What is the difference between an interior designer and an interior decorator?

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We often hear the careers 'interior designer' and 'interior decorator' used interchangeably, and admittedly there are a few similarities between the two. However, there are also more than a few differences, and some of those differences are fairly significant.

Interior Designer
Whether designing a home or a business, an interior designer needs to be able to tap into and understand a client's needs and wants in order to create a beautiful yet functional space. An interior designer doesn't just enhance the look of a space; they also enhance the function of it. Interior designers often work closely with architects and contractors to help attain the ambience and look the client is after while still adhering to code and regulatory requirements. The interior design process follows a specific and systematic methodology which includes research, analysis, technicality, and creativity. Additionally, having knowledge of and applying the principles of environmental sustainability has become more and more essential in this line of work.

In order to be an interior designer, an individual has to go through specific schooling and formal training. Here is a summary of the Associate’s and Bachelor’s Degree programs in interior design:

Two-year Associate’s Degree Programs
The first year of Associate level programs generally covers the fundamentals of design and basic skills in both hand drawing and digital drawing. The focus of the second year is typically on more specialized topics such as architectural lighting, colour theory, furniture history, and introductory business and marketing concepts. Students who earn an Associate of Applied Science Degree can generally enter the field in an assistant role. An Associate of Arts Degree prepares students to continue their interior design education. The Associate of Science Degree is often pursued by students who intend to further pursue education in architecture or industrial design.

Four-year Bachelor’s Degrees
These programs comprise of courses that address the aesthetic, technical, and business skills required of the well-rounded interior designer. Students are immersed in several topics: drafting, design, 3-D imaging, space planning, project management, marketing, sales, and business development.

Note: Several U.S. states and jurisdictions and seven Canadian provinces have laws that require professional designers to hold an interior design license. To qualify for licensure, candidates must pass the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) exam. The NCIDQ is the most recognized interior designer credential. Even after getting licensed, many interior designers often apprentice with a well-established and experienced interior designer before moving on and starting their own company.

Interior Decorator
An interior decorator is able to create an aesthetic environment for interior spaces by adding furniture and accessories. The National Council for Interior Design Qualifications, NCIDQ, states, "Decoration is the furnishing or adorning of a space with fashionable or beautiful things."

Interior decorators can take a look at an empty room and 'see' how it can be accessorized with furniture, paint, artwork, etc. They work with their client and agree on a style that would look best for the space. Existing spaces can be updated or redone completely. They often enlist the help of upholsterers, furniture refinishers, and sewers to make their vision come to life.

In order to practice professionally, an interior decorator does not need a license and is not required to have any formal training or schooling. Therefore, they are not permitted to design, as only licensed interior designers having a license are permitted to do so. An easy way to remember this is that interior designers can both design and decorate, but interior decorators can only decorate.

Even though no education is required to practice as an interior decorator, there are courses, programs, and certifications available for those who want to expand their horizons and learn the latest in colour and fabric choices, furniture styles, space planning, and room layouts. Certifications from organizations like C.I.D. (Certified Interior Decorators International) offer coursework and certification to help decorators validate their practices.

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