How to Start a Career in Interior Design

Last Updated on December 25, 2021 by Kimberly Crawford

Think about the most amazing room you’ve ever walked into. What struck you the most? Was it the crystal chandelier shimmering from the ceiling, or perhaps it was the luxurious seating beckoning you to unwind and let your stresses dissolve?

Interior designers are behind the design, décor and aesthetic behind the most welcoming homes and impressive commercial buildings. They can create the wow factor that makes people spend a fortune at five-star hotels just as easily as they can make a tiny home feel spacious and inviting.

If you have always loved the interaction between setting and emotion, love expressing yourself creatively and enjoy active work, then being an interior designer may be the perfect career path for you.

What Does an Interior Designer Do?

Interior designers are professionals who develop, stylize, decorate, and arrange rooms in both homes and buildings. Some may specialize in a particular industry, like restaurants or hotels, while others work for-hire.

They can be a member of a firm or work independently, setting their own prices and choosing clients as a freelancer. Designers do far more than simply pick out what furniture looks good in any given space. They use their artistic eye as well as key principles to create a desired aesthetic and mood.

The Difference Between a Home Decorator and Interior Designer

interior designer

Home decorators focus solely on the cosmetic appearance of residential spaces. They can help organize rooms to feel more spacious, retrofit an older home and breathe new life into a well-loved property. They may have some formal training, but many are self-taught and rely on their own style and experience.

Most designers have earned a degree and become certified or registered in their state. Many attend art schools while others attend a traditional university.

Home decorators do not need to register with their state, and they may or may not have any formal education in the realm of design. They tend to work on building strong portfolios, which help them attract more clients.

The greatest differences between a home decorator and interior designer is their level of education and abilities.

In addition to holding a formal degree in their discipline, designers also have the ability to work for a number of different clients. Rather than focusing solely on houses, they can work for firms and help design the interiors of large-scale properties, like shopping malls and even airports.

Does an Interior Designer Need a Degree?

While there is no legal requirement to promote decorating services, most professionals aim to provide the highest quality to their clients, and that comes through certification.

The National Council for Interior Design Qualification, NCIDQ, is the leading standard for all interior designers throughout the country. In order to pass the three-part exam, candidates typically must hold at least 90 credits, or 60 hours, of post-secondary study. For the majority, this means holding either an associate’s or bachelor’s in interior design.

With certification, you can then move on to earn accreditation through the Council for Interior Design Accreditation (CIDA). This is the leading credential among professionals throughout the industry.

In many states, you must hold a degree and pass exams in order to hold the title of certified or registered. Whether you want to work freelance, open your own agency or apply for a firm, having a degree and proper certification will drastically improve your career outlook.

How Long Does It Take to Earn an Interior Design Degree?

Associate’s degrees take two years, bachelor’s degrees take four and a Master’s will take another 18 months to two years. The bachelor’s is the most valuable option for most students as it gives them the core foundation and skills they need to become confident professionals. Throughout their program, students study a variety of design theories and principles.

Schools introduce students to foundational design theory and principles before they begin delving into the interior design process. They work throughout their course to learn everything from color and lighting to textiles and presentation.

They also gain core business skills necessary to communicate ideas effectively to their clients. While many people think that being a designer is a matter of just arranging a room, it actually requires strong social skills.

Emphasis is placed on presentation, documentation and review in order to build confident professionals who deliver phenomenal results.

How Much Does an Interior Design Degree Cost?

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The total cost of tuition will vary based on the school you attend, your location and type of degree you earn. Financial aid and scholarships can also drastically turn the cards in your favor when it comes to eliminating student debt.

A student loan from a private lender can help you balance the cost of education with your future budget. With various options to make payments manageable, you can be confident about your finances even after graduation.

How Much Does an Interior Designer Make Per Year?

The average annual salary for an interior designer is $57,060 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2020). You may qualify to earn more depending on your location and credentials. For example, a person in this field has more job opportunities in New York City than they do in rural Minnesota.

You may decide that relocating is part of your greater career roadmap as well. Moving to a city that has higher paying jobs and more diverse opportunities can help you grow your career much faster.

If you think this might be the perfect job for you, you can start learning more today. In addition to researching schools and different programs, these tips will help you develop skills and sharpen your knowledge. When you eventually enter a program, you’ll feel more confident than ever about your future.

Take Online Classes First

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Before committing to an expensive program, it is a good idea to sample the field through online courses. A free course by Allison is perfect for someone who wants to learn more about interior design principles.

There are also paid options on sites like Udemy that cost $50 to $150. These are low-risk ways for you to explore the industry and decide if you want to pursue a degree.

Start Practicing in Your Own Home

You don’t have to wait to begin your work! Your house is your own blank canvas. Draw up floor plans, and work with what you have. This can be a fun challenge for beginners who want to put principles they’re learning into practice. Note how changing the position of a piece of furniture affects the overall flow of the room. Or focus on one theme, like flowers, and come up with floral home decorating ideas that can transition with the seasons, for example. 

Offer to Renovate Family and Friends’ Spaces

The best way to get experience is to practice with people you already know. Ask friends and family members if they would let you redecorate their homes.

You may add a backsplash and resurface their kitchen counters, or you could transform their dull master bedroom into a room fit for royalty. Make sure you focus on communication here. Treat them like clients, and make sure you pay close attention to capturing a space that reflects their personalities.

Absorb as Much as You Can from Professionals

Read magazines, watch television programs, YouTube videos and anything else you can get your hands on. Buy a few textbooks online, subscribe to newsletters and make mood boards on Pinterest. Follow some professionals on LinkedIn as well. They often post news and events for their peers that are just as valuable for students.

Develop an Artistic Eye

Learn to examine the details in different spaces and ask questions. What makes this room feel the way it does? What does the color of the walls remind me of? How could I change this space to feel different? These simple questions help you train your mind to be more detail-oriented.