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The Differences Between Interior Decorators and Interior Designers

If you are a trained interior designer, it’s quite possible some of your clients who work with you on decor refreshes don’t know the depth of your expertise. That’s because people often use the terms “interior designer” and “interior decorator” interchangeably. But these are different jobs that require different skills and levels of formal education. 

The best way to explain it to those who don’t know, is that interior designers are interior architects who determine the configuration of a space, plan how it will be constructed to meet permitting requirements, and then draft construction documents to be submitted for permits. Interior decorators select and manage the ordering and installation of the Furniture, Fixtures & Equipment (FF&E). They do what many outside of the industry think of as “interior design,” but they are only completing the final parts of the process in creating an overall space.

Interior designer at work

Some interior designers work as both designer and decorator, but an interior decorator can’t work as interior designer without the proper credentials. Qualifying as an interior designer requires a specific level of education and supervised work experience to ensure the individual is capable and, in some cases, legally allowed, to do the job. Interior decorators need education and training to be capable, as well, but the parameters are far less restrictive and not legally defined.

Here are some other factors that interior designers and interior decorators have in common and what distinguishes one from the other.

Common Elements

  • Goals: Each discipline aims to maximize the function and beauty of an interior. It’s obvious, sure, but the two distinct areas of focus come together to create an interior that is both efficient and aesthetically artful.
  • Education: While the extent differs, each profession requires education and training. More on the differences below.
  • Math: Both rely on precisely accurate measurements and area calculations.
  • Access: There is a vast world of FF&E providers that sell their goods only to trade professionals with proof of credentials. “Trade-only” vendors will accept decorator-level education and credentials.
  • Visual Presentation: Interior designers and interior decorators create drawings and renderings. Proficiency in 2-D drawing is necessary, and 3-D rendering skills are a strong plus. Basic graphic design skills also are needed, particularly for creating interior decorator presentations. Both designations work with AutoCAD, the Adobe Creative Suite and 3-D rendering software, such as Revit and Rhinoceros.


  • Education: Interior design requires a formal degree, preferably from a CIDA-certified school, and proven proficiency in drafting permit-ready architectural drawings. Many states also require NCIDQ certification. At the very least, meeting the eligibility requirements for pursuing the NCIDQ set the minimum standard for what classifies an interior designer.

    Interior decorating also requires education, but the parameters are less stringent. Fewer credits can qualify as an acceptable degree for the interior decorator designation, although the content of classes for each designation overlaps. While NCIDQ is not necessary for decorators, vendors will require proof of education and membership to professional associations, such as the American Society of Interior Design, to establish trade accounts.
  • Scope of Focus: Interior designers focus on the structure first and FF&E second, if at all. Interior decorators focus on FF&E first, without the authority to approve decisions regarding the structure. Either may work on space planning, which is where the disciplines merge.
  • Interior decorating is learned primarily in the field: Most interior design degree programs prioritize interior architecture, with the decorating content being covered in an elective or two. The only way to truly learn the process of an interior decorator is to study or work with one. Otherwise, there is little other way to learn how to compile an FF&E checklist, how to find the best vendors or how an installation process works. 

Many people outside the interior design industry don’t understand the difference between interior designers and interior decorators, it’s helpful for your clients to understand that these are two distinct disciplines. Interior designers have the ability to make the greater impact on a project, because they can develop an interior from beginning to end. However, interior decorating is an art that not all designers possess, even if they are technically qualified to do the job. The most successful interiors emphasize equally the importance of both design and decorating. 

Margot LaScala
Margot LaScala
Margot is a writer and interior designer based in the NYC area. She is passionate about keeping up with the latest architecture and design news to not only stay informed, but inspired.

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