How to Become an Interior Designer: Answers to Your FAQs
If you’re considering becoming an interior designer, perhaps you’re longing to change careers and start anew. Or maybe you’ve already dabbled in the field and are ready to commit to something more serious.
Whatever the case, one thing is clear: You love the challenge of transforming a space into something uniquely beautiful and functional. But you may be wondering, “Can I turn my passion for design into a fulfilling job?”
To help you on your journey, we sought answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about how to become an interior designer. Keep reading for advice and expert insight from Rob Hardy, Director of the online Master of Arts in Interior Design and graduate certificate programs at Fairfield University.
What does an interior designer do?
According to the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), interior designers are responsible for assessing a space, listening to the client’s goals, and translating them into an environment that supports the behavior of the occupants. Interior designers use a broad range of skills to make this magic happen. Some examples include:
- Manual drafting and computer-aided design (CAD)
- Analyzing blueprints and recommending structural changes when appropriate
- Excellent listening and conflict resolution skills
- Technical knowledge of egress and fire safety codes
- Proficiency in barrier-free universal design
- Knowledge of interior design history and materials
“Our role as designers is multi-faceted,” Hardy elaborates. “You must be creative and sensitive but also technically skilled. You have to be able to confidently explain ideas to the client and help them understand your shared vision.”
Do you need a degree to become an interior designer?
You may be surprised to learn that the short answer is no. Technically, you do not need a degree to call yourself an interior designer, although certain states do have laws about who can use that job title (see next section about licensing). In fact, many people start out in this field doing smaller-scale residential designs in their homes or for friends, gaining experience and developing their portfolio until they are ready to level up.
But if your goal is to work on big projects with clients who have high budgets and expectations, you will almost certainly need to become a credentialed interior designer. To assess blueprints, propose structural changes, draft a new lighting plan or gut and remodel a bathroom, you’re going to need professional training.
Luckily, there are many entry points for becoming a registered interior designer. Your options include:
- Associate of Applied Science in Interior Design
- Bachelor of Fine Arts, Bachelor of Arts, or Bachelor of Science in Interior Design
- Graduate Certificate in Residential Interior Design (this certificate prepares students to work toward an interior design career without certification)
- Graduate Certificate in Professional Interior Design
- Master of Arts in Interior Design
Do you need a license to become an interior designer?
Again, it depends on the kind of work you want to do. For commercial and institutional design, you will likely need to be licensed. However, each state has some form of legislation that affects the interior design profession, so it’s best to check the rules where you plan to work.
To become a licensed/registered/certified interior designer, you’ll need two years of field experience plus at least 60 credits of interior design fundamentals, which can be earned in a post-graduate certificate or an associate’s, bachelor’s, or master’s degree. This qualifies you to sit for the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) Examination.
The exam is composed of the following three parts, and you need to score at least 500 out of 800 to pass:
- Interior Design Fundamentals Exam
- Interior Design Professional Exam
Even if you’re interested in residential interior design, becoming licensed offers many benefits and increased career opportunities for designers. It adds credibility and authority to your practice, and it lets clients know you are well-versed in industry standards and immersed in the profession. You will also be eligible to become a professional member of the ASID, joining an engaged and knowledgeable community of designers.
5 Steps to start a career in interior design
Now that you know more about what is expected of interior design professionals and the types of training options available, let’s explore some other important steps to be successful in this field.
1. Make time for self-evaluation
It’s always a great idea to sit down and think about your motivations before doing something big and exciting, like changing careers. Consider answering the following questions to help you get started:
- Why are you passionate about interior design?
- What are your strengths as a designer?
- What are your weaknesses or things you want to improve?
- Do you see yourself becoming an entrepreneur someday?
- How much time do you have to devote to school/training?
- What are your competing priorities?
Doing this thought exercise can make a big difference when it comes to planning your interior design journey.
2. Assemble your portfolio
For creatives and artists of all kinds, having a robust and easily accessible portfolio is crucial. Think of it as a visual resume that shows your previous and current work. There are many ways to display your portfolio, depending on how much time and money you have to spare. Some popular examples of tools and platforms to make a portfolio include:
- PowerPoint presentation (part of the Microsoft suite)
- Canva (free version) or CanvaPro subscription
- Adobe Illustrator or InDesign (subscription)
- Personal website (subscription-based)
If you’re just starting on your journey to becoming an interior designer, you may be wondering how to make a portfolio if you haven’t worked with paying clients yet. Take some time to think about designs and projects you’ve completed in the past — even if it was for your own home, a friend’s living room, or an over-the-top baby shower. You may have more experience than you think!
In lieu of (or in addition to) photos, your portfolio could also include things like:
- A short bio that outlines your education, experience, and design philosophy
- A section that states which services you offer
- Social media handles
- Contact information
- Mood boards
- Color palettes
- Sketches and mockups
3. Pursue interior design education and licensure
As we listed earlier, when it comes to becoming an interior designer, there are many different educational paths. Once you have earned enough credits and work experience, you qualify to sit for the NCIDQ exam and become a licensed interior designer.
4. Start your own business or find an agency job
It is very common for interior designers to start their own consulting businesses, as this option offers a lot of flexibility and the chance to make your own schedule and be your own boss. However, there are also agency jobs to keep in mind, especially if you’re looking for work in commercial design. Just keep in mind that most agencies require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and an interior design license.