What's the difference between a designer and a decorator?

A decorator will choose the colors, the furniture and the layout. A designer will do all of that, as well as decide where the walls, doors and windows go, too.

­Many of us are hopeless when it comes to decorating our homes. We can't decide which furniture to choose, what color scheme to work toward, how to best use the features and rooms in our home. Adding to our décor year after year, we're often left with rooms that we don't enjoy living in, with no cohesive decorating scheme. For help with pulling together the look and design of our living spaces, we turn to professional designers and decorators, who have the skills to transform colors, fabrics and furniture into amazing homes that we're proud to show off to friends and family.

Once you've decided to put things into the hands of a professional, the next step is deciding who to call. While many people use the terms "decorator" and "interior designer" int­erchangeably, these are actually two very different professions.


To understand whether you need a decorator or a designer, you must first understand a bit about how the building and design process works. Projects can be either residential, which includes single family homes, apartment buildings or multi-family developments, or they can be commercial, including schools, office buildings, stores and everything else. Construction and related companies will generally focus on either residential or commercial work, rarely both. This is because the process, materials and methods between the two types is vastly different.

­When it comes to design, most residential work is done by decorators, while most commercial work is done by interior designers. There are many exceptions, of course, but this is a general rule of thumb. Decorators are hired by homeowners, developers or residential architects to help with creating a certain look or feel in the home. Interior designers work hand-in-hand with architects to design the entire interior of a space, from where the walls will go to what kind of flooring material will be used.

Read on to the next section to learn more about the role of the designer versus that of the decorator, as well as how each interacts with architects and clients to complete a project.


The Role of the Interior Designer vs. the Role of the Decorator

The interior designer's work on a project begins when he or she is hired by an architect or developer. While many designers may be on-staff with architectural firms, others are independent businesspeople who are hired on a project basis. Generally, by the time the designer comes on board, the architect has laid out the basic shape of the building and has consulted with structural, mechanical and electrical engineers on the project.

First, the designer will meet with the end users of the space, or their representative. At this meeting, they'll attempt to understand how the space will be used. True interior designers are able to apply the science of human behavior to design a building that maximizes the ability of the space to serve its intended function. They're most concerned with efficiency, functionality and safety.


Using the architect's basic design, the designer will lay out the walls and floor plan, keeping in mind local building codes and fire safety and accessibility. They even consider such factors as sound transmission and acoustics. After the basic layout has been determined, they'll present it to the end users for review. During this time, they often have to explain why certain design and layout features were done the way they were and why this will maximize the functionality of the project.

As the project progresses, the designer will also take on the role of a decorator, choosing furnishings, paint and other finishes, as well as creating a lighting plan that best serves the building occupants.

Decorators, on the other hand, aren't involved in designing the layout of the space. Decorators may be called onto projects while they're still under construction, but in general, they come on board after the project is complete. They're hired by homeowners or developers of multi-family residential units to create a look that will be comfortable and inviting for the home's occupants. Decorators choose furnishings, fixtures, lighting, paint and fabric, creating a decorating scheme that's well-put together, while still reflecting the personality of the homeowners. To do this, decorators will meet with the home owners to get an idea of their interests and may try to incorporate items that reflect those interests into the décor.

To understand why the roles of the designer and decorator differ, we must understand the different educational requirements between the two. Read on to the next section to learn what types of programs are available for each.


Educational Requirements for Decorators and Designers

When it comes to formal educational programs, decorators often select 2-year or certificate courses at universities or community colleges. Here, they'll learn all aspects of home décor, from putting together colors to using lighting appropriately. They may take courses in marketing, business or sales, as a large percentage of decorators are self-employed. While there are currently no states that have any formal education requirements for decorators, having a degree or certificate can not only provide expanded skills and knowledge but can also help the decorator gain clients.

Designers, however, have a little bit more work to do. As of 2009, 25 states and the District of Columbia had educational requirements in place for interior designers. Most of those state requirements are based on the standards of the National Council for Interior Design Qualification, or NCIDQ. Under NCIDQ standards, designers must earn a minimum of 120 semester hours of course work, with no fewer than 60 of those hours focused on interior design work. Most colleges and universities that offer programs in interior design are designed to satisfy the NCIDQ requirements [source: NCIDQ].


Because of the stringent educational requirements, most students planning to pursue interior design will select a four-year program that culminates in a bachelor's degree. Even in states that don't require a minimum level of education for designers, many potential applicants will choose to pursue a degree to help them gain private clients or get a job with an architectural firm upon graduation. With the potential for additional states to adopt the NCIDQ educational standards at any time, those considering a two-year degree may want to select a 4-year program instead so they're prepared for any upcoming changes. In addition, most architectural firms will require a four-year degree for on-staff designers.

Interior design programs are reviewed by the Council for Interior Design Accreditation. This organization visits schools that offer design programs and confirms their ability to prepare students for careers in the field. Its Web site provides an excellent resource for students looking for accredited schools and programs.

Beyond these educational requirements, many states and organizations offer formal certification programs in interior design.


Designer and Decorator Certification and Licensing

So what does it take to become a certified interior designer? Along with the school requirements we discussed in the previous section, interior designers must also complete 3,520 hours of interior design work experience. This is equivalent to roughly two years of full-time work, though up to half of the hours may be earned part-time while the applicant is still in school [soucre: NCIDQ].

After these requirements have been met, the applicant is eligible to sit for the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) certification exam. The exam covers technical aspects of the design process, including building codes, structural engineering concepts, fire safety and handicap accessibility, as well as information on construction materials and methods. After passing the exam, the applicant is able to enter the industry as a licensed interior designer.


While only half of U.S. states currently require licensing, it can be beneficial for applicants from all states to pursue NCIDQ certification. Having a license from a nationally recognized governing body can not only help you get a job in the industry, it's often required of all applicants by architecture and design firms. At the very least, in this competitive industry, it's a way of getting your foot in the door, and of proving your design abilities and knowledge to clients and employers. In addition, there's a strong possibility that more states will require licensing -- especially as building technology evolves -- making the certification process more important than ever.

As of 2009, there are no states or jurisdictions that require decorators to be licensed. Because decorators are more focused on the surface appearance of a space than on the more technical design aspects, there's less concern about safety and compliance with building codes than when it comes to design.


Designer and Decorator Careers

Think you might be interested in a career as a designer or decorator? Let's look at how these professionals spend their day, as well as ways to prepare yourself for the design industry.

The majority of decorators work in small, independent firms. They typically specialize in residential work, interacting directly with homeowners to find a style and décor that meets their needs. They may spend their days meeting with potential clients to outline their services, overseeing the decoration of a current project or tracking down the perfect lighting fixture to finish off a room. Between meetings and material acquisitions, much of their time is spent out in the field, not sitting in an office sketching up the perfect living room décor.


Interior designers generally are employed by architectural firms, though some may work as consultants or independent contractors. They spend their days meeting with architects, clients and contractors, designing spaces and coordinating installation and project completion. They may utilize the product library that most major architectural firms compile to compare materials, fixtures and finishes. Because their work is more technical than that of the decorator, they spend a significant portion of their day referencing code books and safety standards while drafting floor plans and project specifications.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the medium income for an interior designer in 2006 was $42,000 [source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics]. Decorators on average earn slightly less, but because many are self-employed, income is truly limited only by hard work, marketing and regional income levels.

Both interior designers and decorators may choose to specialize in a specific type of project. For designers, this could mean schools, retail, healthcare or office buildings. For decorators, this could include high-end residential, multi-family or even certain types of commercial work, especially renovations.

If you plan to get into the design field, balance your artistic interests with math and science courses, which can provide a solid foundation for the technical courses you'll experience when working towards your degree. Don't forget to study business, accounting and marketing as well to prepare yourself for running your own firm, if that's something you may like to do. With 25 percent of those in the design industry currently self-employed, these courses may be as important as sharpening your design skills [source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics].


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • Pile, John. "The History of Interior Design." ArchitectureWeek. September 5, 2001. (January 20, 2009)http://www.architectureweek.com/2001/0905/culture_1-1.html
  • National Council for Interior Design Qualification. "Exam and IDEP Eligibility Requirements." 2009. (January 20, 2009)http://www.ncidq.org/exam/examreq.htm
  • National Council for Interior Design Qualification. "Member Jurisdictions." 2009. (January 20, 2009)http://www.ncidq.org/who/members.asp
  • U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Occupational Outlook Handbook: Interior Designers." December 18, 2007. (January 19, 2009)http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos293.htm