How to Become an Interior Designer: A U.S. News Guide


Becoming an interior designer can lead to a fulfilling career that blends creativity and utility to serve others. Interior designers create spaces that are both aesthetically pleasing and practical, providing the solutions and functions that clients need.

Interior designers can work in a variety of settings, from architecture firms to furniture stores, and in the U.S., about a third of them are self-employed. The average salary in the interior design industry was about $61,000 as of May 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. With home construction and improvements on the rise, interior designers will not be short on projects.

Beautiful young smiling woman hanging picture frame on the wall at home during the day.

(Getty Images)

Interior design is space planning. It is the layout and arrangement of rooms in homes, hotels, office buildings, restaurants and other businesses. Because of the broad scope of their occupation, interior designers can have a wide range of clients, including large real estate developers, corporate businesses and individual homeowners.

As of May 2019, there were nearly 78,000 interior designers in the U.S., but the BLS projected that employment in the profession would decline by 5% from 2019 to 2029.

Interior designers perform a variety of tasks daily. They sketch room layouts, calculate costs and establish project timelines. Interior designers also make a number of decisions about space, color schemes, furniture styles and appropriate materials. Throughout the life of a project, interior designers constantly communicate with their clients to ensure they are addressing their needs for safe, attractive and functional interiors.

While they spend the bulk of their days on-site and on projects, self-employed interior designers also dedicate considerable time and resources to marketing. This includes creating and maintaining a website that showcases their work. Whether working for themselves or not, interior designers often have to bid for projects, especially large-scale commercial ones, by outlining their vision for the interior and the expenses associated with the design.

Interior designers need both soft and hard skills. They ought to be proficient with various design tools. While computers have eliminated the need to draw layouts by hand, an artistic inclination can help interior designers quickly sketch their plans for a client. In general, interior designers are creatives with an innate sense of aesthetics, color and texture.

Interior designers are also general managers who have the acumen to oversee people, develop and follow budgets, and move projects along. To manage both their clients and projects, interior designers need to possess interpersonal and communication skills. Such talents also come in handy in networking and looking for assignments.

Moreover, most interior designers specialize. For instance, some design only kitchens. Others work exclusively on restaurants. Because of that, interior designers need to discern how spaces in different industries function. An interior designer fleshing out a dining establishment, for example, needs to know the typical flow of a restaurant, including how food is prepared and served.

In addition to mastering their design and people skills, interior designers need training on building codes, construction and local laws. While most states allow interior designers to work in residential spaces without a license, some mandate licenses for projects in commercial buildings. While not always necessary, state registrations and certifications open the door to more lucrative work. Even when interior designers work with homeowners, a certification can create a sense of confidence and trust for the clients.

The industry’s gold-standard certification, which a lot of states require from registered interior designers, is passing the three-part National Council for Interior Design Qualification, or NCIDQ, exam. To take the exam, interior designers need an interior design or architecture degree, as well as at least two years of professional experience. Students completing their last year of study toward a bachelor’s or master’s degree who do not have the required work experience can take the Fundamentals portion of the test.

How Long Does It Take to Become an Interior Designer?

Depending on what degree an interior designer pursues, the path to a career may take at least two years, the time needed to obtain an associate degree in interior design. If they choose to take the NCIDQ exam and become certified, interior designers with an associate degree need at least three years of full-time work experience. Those with a bachelor’s degree – which normally takes four years – need two years of experience to qualify for the exam. As a result, becoming a certified interior designer may take a combined five to six years of formal studies and on-the-job learning.

Interior Designer vs. Interior Decorator: What’s the Difference?

While the titles of interior designer and interior decorator are often used interchangeably, the two professions are distinct. In short, interior designers can decorate, but interior decorators can’t design. Interior decorators pick the furniture, the flooring, the lighting and the textures for a room. Interior designers do all of this, but they may also design – actually create – the space.

Interior designers often work with developers and architects to shape a building, participating in decisions about the curves of the walls or the height of the ceilings, for instance. Unlike interior decorators, interior designers take into consideration building codes, fire safety, accessibility and acoustics, among other things.

Moreover, interior designers have theoretical and research knowledge about human behavior and design, which guides them in the creation of functional, safe and inclusive interiors. Their specialized skills stem from formal studies, training and experience, which interior decorators do not have. Interior designers may have to take the NCIDQ exam in order to practice in some states. Interior decorators do not need licensure.

What Tools and Software Should Interior Designers Know?

While the ability to draw interiors by hand is a useful talent for interior designers, proficiency in computer-aided design, or CAD, is a modern must. CAD allows interior designers to flesh out their ideas in 2D and 3D models with details such as textures and colors. Augmented reality tools take this capability a step further, permitting interior designers to directly apply changes and enhancements to an uploaded image of the space.

Aside from design tools, interior designers should have a good grasp on workflow and project management software. Those who own their business may have to use online payroll applications and content-creation platforms to promote their practice.

The average salary for an interior designer was about $61,000 as of May 2019. The lowest-earning 10% averaged about $32,000 and the top 10% more than $96,000, according to the BLS. Salaries differ depending on location. For instance, a midcareer interior designer in Houston may earn $5,000 to $10,000 less than a counterpart based in New York City. Average salaries top $70,000 in the industry’s top-paying states of Rhode Island, California and Arizona.

Becoming an interior designer usually takes several steps, which may include obtaining a degree or diploma, learning specialized software and receiving a license. For self-employed interior designers, a successful career also requires determined self-promotion. While establishing a practice may be challenging at first, it provides interior designers with the freedom to pursue their unique interests in the industry. However, working for an established firm will help fledgling interior designers tap the company’s reputation to establish their credibility and acquire clients.

Study, Get a Degree (or not)

Interior designers need at least an associate degree to be registered. Pursuing a degree teaches them fundamentals about construction, design theory and history, communication and business. Designers can also learn a variety of trade tools, such as CAD, independently through online courses. Some universities also offer self-paced interior design certificates to help students break into the field.

Get Accredited/Certified and Obtain Work Experience

While most states offer certification for interior designers, a handful require a license for work in code-based settings, which usually mean large-scale commercial projects. The best way for interior designers to validate their skills is to take the NCIDQ exam. The exam consists of three parts – Fundamentals, or IDFX; Professional, or IDPX; and Practicum, or PRAC. In total, the exam evaluates an individual’s textbook understanding and experience in interior design.

Get an Internship or Small Jobs to Get Started

The best way to get a start is to find an interior design internship, which will help aspiring professionals better understand the day-to-day duties of the occupation. A small job for a relative or a friend can also provide beneficial experience for young interior designers.

Develop Your Interior Design Portfolio

Internships or small jobs are also opportunities to build an interior design portfolio to compete for full-time jobs and show clients. A great portfolio should demonstrate the designer’s eye for aesthetics and functionality, which are often hard to balance. It should also reveal the designer’s process with sketches, mood boards and, if possible, images of the completed project. Projects that showcase a consideration of color and light stand out, as these aspects of interior design can be especially tricky.

Network and Establish Your Niche

As in any other profession, networking is crucial. There are many professional organizations that aspiring interior designers can join to meet peers, find mentors and learn. Some of them are:

There are also numerous associations for niche specializations, which can help interior designers focus their practice and master specific aspects of the profession such as lighting and kitchen design, for example. Some of those specialized organizations include:


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