becoming an interior designer requires accreditation in 25 states. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
Becoming an interior designer requires accreditation in 25 states.

Many people interested in learning how to become an interior designer have a passion and talent for decorating. Before beginning a training program, it is important to understand that an interior designer's duties go far beyond working with decorating aspects like color and furniture arrangement. Success as an interior designer requires knowledge and skill in both the technical and aesthetic areas of design, as well as excellent communication and business skills.

Interior Designer Duties

Interior designers work to create finished rooms and spaces in residential and commercial buildings. The interior designer first consults with clients to determine the room's functions and the clients' decorating preferences and budget. A designer measures the space and evaluates architectural features and existing furniture.

Next, an interior designer creates a plan for the space and estimates the cost of the project. He or she determines a color palette and style and chooses furniture, flooring materials, art, lighting and accessories. The designer creates drawings using either computer-aided design (CAD) software or hand sketches. In new spaces and renovations, designers may make decisions about and draw up construction documents for architectural and structural details such as:

  • Ceiling height
  • Addition or removal of walls
  • Door and window placement
  • Closets and storage spaces
  • Stairway design and placement
  • Built-in cabinetry and bookcases
  • Wall and ceiling finishes
  • Crown molding

The designer must ensure that the plans meet all health and safety requirements, such as local building codes, handicap accessibility, sustainability and environmental guidelines.

Once the client approves the design, the designer is responsible for ordering and purchasing materials. If structural work is involved, the designer may consult with architects and engineers for assistance. The designer applies for building permits and submits plans to local building inspectors, hires contractors and develops a timeline for the project. Once the project is underway, the designer oversees the work of contractors, including demolition, construction and renovation and the installation of electricity, lighting, and HVAC units. Adjustments are made as needed if the client disagrees with parts of the design.

Training and Licensure

Educational programs for interior design are available at many colleges, universities and specialty schools for those who want to learn how to become an interior designer. Accreditation is an important factor to look for when selecting an interior design program.

Two accrediting agencies are the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD) and the Council for Interior Design Accreditation. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, more than 350 postsecondary schools in the United States are accredited by one of these agencies. Since the accreditation process is rigorous and expensive, application for accreditation demonstrates a program's commitment to investing in its educational programs and meeting industry standards. Students who attend accredited schools can be confident that they will study the requirements necessary to take licensing exams after graduation.

According to Careers in Interior Design, 25 states require prospective interior designers to take a certification exam sponsored by the National Council of Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ). Eligibility requirements include at least six years of combined education and experience, including at least two years of education. After passing the exam, designers are granted the title dictated by their state: certified, registered or licensed interior designer. In some states, licensed designers must meet annual continuing education requirements.

Employment Opportunities and Career Path

Interior designers are required to gain one to three years of work experience before being eligible to sit for licensing exams. During this period, they often work in an architectural or interior design firm as an apprentice or assistant to a senior designer. Others earn experience working as in-store designers at furniture stores.

Design school graduates face high competition. Talent, technical skills and the ability to work with clients are essential for career placement and growth. Membership in a professional organization is a way for interior designers to demonstrate their credentials and receive marketing, training and other career benefits. The American Society of Interior Designers is the largest association in the United States with membership available to NCIDQ-licensed interior designers and current design students.

With experience, designers can advance to supervisory positions in an interior design firm or open their own interior design business. Others leave the field to become teachers at colleges and universities or schools of design. With additional training and education, an interior designer can get certificates in the specialty fields of kitchen and bath design. The National Kitchen and Bath Association offers this certification.

A decline in consumer and business revenue and spending in a sluggish economy can have damaging effects on the employment of interior designers. Many consider hiring a designer a luxury expense. Consequently, interior designers are particularly vulnerable to economic instability.

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