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When people think about an interior designer, their first thought often goes to the idea of someone in a swanky loft apartment, surrounded by French script neon signs and furnishings so modern they could easily double as art pieces. People often look at the gorgeous Mediterranean-style homes featured in magazines and assume that’s what becoming an interior designer is all about.
While there is a lot of truth to the stereotype and many successful designers do work in both high-end homes and commercial spaces, the interior design profession is so much more than that. Interior design is a multifaceted profession that requires a broad range of expertise in technical, creative, and business disciplines.
According to the Council for Interior Design Qualification, an interior designer is a professional who brings artistic vision, aesthetic sensibility, and specialized knowledge to the planning and design of interior environments. Their designs should enhance the function, safety, and human experience of their clients’ spaces while also meeting the objectives and requirements of the project at hand.
The primary goal of an interior designer is to make buildings beautiful, functional, safe, and sustainable through carefully executed design that reflects the personal style and preferences of their client. The process of bringing this vision to life is complex, and interior designers must be experts in all aspects of design including space planning, color, lighting, acoustics, furniture, materials and finishes, electrical solutions, window treatments, access/visibility considerations, sustainable practices, universal design, and more.
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While both interior designers and certified interior designers are involved in the process of planning, designing, and transforming interiors for their clients, there are significant differences between the two.
Interior designers are not required to have formal education or training. With no such requirements in place, anyone can call themselves an interior designer with little or no education or work experience. A Certified Interior Designer, on the other hand, has the significant advantage of having met a specific set of competencies, supported by a college degree and years of supervised work experience, to earn NCIDQ certification – a standard recognized by the American Society of Interior Designers.
Summary of Steps
Embarking on a career in interior design offers two distinct yet equally rewarding paths. Whether you’re pursuing a formal education to earn a degree or breaking into the industry without one, the world of interior design beckons with creative opportunities. In this section, we’ll explore both routes, providing insights into the steps required for success.
The decision about whether to pursue certification is a choice that has far-reaching implications for your entire career. Certification represents a serious commitment in terms of time and money to complete but is ultimately a major professional milestone for any interior designer.
The first step to becoming a certified interior designer is to chart one’s path through higher education. To be eligible for NCIDQ certification, candidates must complete a minimum of 60 semester or 90 quarter credit hours of college-level interior design coursework from an accredited degree (associate’s or bachelor’s), certificate, or diploma program.
The level of education you choose to pursue is an important decision. Earning a four-year bachelor’s degree will provide you with a more comprehensive education that can better prepare you for the challenges of practicing interior design. An interior design certificate may help you enter the field more quickly, but will explore the discipline of interior design in less detail. The choice is entirely personal, and up to you.
Every candidate for NCIDQ certification must accumulate a significant amount of work experience hours that are earned and affirmed by a certified design professional, such as an NCIDQ Certified Interior Designer. The amount of supervised experience a candidate is required to complete is determined by the level of education obtained, as evidenced by a degree or certificate.
Candidates with a bachelor’s or master’s degree in Interior Design from a CIDA-accredited program are required to earn 3,520 supervised work hours (two years full-time). A candidate with an associate’s degree, certificate, or diploma must earn 5,280 work hours (three years full-time) to be eligible for certification.
If certification is not a priority for you, there are many other viable routes to becoming an interior designer. Many interior designers start their careers with no formal training or certification and begin their careers as assistants or support staff before advancing into independent roles.
This alternative path to a successful interior design career requires a different type of dedication and self-reliance than the one leading to certification. To become an interior designer without a degree, candidates must create their own education path to learn the required skills and prove themselves by taking on increasingly complex projects and demonstrating leadership.
If you think you want to become an interior designer, you’ve likely done at least a little interior design work or have watched someone else do it. You might have decorated your home, you may have tried an art project to spruce up a drab living room or bedroom, or maybe you’ve helped a friend or family member pick out some new furniture or paint colors.
However, you cannot just start doing design work with no background. You need to get some basics under your belt or you will be in over your head in no time. Instead of just “winging it”, create your own education path to get the necessary skills and experience of a professional.
Online education and independent study courses offer a flexible and affordable way to learn about interior design. You can start your self-education by taking a few courses as a beginner to understand the basics of interior design and gradually broaden your knowledge by taking more advanced courses.
Courses on interior design typically include topics such as:
To get your career as an interior designer off the ground, you might consider starting as a support staff member for a design firm or independent business owner who can train and mentor you in the skills necessary to succeed in the industry. This is a great way to gain experience and build your reputation.
Many established designers take on prospective designers in an apprentice-style relationship, which entails some administrative duties as well as helping with design work. In some cases, you may be able to take on small projects of your own while working under the supervision of more experienced interior designers.
Once you have some experience, you can start your own business as a private contractor and take on projects independently. Working for yourself is risky and requires a lot of determination and commitment to succeed, but this path offers the most creative freedom and flexibility.
To get started, you should create a portfolio of past work and develop a website to showcase your interior design skills. Next, build relationships with potential clients through your personal network and advertising to get referrals.
To get real design work, you need to build a portfolio. The process of building your portfolio will help you learn the necessary skills and techniques while allowing you to showcase different styles and “concepts”.
Take pictures of your completed projects and if you do not have a lot of completed projects, consider taking on small projects for family and friends to build your portfolio. You can also use your own home or apartment as a staging ground to experiment with color palettes, furniture selections, lighting designs, paint textures, and so on.
According to data published in the Occupational Outlook Handbook by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for an Interior Designer was $61,400 in May 2020, which is the equivalent of $29.52 per hour. Interior designers in the top 10 percent nationally earned an average annual wage of $97,920.
An interior designer’s earning power is highly dependent on their artistic skill and level of experience, which means that there are significant opportunities in the job market for interior designers to earn more as they grow their reputation, cultivate a more extensive clientele, and develop a greater body of interior design work.
Environmental design refers to the process of creating interior and exterior spaces that account for the functional needs of people while also preserving and protecting the environment. Environmental designers often work on green building projects that require LEED certification, such as schools, hospitals, residential care facilities, and office buildings.
Interior designers working on sustainable design projects may collaborate with energy and environmental design consultants to incorporate green features such as daylighting, renewable energy systems, and water conservation measures into the project design.
A furniture designer creates and manufactures items such as tables, chairs, beds, cabinets, and other furniture. Similar to interior designers that work in residential or commercial design firms, a furniture designer typically works with clients to meet their individual style preferences and needs through the creation of custom home furnishings.
An interior decorator is a professional who provides advice and services to clients regarding the decoration and furnishing of their home or office. Interior decorators often work with clients to select paint colors, fabrics, furniture, and accessories to create an atmosphere within the home that reflects the client’s personal taste and style.
The role of an interior decorator is frequently confused with that of an interior designer because the two professions share many of the same skills and responsibilities. However, interior decorators typically have less education, formal training, and experience working on complex design projects than interior designers.
Lighting designers specialize in the design, construction, and installation of interior lighting systems. Lighting designers generally work with owners of commercial, retail, industrial, and other professional workplaces to create functional lighting design systems, improve energy consumption, and enhance the appearance of interior space.
Most commonly, a lighting designer will focus on specific aspects of the design process such as specifying particular types of light fixtures, creating lighting plans, wiring and installing lighting systems, or finding electrical solutions to balance energy costs.
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