Guide to College Majors in Interior Design

To design is to communicate clearly by whatever means you can control or master.
--Milton Glaser

What Is Interior Design?


Beauty is in the eye of the beholder
. . . and if you're an interior designer, the beholder is your client. And if you've done your job well, their eyes will find beauty in what you've created. Interior designers are trained to see the big picture and to help to balance their clients' aspirations, functional needs and budget through a combination of engineering and aesthetic considerations.

Interior designers are different from interior decorators, who focus primarily on the look of a room or building. Formal education, experience and a national examination ensure that professional interior designers can produce a healthy, safe and comfortable physical environment. While both interior designers and decorators are concerned with aesthetics, style and mood, interior designers must meet government certification requirements, passing an exam to earn their licensure.

What Does an Interior Designer Do?

The interior designer focuses on all aspects of the space - whether it's a home, a public building, a business or an institutional facility (such as offices, restaurants, retail establishments, hospitals, hotels, or theaters). They also plan the interiors of existing structures under renovation or expansion. An interior decorator, meanwhile, works primarily with furnishings, wall and window treatments, and lighting.

The interior designer creates a plan that can be recreated for the client in a format (precisely scaled drawings or models) that helps them to also see the big picture. Computers are often used to plan layouts, because it's easier to make alterations to the final model. Clear communication, tact and negotiation skills are important in relations with clients, architects, contractors and laborers.

Designers must be familiar with the materials and products that will be used in the design and with the ways that texture, color, lighting and other factors will interact to create the desired result in a space. They must understand the structural requirements of their plans, the health and safety issues, building codes, and other technical aspects.

Online college courses in business help the interior designer develop time and project management skills. These skills are crucial, since designers are often involved with several projects (or several aspects of one project) at the same time and must meet tight deadlines to stay on time and on budget.

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College Degree Programs in Interior Design

The self-taught interior designer is a thing of the past. Formal training is required in this competitive job market. In many cases, an associate degree in interior design can be sufficient to get your foot in the door of the industry.

Bachelor's Degrees in Interior Design

A bachelor's degree in interior design is your best bet for working in this field. On-campus and online college courses in interior design cover interior and design theory, drafting (manual and/or CAD), art studio work, programming, furniture and architectural history, and rendering. After you've learned the basics, you can take specific courses appropriate for your career specialization, addressing topics like floor plans, furniture layout, textiles, construction materials, building structure, mechanical systems, codes, lighting and sound design.

Your interior design degree should also include courses in computers and liberal arts, humanities or general studies to give you an appreciation for the context in which you will be designing. Buildings and spaces are not just about function--they're also about people and society. Consider online college classes in business or project management, together with courses in merchandising, marketing, and psychology. In addition, training or experience in architecture qualifies you for some design occupations, particularly interior design.

A bachelor of science in interior design can give you training in computer-aided drafting and design, 3D design, space planning, problem solving, and the history of design and architecture. You'll learn how to present your design solutions to clients and colleagues through visual media. At this level of education, you will also have the opportunity to choose a specialty, such as exhibit design, hospitality design, retail store design or corporate design.

As a graduate of an interior design bachelor's degree program, you're eligible for entry-level positions in commercial and residential design, space planning, computer-aided drafting, showroom management, and others.

Other Interior Design Degrees

A residential planning diploma program can cover interior design basics as applicable to the residential planning field. You'll study textiles, historic and contemporary styles, space planning, kitchen and bath design, and computer-aided drafting and design.

With an interior design master's degree, you'll spend more time on research and special projects dealing with the history of decorative arts and environmental design, and how they reflect and affect society. Your job prospects will include management of design teams and you'll have better training for running your own design firm.

What Can I Do With a Major in Interior Design?

Most interior design students intend to become designers in the residential or commercial field. Associate's degrees are accepted for only design assistant positions, so you may need to consider supplementing your education with a bachelor's degree in interior design, or be prepared to work your way into middle and senior design positions. If you need to work and study at the same time, consider an online degree program in interior design. You'll be able to study on your own time and immediately apply what you learn to your current job, allowing you to rise faster through the ranks.

An interior design degree opens up many career paths to you. You might consider working in residential design for single or multi-family homes, commercial and industrial design for corporate offices, or meeting facilities, sports complexes, or medical and institutional facilities. Related careers include environmental planning, regional and city space planning, construction engineering, architecture, landscape architecture, antiques, museum exhibit design, historic preservation, stage design, teaching, and writing.

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Interior Design Career Outlook

Interior designers can work as individual consultants, in partnerships, corporations, or with architectural-interior design firms. They generally work under deadlines and may put in extra hours to finish an important step in a job, so as not to hold the process up.

There is rising demand for good interior design of private homes, offices, restaurants and other retail establishments. Institutions that care for the country's rapidly growing elderly population should also spur employment growth for interior designers.

Earnings for interior designers vary widely depending on the type of design they do, whether they are self-employed or salaried, their years of experience, reputation, demand, regional differences, and other factors. As in many other professions, entry-level salaries are low, and senior practitioners and firm principals or partners often earn several times that of junior staff.

Recent surveys indicate that, on average, beginning designers earn about $30,000 a year. Mid-level designers with three or more years' experience make slightly more - around $35,000 to $40,000. Designers can command substantially higher salaries ($50,000 to $55,000) at the managerial level. Principals or partners in well-to-do firms may earn $75,000 to $100,000 or more.

Interior Design Certification, Licensure and Professional Associations

Certification, registration, or licensing by state boards is required by many states in order to practice your craft. The field has become too complex to let anyone without a complete knowledge of building, zoning and fire codes, and safety issues be in charge of overseeing building or renovation projects.

A passing score on the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) examination is required for registration or licensure in most states. To be eligible to take the exam, you need at least six years of combined education and experience in interior design. The education portion must include a minimum of two years of college education in design.

The legislation of interior design professional credentials varies by state. For example, in states that award title registration, you are restricted in the title you use to describe your work. The licensure and legislation process protects the consumer from an incompetent interior designer. The state board which awards the designations can discipline any interior designer who is found to be negligent, and also protects the reputation of a designer who is falsely accused.

Registration or licensure is not mandatory in all states. If that's the case where you live, a membership in a professional association can demonstrate your qualifications and professional standing and may be an important boost in getting clients. Ongoing professional education and development is a requirement for renewing some memberships. The larger organizations in the US include:

Local interior designer associations are also a valuable source for career advancement, sharing information, and community building - which can be especially important for solo practitioners.

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