Earning an interior design degree qualifies graduates to create functional, inspirational, and safe spaces for their clients. Whether designing a nursery, restaurant, or office, interior designers use their creativity and eye for beauty to design spaces that meet the needs of each customer.
To compete in a rapidly growing job market, learners need a solid resume, portfolio, and references to pitch to new clients. Students who begin their job search preparation while still in school set themselves up for success. An interior design degree offers a great deal of versatility, which means jobs in this field will continue to expand. This guide explores why you should pursue this career, how to succeed in the field, what to expect at various degree levels, and where you can find work.
Skills Gained in an Interior Design Program
Interior design degrees provide graduates with an array of creative and business skills that aid them in their work. Each day is different and depends on the project at hand; therefore, interior designers must practice versatility in their work while still delivering a top-qualify final product. Interior design programs offer coursework, internship opportunities, and additional certifications to prepare learners for careers.
- Creative Eye
Interior designers work with spaces and clients of every type, so it is important that they see a space's potential and work to achieve the vision of their customer. Interior designers look at spaces that seem unsalvageable to others and use their attention to detail and ability to see the final product to make something beautiful and functional.
- Understanding of Trends
While it is important for interior designers to identify and predict incoming trends, they must also understand how to incorporate timeless and classic design components to ensure the spaces they create do not feel outdated or irrelevant after a few years.
- Ability to Communicate
In addition to communicating their vision for a space clearly, interior designers also talk through details with their clients. Ordering the wrong fabric, wall covering, or flooring can spell disaster, so interior designers must develop superior and clear communication tools to ensure everyone stays on the same page.
- Knowledge of Construction
Whether knocking down a wall, updating electrical panels, or leveling out a floor, interior designers need a working knowledge of building principles. Structural changes can often tack on thousands of dollars to the final bill, so they need to know how to estimate and incorporate these prices into their design costs.
- Technical Abilities
While some interior designers still sketch their ideas, the majority use design software to develop 3D models of their plans. This helps to create scaled renderings that better communicate ideas to clients, construction managers, cabinet makers, and other professionals on the job site.
Why Pursue a Career in Interior Design?
An interior design career lets artistic individuals use their skills in a myriad of residential and commercial settings to create spaces that meet the needs and desires of their clients. Many individuals find this type of work rewarding, as they get to take the ideas of others and make them a reality. The field also offers many opportunities for growth: some individuals spend their entire careers designing for others, while some decide to start their own businesses or move into academia.
The interior design field offers a variety of jobs in different industries. Some may work in corporate settings to design professional workplaces, while others may derive their inspiration from working in healthcare design to create welcoming clinics, doctor's offices, and hospitals. Still others may want to work in residential spaces to develop functional and warm kitchen and bath areas. Given the ever evolving nature of the field, interior designers enjoy a lifetime of creativity, learning, and opportunities for continuing education.
How Much Do Interior Design Majors Make?
A career in interior design can be very lucrative; however, several factors affect your paycheck. Location makes a big difference, as individuals in large cities have higher costs of living and require larger incomes. One's level of experience also plays a part, as individuals with years of experience naturally earn more than those just starting their careers. An individual's education makes an impact, as well, as research has shown that a higher level of degree can lead to higher salaries.
Interview with a Professional
David Charette is a licensed interior designer and founding principal of Britto Charette, a Miami-based luxury design firm. He has completed compelling design projects around the globe, including corporate campuses, GSA, higher education, commercial, retail, and multimillion-dollar residential interiors. David earned a BA and MA in architecture from the University of Detroit, and he has more than 20 years of experience working with city planners, contractors, regulatory agencies, and architects.
- Why did you decide to pursue a career in interior design? Was it something that you were always interested in?
I had no intention of doing interior design; it just happened organically. While I was working at a large A&E firm, several colleagues suggested it would be a good idea, a way to expand my professional practice and the scope of what I could offer clients. Then it was while I was working for a big firm in San Francisco that focuses primarily on commercial design that I realized several really important facets of the architecture and interior design industry.
Interior design is faster in terms of project timeline; there is reduced risk based on insurance/liability; there are fewer complications like settlement issues, etc. and, importantly, there is greater profitability with interior design. This realization was further cemented while I was working at RAPT Studio and observed them also doing retail. But what I really found enticing about interior design was that clients were more directly impacted by interiors than exteriors. We spend lots of time inside spaces — interacting with them. That's where I wanted to be, at the center of the action — and that means interiors.
- Can you tell us a little about starting your own interior design business? Is this a common career path for interior designers?
In the beginning of my career, I didn't intend to own my own practice. Being part of multiple large and well-respected firms was my goal. The benefits of being with a large company or firm are numerous. You get incredible exposure, the firms can invest in projects, you learn a lot, and you can make wonderful professional connections. Plus, my work took me to fabulous locations around the world. But my overarching goal was to pursue and win international design competitions. However, when you are working at a large A&E practice and you enter a competition, you are entering under the name of the company. The whole idea of working really hard and giving credit for my creativity to someone else didn't appeal to me.
Ultimately, I learned a lot in my time at large firms and working with people I didn't necessarily like but whose work I respected. But I didn't learn how to design at those firms — that was a skill I already possessed. There was also a lot of, in my opinion, wasted time in meetings and playing politics and games instead of designing. So, I used what I had learned at those big firms to open my own. But I discovered that there was a lot I didn't know how to do, like contracts, marketing, and HR.
I consider it a benefit that I was forced to wear multiple hats and to understand IT, legal, financials, tech, office management and the biggest challenge: marketing. In the brief amount of time (nine years) I've owned my firm, the way I pursue and get work has completely changed and I expect it will continue to change. That's part of the challenge of owning my own business that I really love. Ultimately, I'm making far more money owning my own business than I did working for someone else.
I don't believe it's common. There are far fewer practices than there are interior designers. You have to have clients to have a practice, and that isn't just a matter of opening up shop and hoping it'll work. Some designers do get lucky and have one client who trusts them and refers a friend and then it snowballs. But that's the exception, I believe. And you need to understand what you are getting into. You have to assess your weaknesses and find people who can assist you with those areas because you can't do it all. You'll have to learn to delegate, hire hourly people, subcontract, and more. We remind ourselves often at Britto Charette to "play to your strengths" and to ask for help when you need it.
Also, I've had students ask me what I think about starting their own firm right out of college, and I tell them I don't recommend it. There is SO much you can learn from working at a firm. Even if you don't enjoy it, or it isn't your "dream" job. Keep an open mind and really listen and learn from the people around you.
- What skills are necessary for someone to succeed in an interior design career?
You have to be able to make mistakes, but those mistakes should be the result of calculated risks. Research. Research. Research. Experiment. Accept that there's a lot you don't know. Control fear. Be intuitive. Be aware of trends (social media, technology, etc.). Be able to communicate to clients. Question your skills and what new things you need to learn and improve.
Of course, you'll need to not only attract but retain clients, and that process is really tough. If someone hasn't met you, you can't build trust, and trust is an absolutely essential element in establishing a rapport with clients. Interior design is very personal. You need to convey to clients that you will respect their privacy and their home. When you meet, make eye contact, listen carefully, and recap/repeat what you heard them say.
It's also really important to clearly articulate who you are through social media, lectures, write-ups, etc. You can't be everything for everyone. Instead, you have to have a distinct idea of who you are and what you do.
Get used to being rejected. You will design something you believe is totally amazing, and the client will show up and hate it. That's ok. Someone else out there may love it. Also, remember to trust your gut when meeting with potential clients because sometimes people just want to steal your ideas and have no intention of actually hiring you.
Finally, don't worry about what someone else thinks about you; it's not important. Just know who you are, and the work will follow. And keep in mind that when clients approach you, they are often confused about what good design is. They are coming to you for advice, and you need to remember you are the expert. And you aren't desperate
- What advice would you give to students preparing to graduate and start their interior design career?
I've taught at two universities, and I always give students the same advice: have an internship and obtain as much experience as possible before graduation. I also encourage students to have a website showing their work and to have social media platforms/posts that represent them in a professional manner. Please don't get political or personal.
Don't complain. Don't expect to have everything explained to you. Your ingenuity and curiosity are key — as well as your talent. Have a very good understanding that you are at the beginning of your career and, if you work at a firm, the senior members have vast knowledge that you can have access to. Look for a mentor. Go out of your way to make connections, ask questions, listen, and learn. And in return, help that mentor with things he or she may not be as adept at as you are.
Have an overall vision of what you want to do. In what part of country do you want to live and work? What market sector? Interested in teaching in higher education?
Learn to accept criticism; it's how you will grow.
My biggest bit of advice? Take any licensing exams ASAP. And if you fail, keep taking them over and over and over again.
- Why did you decide to move into teaching interior design at the Savannah College of Art and Design?
I LOVE Savannah. And I'm absolutely blown away by how SCAD is completely integrated into the historic city center; it reminds me of Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan. Also, I really admire the vision of the founders as it relates to historic preservation. In my opinion, they saved the city and now it's one of the most impressive petite cities in the country. I'm also impressed with the provincial and modern interiors that I see throughout Savannah.
SCAD is celebrating its 40th year and continues to have a great reputation within higher education. I wanted to be part of that tradition by giving back to the interior design profession — sharing what I know as a designer and business owner. I deliberately chose adjunct teaching because I wanted to maintain my business and professional practice.
Also, I believe it's important to challenge myself to learn new skills, whether they are public speaking, engaging learners (students, like clients, are learning information), or research. There's a knowledge gap in education regarding the luxury design field. There's also a gap regarding what really happens in an interior design office. I want students to walk into a firm having ideas about the critical parts of a practice that they'll never be exposed to in a classroom.
- Any last thoughts?
Be a dreamer. Practice positive visualization. I use these techniques often, creating in my mind and then doodling my ideas. I don't agree whatsoever that everything has been done already and that there are no new ideas. And that is thanks to technology. If you want to be innovative, interior design is for you. It's exciting. Don't believe people who say technology will render interior designers obsolete. AI, in my opinion, will never replace us in this field because it won't be able to create innovative, compelling, emotional work like we can.
How to Succeed in Interior Design
According to theBureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a career in interior design typically requires a minimum of a bachelor's degree. While an associate degree can prepare graduates for support and technical roles, most professionals need a bachelor's degree — especially in states requiring licensure. After working in the field for a few years, some individuals may decide they want to progress in the field and diversify their professional options. Amaster's in interior design can help students take that next step. For those who want to work in the research, academia, or executive leadership, a doctorate in interior design may best serve their needs.
Most employers want to see, at minimum, that graduates completed an internship during their education. Interior design requires a creatively attuned eye, so employers usually want to see a portfolio of design ideas and/or designed spaces to know what style they can expect from a candidate. Additionally, students looking to receive an interior design professional certification often need a set number of hours/years of experience to qualify.
Licensure and Certification
Interior design licensure requirements vary by state. In some locations, individuals do not need to be licensed to call themselves an interior designer. In others, they must possess licensure to even do interior design work, much less call themselves interior designers. Students should check with their state board of licensing to learn more.
National Council for Interior Design Qualification
To earn an NCIDQ qualification, professionals must possess an interior design bachelor's degree, two years of professional experience, and pass an exam.
California Council for Interior Design Certification
Students living in California must pass this exam rather than the NCIDQ. Applicants must possess at least six years of combined education and experience.
Concentrations Available to Interior Design Majors
Interior designers work across a variety of industries and fields. As a result, schools offer concentrations and specialization areas to help degree seekers focus their professional aspirations into a distinct area of design. Specializations vary depending on individual schools, so learners should research to find a program that offers one that speaks to their interests. The following section provides an overview of common options, but they do not represent the full spectrum.
- Healthcare Facilities Design: This specialization prepares graduates to conduct design work in health and medical settings, such as physician offices, long-term care facilities, hospitals, and clinics. Students learn to create welcoming and calming environments that provide easy access for all patients.
- Sustainable Design: With a focus on the use of green materials to create eco-friendly spaces, graduates of sustainable design specializations look for ways to increase utility efficiency, improve air quality, and create spaces that meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design qualifications for sustainability.
- Corporate Design: This specialty prepares learners to design workspaces such as offices, conference rooms, entryways, and waiting areas. Individuals use their skills in understanding space and client needs to create efficient and functional spaces for employees and customers alike.
- Restaurant Design: With an eye towards the dining experience, restaurant designers consider questions such as lighting, paint colors, floor plan, and table layout to create chic spaces that fit the feel of the restaurant. They also consider health and safety regulations for businesses that prepare and serve food.
What Can You Do With an Interior Design Degree?
Earning an interior design degree qualifies graduates to pursue a large number of roles within interior design and related industries. While there are careers for every degree level, students must possess, at minimum, a bachelor's degree to work as an interior designer and earn licensure. Most professionals see their level of responsibility and their average salary rise as they work towards higher levels of education. Individuals hoping to work in the uppermost echelons of the field and make the best salaries often pursue graduate studies.
No matter your interests and professional aspirations, an interior design degree can meet your goals. Keep reading to learn about the variety of degrees and certificates available both online and at brick-and-mortar campuses.
Associate Degree in Interior Design
An associate degree in interior design prepares learners to enter the field with just two years of full-time study — a great option for those contemplating an interior design career. Most programs require students to complete 60 credits and cover a mix of both general education and interior design topics. After graduating from an associate degree, professionals can assume assistant roles at design firms, or a number of creative positions that rely more on innate talent than formal education, such as a textile designer or woodworker. Check out a few of the jobs available with this degree to get a sense of your potential.
Drafters work alongside architects and engineers to convert their designs into technical drawings using computer-aided design software. They take existing sketches and formalize them by adding architectural details, creating dimensions, suggesting materials, and suggesting new products in the design market.
- Construction and Building Inspector
These professionals inspect construction sites to make sure all structures meet the building codes, ordinances, zoning regulations, and historic preservation requirements set by local and state governments. They review and approve building plans, inspect utility systems, document their findings, and either approve or deny building permits along the way.
Using their skills in design and manufacturing, woodworkers craft unique pieces of furniture, cabinets, architectural details, and furniture to client specifications. They review designs, select appropriate materials, safely use woodworking machinery, and work to ensure all the pieces they make are safe and secure for their clients.
Bachelor's Degree in Interior Design
Interior designers must possess a minimum of a bachelor's degree, as well as licensure in those states that require it. Interior design programs provide the foundational knowledge to begin their careers in entry-level roles by covering topics such as design elements, built environments, visual communications, materials and applications, sustainable environments, and color theory and application.
The majority of programs require four years of full-time study, although options are also available for part-time or accelerated learning. Review the jobs available to graduates of bachelor's degrees to see if this program fits with your professional and financial needs.
- Interior Designer
Interior designers use their skills to create indoor spaces that meet client specifications. They tour spaces for renovation, create design plans, provide cost estimates, oversee the project during construction, and work with clients to find design pieces such as furniture and coverings that match their style.
Architects create plans and designs for structures spanning from houses to skyscrapers. They work with clients to understand their needs before creating drawings, sketches, and design models to give clients a sense of the finished product. They also create preliminary cost estimates and timelines.
- Landscape Architect
Landscape architects concern themselves with green spaces. They design gardens, parks, yards, recreational areas, and campuses based on client needs, climate, budget, and available materials. They also conduct soil tests and drainage studies to ensure plants can survive in the space.
- Industrial Designer
These professionals use their creative and analytical skills to design concepts for items such as appliances, toys, furniture, cars, and other consumer goods. They sketch their ideas, create prototypes, decide on appropriate materials, estimate costs, and work with others in the industry to bring their designs into existence.
- Construction Manager
Construction managers lead residential, commercial, and industrial job sites. They oversee subcontractors and workers, manage budgets, liaise with clients on progress, meet with local government officials on regulatory and safety codes, and work with architects and engineers to ensure the building meets all design specifications.
Master's Degree in Interior Design
Individuals who want to qualify for managerial and leadership roles often pursue a master's in interior design, as it gives them both the knowledge and the credentials to lead other teams of professionals. These programs also provide nuanced knowledge of the discipline, which can lead to higher hourly rates for client work. There are several interior designs positions for graduates, with the top five highlighted in the following section. For prospective learners who want to know more about these programs, check out our guides for master's in interior design degree programs and the top online master's in interior design programs.
- Interior Design Director
These professionals often work at the helm of interior design firms to oversee other designers, consult on ongoing projects, and handle administrative tasks such as hiring, continuing education, budgets, employee compensation and benefits, marketing, and sales. They also take on a few high-level design clients.
- Architectural Manager
Architectural managers oversee other architects in the firm to ensure all activities are planned, directed, and coordinated efficiently and accurately. They review plans designed by staff, assign new clients, manage staff and training needs, develop strategic plans for the organization, and mine for new customers along the way.
- Urban and Regional Planner
Working in urban and rural communities alike, these professionals plan for and create systems and structures that allow for new growth in the town or city. They plan for new roads, hospitals, schools, and other public-facing buildings, and conduct all the zoning and code legwork to ensure the viability of the proposed project.
- Civil Engineer
Civil engineers provide both public and private infrastructure in the form of water systems, dams, bridges, buildings, tunnels, airports, and roads. They submit plans, review survey reports, manage construction costs, and ensure the maintenance and repair of these structures over time.
- Project Manager
Project managers oversee other teams of professionals to keep them on task and ensure the project is delivered in a timely and expertise fashion. They may manage other interior designers to help them actuate plans, create timelines, set budgets, communicate with other stakeholders, and manage issues with vendors and suppliers as they arise.
Doctoral Degree in Interior Design
Doctoral programs in interior design are terminal degrees in this field, meaning they provide the highest form of education available. Individuals who pursue these programs typically want to work in research, postsecondary teaching, or advanced business roles. In addition to completing a number of highly specialized courses, students also research and write a full-scale dissertation on a niche topic in the discipline.
Most programs take between 3-5 years to complete on a full-time basis, though there are also part-time options. These programs go beyond master's level coursework, and give students the skills needed to serve as leaders and educators. Check out three potential career paths you can follow with doctoral credentials below.
- Interior Design Professor
These professionals work at colleges and universities to educate up-and-coming interior designers on the tenets of the field. They give lectures, assign papers and projects, grade exams, provide mentorship, and make networking connections for exceptional students.
- Interior Design Researcher
Researchers in this industry work to better understand upcoming trends. They may also work in areas of historic preservation and renovation to identify era-specific decorations and materials prior to consulting with homeowners, historic associations, or house museums.
- Chief Executive Officer
CEOs sit at the top of their organizations to provide leadership, strategic planning, and organizational guidance to employees. They also attract new customers, manage other senior-level staff, set budgets, and confer with sales and marketing staff to find ways of maximizing business growth.
Where Can You Work with an Interior Design Interior Design Degree?
Graduates of interior design degrees can work in many different sectors and industries, as nearly every field requires their expertise to create functional and warm spaces. Professionals can also make decisions about where in the country they want to live, the types of customers they want to serve, and the everyday setting in which they want to work. The next four sections highlight some of these considerations in the job search.
As the state map below indicates, one's location plays a significant role in various aspects of an interior design career. Salary potential varies greatly in this instance, as individuals living in large and expensive cities must earn higher wages to maintain the same cost of living as someone residing in a less expensive place. Some states may also require interior designers to hold licensure and/or certification.
Interior designers remodel kitchens and bathrooms, design specialty lines of furniture for home goods store, consult on building architecture projects, and help families create beautiful residential structures that meet their individual tastes. The versatility of the degree makes it possible for graduates to seek out industries that speak to their creative eye, professional aspirations, and personal goals.
- Specialized Design Services
This industry refers to residential interior design that professionals provide to homeowners, renters, landlords, and other individuals looking to spruce up private spaces.
Average Salary: $59,210
- Architecture and Design
These designers work alongside architects to design new spaces while the building goes up. They may use new or antique materials.
Average Salary: $64,480
- Furniture Stores
Individuals with an eye for craftsmanship may decide to work with furniture, using their skills to create designs for everyday items such as bookcases, couches, chairs, tables, and bed frames.
Average Salary: $51,580
- Residential Building Construction
This industry also calls on interior designers to work with architects on new builds. They may use their skills to design the interiors of new houses, condos, or apartment buildings.
Average Salary: $54,750
- Merchant Wholesalers
In pairing with companies such as Target, HomeGoods, or Wayfair, interior designers can use their talents to make mass produced items for the home.
Average Salary: $54,110
How Do You Find a Job as an Interior Design Graduate?
The BLS projects roles for interior designers to grow by 4% by 2026, with approximately 2,900 new positions added to the existing 66,500. Given this relatively sluggish rate of growth, graduates of interior design degrees must ensure they stand out from the competition. One way of doing this is to complete additional certifications and/or concentrations to help specialize your knowledge.
Students should also participate in any local or regional networking opportunities to meet others in the field, regularly checking interior design career pages. Individuals interested in getting connected can check out the Commercial Interior Design Association, the American Society of Interior Designers, and the Interior Design Society for networking, local chapters, and job postings.
The majority of interior design professionals work in architectural and engineering services, specialized design, wholesale trade, and furniture.
Professional Resources for Interior Design Majors
To ensure you attend a school that has been properly vetted, make sure to check out the CIDA for a list of accredited interior design programs. Students can also check out the council's annual awards.
Recognized within the industry as the leading credentialing agency, CIDQ offers a variety of examinations to meet the needs of industry professionals. Individuals can take advantage of details about the certification as well as a special student section.
Students considering a career as an interior design educator should join IDEC for the latest industry news, research, and resources. The group provides an annual conference, regional conferences, webinars, workshops, and symposia alongside several publications.
Licensed interior designer Renae Keller owns a design firm and shares an insider's glimpse of what an average day of work looks like for her. Readers can also check out her regularly updated blog to learn more.
When applying for your first interior design job, you may wonder what types of questions to expect. Workable takes the mystery out of this process by providing a list of questions interviewers in this industry like to use.
Even after an individual lands an interior design career, they still need to feel prepared to answer questions from prospective clients. Architecture Digest provides a list of common questions for customers that you can use to prepare for initial meetings.
Rekreate Design shares some insightful knowledge about the best and worst parts of pursuing a career in this area. If you are on the fence about this path, read this piece to help solidify your thoughts before jumping into a degree.
The New York Institute of Art+Design shares this insightful article for students and recent graduates alike who need to put together a portfolio of their work to share with prospective employers and/or clients.