Interior Design vs.Interior Decorating

What Are the Differences?

A bare kitchen with glorious hardwood floors
Do you need the interior designer? Or the interior decorator?.

Martin Deja/Getty Images

 

So you've decided to make a few changes at home, and you realize that you're going to need a bit of 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?"

Interior design and interior decorating are often mistaken as the same thing, but the terms are not completely interchangeable. There are many similarities between the two jobs—so many, in fact, that opinions vary on exactly where to draw the distinction. There are also more than a few differences between the professions—some subtle, some significant. As you decide which kind of help you need when planning changes in your home, it will help to understand the differences between professional designers and decorators—their schooling, the credentialing, their services, and their clientele.

Interior Design

  • Schooling: Interior design is a profession that requires specific schooling 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 moving on to establish their own 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 he or she is 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 what the situation is 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 enhance 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 Decorating

  • Schooling: To practice professionally, interior decorators aren't required to have formal training or schooling 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 is 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, there are many programs and courses available. These courses often focus on color and 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 coming into a room and whipping it into visual shape. For new spaces, they can help clients decide on a style, choose a 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 any contractors or architects, since structural work is usually complete before they come on board. They do, however, 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), then generally an interior designer is 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 there are no structural changes 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 largely on the skills of the particular professional, not the job title. A great many designers with formal schooling spend most of their time doing work that can be best described as decorating since it involves no renovation or structural work. And there are just as many professional decorators who, through long experience, are perfectly capable of working with contractors and builders in the same way as a designer.

When hiring a professional, begin with clearly understanding your own needs and look for a pro who has a proven reputation for meeting those needs, no matter what the formal job title. It's generally true that 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.