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.

Before You Start

Understand the Requirements

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.

Option #1

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. Here, we will explore the path to certification and discuss some strategies to help you along the way to becoming a Certified 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.

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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 #2

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.

Choose an Area of Interior Design Specialization

As a designer gains experience and a thorough understanding of the business, they may decide to focus on one facet of the profession that interests them most. There are hundreds of thriving professionals working in every possible design style – from traditional to nautical or Midwestern farmhouse. Decide which style appeals to you the most and start working to establish your name as an interior designer in that field.

The point is, if you’re reading this post with the hope of becoming an interior designer, remember that once you have progressed enough to feel confident in your abilities, specialization will help you differentiate your skills and ultimately succeed in the industry. Specialized career niches in the interior design industry include the following services:

  • Residential
  • Corporate and Executive Offices
  • Health Care
  • Hospitality and Entertainment
  • Kitchen and Bath Design
  • Lighting Design
  • Retail/Merchandising
  • Institutional
  • Industrial Facilities
  • Transportation
  • Sustainable Design

Additional Resources for Interior Designers

How to Become an Interior Designer FAQ

The qualifications you need to be an interior designer depend on the type of interior designer you want to be. If you want to become a Certified Interior Designer, versus merely an Interior Designer, you need to earn a post-secondary degree, certificate, or diploma in Interior Design, gain several thousand hours of supervised work experience, and pass a certification exam.

There are no formal education or training requirements to become an interior designer, so anyone can enter the field without any special knowledge or training. However, to become certified and use the title “Certified Interior Designer” you must complete college-level courses and gain several years of experience working in the industry under supervised conditions. Altogether, this can take anywhere from 3.5 – 6 years to complete.

Getting started in interior design is relatively simple. If certification is not a priority for you, it is possible to become an interior designer without a degree or experience. Many designers start their careers by learning the basics of Interior Design through self-guided study and by working as an assistant to a more experienced designer. This will help you develop the skills you need and further your knowledge of the industry.

Interior designers enjoy a high level of job satisfaction and a good salary. However, it is important to note that most interior design positions are self-employed or work as independent contractors. This means you need to be your own boss – setting prices, developing timelines, budgets, and managing clients – which can make the profession quite stressful depending on your personality type.