Interior Designer

Becoming an interior designer is within reach. Explore the essential steps to kickstart your career in creating stunning, functional spaces.
How to Become an Interior Designer

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.

What Is an Interior Designer?

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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What Does an Interior Designer Do?

While some people may think of an interior designer as someone who knows how to pick out stylish furniture pieces, appropriate colors, and window treatments for a home, in reality, the practice of Interior Design is far more extensive. Interior design encompasses both the technical and artistic processes of analyzing, planning, designing, and managing the construction of interior spaces. Interior designers also carry the ethical and moral responsibility to protect clients and consumers through the design of accessible, code-compliant, and safe interior spaces.

Interior Designer Job Description

The day-to-day responsibilities of interior designers can vary greatly depending on the needs of their client(s) and the size of the project at hand. However, some of the most common tasks include:
  • Using client input to develop design concepts and plans
  • Reviewing applicable fire safety, energy, indoor air quality, and non-structural/non-seismic building design and building codes for compliance with local, state, and/or federal regulations
  • Select and incorporate elements such as interior furnishings, finishes, materials, color palettes, lighting, floor coverings, window treatments, and accessories
  • Using computer-aided design (CAD) or hand sketching to draft renderings of the designs
  • Leading onsite workshops with clients to review existing conditions, site plans, and preliminary design ideas or renderings
  • Preparing cost estimates or statements of work for clients’ review
  • Work closely with architects, contractors, engineers/builders, furniture makers, manufacturers, other design professionals (such as graphic designers), and other consultants to ensure that all elements of the project are in line with the client’s style and vision
  • Providing post-construction, onsite supervision of the finished project from start to finish

Requirements to Become an Interior Designer

Before you start thinking about diving headfirst into a career, it’s important that you have a solid understanding of the profession and the requirements that distinguish a “Certified Interior Designer” from others working in the industry. Knowing the differences between designers with a CID designation and interior designers without certification will help you make a decision about which path you want to pursue.

Interior Designer vs. Certified Interior Designer

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.

The Benefits of Certification

Earning professional certification is much more than simply having a piece of paper that says you’ve met certain qualifications; it’s an affirmation that you’re at the top of your field. Certified interior designers differentiate themselves from others in the industry by virtue of their formal education and training, technical proficiency, insight into business practices, and commitment to ongoing professional development. This distinction makes certification an extremely valuable credential when searching for a job or beginning your own interior design business.

Summary of Steps

Paths to Become an Interior Designer

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. 


Earn an Interior Degree or Certificate

Start by acquiring an accredited interior design degree or certificate to develop essential skills.


Gain Supervised Professional Experience

Hone your expertise through supervised, real-world interior design projects to prepare for your career.


Pass a Certification Exam

Validate your proficiency by passing a recognized interior design certification exam.


Create Your Own Education Path

Craft a unique educational journey to acquire interior design skills on your terms.


Take Classes to Learn the Basics

Enroll in foundational courses to build your interior design skills.


Work Under an Expert Interior Designer

Learn the ropes under the guidance of experienced interior designers.


Start as a Private Contractor

Launch your career by offering your services as an independent interior design professional.


Build Your Portfolio

Assemble a portfolio showcasing your best projects to exhibit your design prowess.


Build a Professional Network

Connect with industry peers and clients to expand your opportunities in the interior design field.

Option A

Become a Certified Interior Designer

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. 

1. Earn an Interior Design Degree or Certificate

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.

2. Gain Supervised Professional Experience

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.

3. Pass a Certification Exam

Aspiring designers who meet the eligibility requirements for certification may sit for the NCIDQ exam or an alternative interior design certification exam approved by the jurisdiction issuing their qualified experience hours. The NCIDQ exam is a timed, multiple-choice, three-part examination that measures a candidate’s competency in interior design principles and knowledge in content areas such as building codes and standards, public safety, and professional and ethical business practices.

Option B

Become an Interior Designer Without a Degree

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.

1. Create Your Own Education Path

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.

2. Take Classes to Learn the Basics

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:

  • Design Basics
  • Space Planning
  • History of Styles and Furnishings
  • Materials and Finishes
  • Designing With Color
  • Lighting Fundamentals
  • Building Codes and Standards

3. Work Under an Expert Interior Designer

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.

4. Start as a Private Contractor

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.

5. Build Your Portfolio

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.

6. Build Your Professional Network

Networking is a key component of any successful career, and interior design is no exception. A strong professional network can help you get more work by letting others know about your services or even referring you to potential clients. Join industry organizations and attend social events hosted by local commercial business development agencies, art councils, colleges and universities with interior design programs, and so on.
4 %
Job Growth
$ 67460
Mean Annual Wage
9 K+
Job Openings Per Year

Interior Designer Salary

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.

Highest Paying States for Interior Designers

District of Columbia$72,750$34.98
New York$71,240$34.25
Rhode Island$66,130$31.79
* Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Interior Designers, January 28, 2022

Careers in Interior Design

The field of interior design offers countless opportunities for creative professionals. While many interior designers work as corporate designers for a large design firm or choose to start their own design business, there are also many alternatives for those who are looking for a different career path. Here are a few career paths for interior design professionals who wish to pursue opportunities outside the traditional role of an “interior designer.”


A drafter is an interior design professional that uses technical drafting skills to produce plans and other documents for commercial, industrial, or residential buildings. Drafters often work closely with engineering professionals to provide floor plans, sections, overhead views, electrical layouts, and other documentation required for site development projects.

Environmental Designer

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.

Exhibit Designer

An exhibit designer creates displays, models, and interactive exhibits for commercial trade shows, museum exhibitions, product launches, pop-up retail spaces, and other temporary installations. These events are often created to promote a business or organization, highlight a company’s brand, or educate consumers about certain products or services.

Furniture Designer

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.

Interior Decorator

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.

Kitchen and Bath Designer

Kitchen and bath designers specialize in the design and renovation of aesthetically pleasing kitchens and bathrooms, including all of the related structural, electrical, and plumbing components. Kitchen and bath designers typically focus exclusively on home renovations, specializing in additions or remodels of specific rooms to meet a client’s particular style and requirements.

Lighting Designer

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.

Additional Resources

Interior Designer FAQ

How much does an interior designer make?

The salary earned by an interior designer varies significantly depending on the location, experience, and skill level of the professional. A skilled interior designer with substantial experience designing buildings and a portfolio of high-profile projects can earn a salary in excess of $100,000 per year. Top earning interior designers in California, New York, Arkansas, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and the District of Columbia reported salaries ranging from $112,070 to $120,690, which is nearly double the mean annual wage of $61,400 for the profession reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Which degree is best for interior design?

Most certified interior designers hold a bachelor’s degree in interior design or a bachelor’s degree in interior architecture. However, It is possible to earn interior design certification with a degree in a field outside of interior design. Students who initially earn a degree in a field other than interior design must complete undergraduate courses in interior design, such as an interior design certificate before they can qualify for certification.

Is Interior Design a good career?

Interior design is a popular career choice because the profession provides an opportunity to work in a creative field while earning a competitive salary. In addition, career advancement opportunities are largely dependent on an individual’s ability to draw positive attention to their work and develop a positive professional reputation. Some individuals are also drawn to the profession because of the relatively low barrier to entry, which means that anyone with strong design and business skills can thrive in the field.