Interior Designer vs. Interior Decorator

Learn the subtle and significant differences between these professions

person looking at fabric and paint swatches

The Spruce / Michelle Becker 

So you've decided to make a few changes at home, and you realize you'll need some help. You begin looking for possible services and find that some professionals describe their work as interior design while others are interior decorators. Suddenly you're faced with new questions, namely, "What's the difference?" And more importantly, "Which one do I need?"


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Interior design and interior decorating are often mistaken as the same thing, but the terms are not entirely interchangeable. There are many similarities between the two jobs—so many opinions vary on where to draw the distinction. There are also more than a few differences between the professions—some subtle, some significant.

Deciding which kind of help you need when planning changes in your home will help you understand the differences between professional designers and decorators—their schooling, credentialing, services, and clientele.

Interior Designer

An interior designer often works closely with architects and other professionals to make an interior space functional, safe, and beautiful, with additional expertise in developing floor plans and using design programs.

  • Schooling: Interior design is a profession that requires specific education and formal training. The work involved usually includes studying color and fabric, computer-aided design (CAD) training, drawing, space planning, furniture design, architecture, and more. Upon graduating, designers often apprentice with a registered and established interior designer before launching their companies.
  • Credentials: In some states and provinces, professional designers are required to pass an exam and become registered with a governing council (which one will depend on what country and state/province they are in) before they can be called designers. However, there are just as many locations where no credentialing is required. So it's a good idea to find out the situation in your area before starting your search.
  • What they do: Designers are comfortable with spatial planning and can help design and renovate interiors—from drawing up the initial floor plans to placing the last decorative accent. Designers don't just enhance the look; they also improve the function of a room.
  • Who they work with: Interior designers often work closely with architects and contractors to help achieve the look the client desires, whether that client is designing a residential home, an office, a hotel, or any other interior space.

Interior Decorator

An interior decorator is a professional skilled at beautifying a space using style, color, furniture, and accessories. They work closely with furniture makers, upholsterers, and other home decor professionals to give their clients interior spaces that are visually pleasing to them.

  • Schooling: To practice professionally, interior decorators aren't required to have formal training or education because they focus primarily on aesthetics and don't participate in renovations or structural planning. A decorator comes into the picture after the structural planning and execution are completed to focus on the surface look of the space. Many professional interior decorators have college degrees in related fields, but it is not a requirement for the profession.
  • Credentials: Even though no schooling is required to become an interior decorator, many programs and courses are available. These courses often focus on color, fabric, room layouts, space planning, furniture styles, and more. Certifications from organizations like C.I.D. (Certified Interior Decorators International) offer coursework and certification to help decorators authenticate their practices.
  • What they do: Good decorators are skilled at entering a room and whipping it into visual shape. For new spaces, they can help clients decide on a style, and color scheme, purchase furniture, and accessorize. They're also often brought in to spruce up an existing space that needs to be updated or redone.
  • Who they work with: Decorators don't generally work with contractors or architects since structural work is usually completed before they come on board. However, they work with furniture makers, upholsterers, and other industry professionals. Most often, though, they work directly with homeowners or business managers.

Should I Hire a Designer or a Decorator?

Who you should hire depends on your needs. If structural changes are needed (such as removing a wall, moving plumbing or wiring around, or adding new windows or doors), an interior designer is generally the better choice. Designers can help plan for significant structural changes and help make them happen by working directly with architects and builders.

On the other hand, if no structural changes are needed but you need aesthetic help—deciding on a style; choosing wallpaper, paint, and furnishings; picking window treatments, and choosing lighting and accessories—an interior decorator will probably do the trick. Experienced decorators know what works together and can transform a room to suit a client's needs and desires.

In the end, however, choosing the right professional depends mainly on the skills of the particular professional, not the job title. Many designers with formal schooling spend most of their time doing work best described as decorating since it involves no renovation or structural work. And there are just as many professional decorators who, through long experience, can work with contractors and builders in the same way as a designer.

How to Hire an Interior Decorator or Designer

When hiring a professional, clearly understand your needs and look for a pro with a proven reputation for meeting those needs, no matter the formal job title. Generally, designers are for space planning and structural execution, while decorators are for the final aesthetic decisions. But don't be afraid to cross lines to hire a decorator with a reputation as a good designer or a designer with a flair for decorating, provided their skills are proven.

Ask to see a portfolio of the decorator or designer's finished projects. Get references and ask about their credentials, years of experience, and partnerships that the designer or decorator has that may play in your favor. The most crucial factor is choosing the decorator or designer that understands you and your aesthetic and will deliver on what you like and not what they prefer,

Ask about timelines, keep to a budget, and understand the decorator or designer's process from beginning to end. Learn if the decorator or designer will do the work or if they will hire a subcontractor to finish the space. Agree on a fee schedule, so you are not shocked by how you will be charged.

  • How much experience do you need to be an interior decorator?

    To become a licensed interior designer, many states require that you pass the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) exam and have a bachelor's degree and at least two years of design experience.

  • Do interior designers earn more than interior decorators?

    In many cases, interior designers usually achieve higher salaries or can charge more due to their advanced skills and qualifications.

  • What is the process of working with an interior decorator?

    After an initial consultation with one or more interior decorators, choose the one who seems to understand your point of view upon visiting your space and delivers a final decorating presentation that fits your aesthetic, budget, and timeline. A decorator should be able to handle all the decorating logistics, saving you time and energy.

  • How do interior decorators make money?

    Most interior decorators charge hourly for their consultation, visits, developing the decor presentations, and finally, transforming the space, according to an agreement with their residential or commercial client. Other may charge a flat rate or a commission based on the total project cost.