Interior Design Careers
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Interior design majors study the artistic, creative, and technical principles involved in putting together inviting and appealing indoor spaces. Interior design majors can pursue careers in interior, textile, and furniture design, as well as architectural technology, property management, and more. This page outlines professional development options and covers practical information to help you identify and specify your career objectives as they relate to interior design.
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Why Pursue a Career in Interior Design?
Interior design careers often appeal to detail-oriented creative thinkers who enjoy finding inventive solutions to practical challenges. Strong visualization, artistic, and interpersonal skills are also necessary traits for interior design career paths.
When asked to identify the most important qualities of a good interior designer, professionals consistently cite a similar set of characteristics. These include enthusiasm for a wide variety of design styles and a commitment to career-long growth and learning. Another key attribute is a knack for finding inspiration everywhere.
Interior Design Career Outlook
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects demand for interior designers to keep pace with average growth rates across the job market between 2018 and 2028. The BLS also identifies a particular trend that could impact the profession in the coming years: an expected move toward environmentally friendly and sustainable design solutions.
Occupation-wide median salaries show that interior designers tend to make above-average wages, and highly successful professionals can earn six-figure salaries. However, the field is very competitive and results-driven. Launching a career requires emerging designers to build and showcase a strong portfolio, and a college program provides a good place to develop the skills needed to do so.
Skills Gained With a Interior Design Degree
Interior design programs 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 be versatile. Interior design programs typically offer coursework, internship opportunities, and additional certifications to prepare learners for careers.
Interior designers work with spaces and clients of every type, and it is important that they see a space's potential and work to achieve the vision of their customer. Interior designers may 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.
While it is important for interior designers to identify and predict new trends, they must also understand how to incorporate timeless and classic design components into their work to ensure the spaces they create do not feel dated or irrelevant after a few years.
In addition to communicating their vision for a space, interior designers also talk through details with their clients. Ordering the wrong fabric, wall covering, or flooring can hamper a project, so interior designers must develop clear communication tools to ensure everyone stays on the same page.
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 add thousands of dollars to the final bill, so these professionals need to know how to estimate and incorporate these prices into their design costs.
While some interior designers mostly 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.
Interior Design Career Paths
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 on a distinct area of design. Specializations vary depending on individual schools, so learners should conduct research to find a program that matches with their interests. The following section provides an overview of a few common options, but they do not represent the full spectrum.
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.
With a focus on the use of green materials to create eco-friendly spaces, graduates interested in sustainable design look for ways to increase utility efficiency, improve air quality, and create spaces that meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design qualifications for sustainability.
This specialty prepares learners to design workspaces like offices, conference rooms, entryways, and waiting areas. Individuals use their understanding of space to meet client needs and create efficient and functional spaces.
With an eye towards the dining experience, restaurant designers consider questions such as lighting, paint colors, floor plan, and table layout to create spaces that fit the feel of a restaurant. They also consider health and safety regulations for businesses that prepare and serve food.
How to Start Your Career in Interior Design
For many interior design-related professions, a strong portfolio is the key to unlocking opportunities that will launch your career. Degree programs provide a supportive environment for honing and refining your sense of visual creativity, which in turn can help you assemble an impressive portfolio that leads to your first job.
You can study interior design at the associate, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral levels, but formal credentials remain less important than your ability to articulate and execute client-centered solutions. Even so, conventional wisdom suggests that earning a bachelor's or master's degree will boost your creative development. These programs introduce many of the design principles you will use throughout your career.
Associate Degree in Interior Design
An associate degree in interior design prepares learners to enter the field after two years of full-time study -- a great option for those contemplating an interior design career. Most programs require students to complete about 60 credits and cover a mix of general education and interior design topics. After graduating with an associate degree, professionals can assume assistant roles at design firms, as well as other creative positions that rely more on innate talent than formal education (e.g., textile designer or woodworker). Check out a few of the jobs available with this degree to get a sense of your options.
What Can You Do With an Associate in Interior Design?
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. They also create dimensions, suggest materials, and introduce new products in the design market.
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 approve or deny building permits. Depending on their state, these workers may need a license or certificate.
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 ensure all the pieces they make are safe and secure for their clients. Woodworkers do not necessarily need a postsecondary degree, but an associate-level education can help set them apart in the field and teach them valuable skills.
Bachelor's Degree in Interior Design
Interior designers must possess a bachelor's degree, as well as licensure in states that require it. Interior design programs provide the foundational knowledge needed to begin their careers in entry-level roles by covering topics such as design elements, built environments, visual communication, materials and applications, sustainable environments, and color theory.
The majority of programs require four years of full-time study, although options may be available for part-time or accelerated learning. Review the jobs available to bachelor's degree-holders to see if this type of program fits with your professional and financial goals.
What Can You Do With a Bachelor's in Interior Design?
Interior designers create indoor spaces that meet client specifications. They tour spaces for renovation, create design plans, provide cost estimates, oversee projects during construction, and work with clients to find design pieces (e.g., 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 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.
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 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 to discuss regulatory and safety codes, and work with architects and engineers to ensure a building meets all design specifications.
Master's Degree in Interior Design
Individuals looking for managerial and leadership roles often pursue a master's in interior design; this degree provides both the knowledge and the credentials needed to lead other teams of professionals. Master's programs also provide nuanced knowledge of the discipline, which can lead to higher hourly rates for client work.
There are several interior design and related positions for these graduates, with five popular roles highlighted in the following section. Prospective learners who want to know more can check out our guide detailing the top online master's in interior design programs.
What Can You Do With a Master's in Interior Design?
These professionals often work at the helm of interior design firms to oversee other designers; consult on ongoing projects; and handle administrative tasks like hiring, budgeting, employee compensation and benefits, marketing, and sales.
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 bring in new customers.
Working in urban and rural communities, these professionals plan and create systems and structures that allow for new growth in a 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 a project.
Civil engineers provide 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 managers oversee other teams of professionals to keep them on task and ensure projects are delivered on time. 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.
Source: BLS and PayScale
Doctorate Degree in Interior Design
Doctoral programs in interior design 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, teaching students the skills necessary to serve as leaders and educators. Check out three potential career paths you can follow with doctoral credentials below.
What Can You Do With a Doctorate in Interior Design?
These professionals work at colleges and universities to educate aspiring interior designers about the field. They give lectures, assign papers and projects, grade exams, provide mentorship, and provide networking connections for exceptional students.
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 while consulting with homeowners, historic associations, and museums.
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.
Source: BLS and PayScale
How to Advance Your Career in Interior Design
Earning a degree can help you build and hone the fundamental skills and knowledge needed for careers in interior design, but your work education should not end with graduation. Establishing yourself in a competitive creative discipline like interior design requires you to differentiate yourself. An eye-catching portfolio serves as a vital tool, but so will optional certifications, supplementary credentials, and strong networking skills.
This section provides a detailed snapshot of additional steps you can take to maximize your chances of flourishing in an interior design career. It includes information on certifications, continuing education, and professional organizations that can boost your career development.
Certifications and/or Licensure
You do not need a formal license or certification for most jobs related to interior design. However, numerous organizations offer optional credentialing opportunities. The most prestigious of these credentials may carry considerable weight among employers, especially with established firms that maintain a permanent staff of design professionals.
Two leading options include certification programs offered by the Council for Interior Design Qualification (CIDQ) and the California Council for Interior Design Certification (CCIDC). Both agencies offer voluntary, examination-based programs that lead to highly respected certifications that can make a big difference as you start or advance your career.
The best interior design professionals never stop learning. Prevailing styles and best practices undergo continuous change as tends and techniques come into and pass out of vogue. Forward-thinking professionals also pay close attention to emerging technologies, especially with regard to sustainability and environmental friendliness. As such, established interior designers constantly refresh and upgrade their skills through continuing education.
CIDQ and CCIDC are top professional organizations that offer continuing education opportunities. You can also advance and update your skills through programs offered by the International Design Continuing Education Council or private educators like RedVector. Alternatively, you can also return to school to earn an advanced degree.
Networking functions as an important professional development tool, especially for independent designers who operate their own private businesses. Professional organizations regularly host conferences and events where you can learn the latest trends affecting the industry and pick up tips and strategies from other professionals.
Social media savvy can also give your online visibility a huge boost. The internet provides a good forum for sharing your sense of visual style, and it also acts as a vehicle for advancing your professional network and connecting with prospective clients. Experts generally suggest that you share only your best achievements and focus on showcasing your ability to work with a wide variety of visual styles.
How to Switch Your Career to Interior Design
While earning a specialized degree can certainly help you build professional-level skills, switching to a career in interior design does not necessarily require you to return to school. If you already have a background in a design-oriented discipline, like architecture or the visual arts, you likely possess a set of aesthetic and technical proficiencies similar to those used by interior designers. However, even in such cases, you can benefit by learning how to adapt those skills to careers in interior design and put together an attention-grabbing portfolio. To that end, you should consider continuing education courses offered by reputable professional organizations.
If you have no related schooling or experience, enrolling in a degree or diploma program can provide strong educational value. Depending on your existing scholastic and professional background, you may qualify for advanced standing that can shorten your completion timeline.
Where Can You Work as an Interior Design Professional?
Interior designers remodel kitchens and bathrooms, design specialty lines of furniture for home goods stores, 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 find employment in various industries, choosing a setting that matches with their creative eye, professional aspirations, and personal goals.
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: $61,480
These designers work alongside architects to design new spaces while a building goes up. They may use new or antique materials.
Average Salary: $66,260
Individuals with an eye for craftsmanship may decide to work with furniture stores, using their skills to create designs for everyday items such as bookcases, couches, chairs, tables, and bed frames.
Average Salary: $53,890
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: $56,120
By pairing with companies such as Target, HomeGoods, or Wayfair, interior designers can use their talents to make mass-produced items for the home.</p$56,860
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Interior design careers tend to be concentrated in states with large metropolitan centers. According to BLS employment data, California, New York, Texas, Florida, and Colorado employ the largest number of interior design professionals. Additionally, interior designers based in Rhode Island, Arizona, and California enjoy the highest average earnings.
States like California, New York, and Massachusetts combine relatively high rates of pay with relatively large numbers of jobs. Similar trends can be found in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Washington.
Interview With a Professional in Interior Design
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 campus, 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.
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. 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 timelines; 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.
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.
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.
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 they may not be as adept at as you are.
Have an overall vision of what you want to do. In what part of the 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.
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.
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.
Resources for Interior Design Majors
Professional organizations offer extensive continuing education and developmental resources to emerging and established interior designers, including industry conferences and other organized live events. Some offer discounted membership and other perks to students, incentivizing you to join early and accelerate your growth and learning.
Council for Interior Design Accreditation: CIDA accredits the best interior design programs, and students can check out the council's annual awards.
Council for Interior Design Qualification: Recognized within the industry as the leading credentialing agency, CIDQ offers a variety of examinations for industry professionals. CIDQ's website also has a special student section.
Interior Design Educators Council: Students considering a career as an interior design educator can join IDEC to learn about the latest industry news, research, and resources. The group provides an annual conference, regional conferences, webinars, workshops, symposia, and several publications.
Principles of Design - Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Though the course content is geared more toward production design for live theater, this class covers principles that readily apply to the world of interior design. Covered topics include lighting, historical research, and technical presentation.
Free Online Interior Design Courses - Oxford Home Study Center: These short courses are an excellent study opportunity for people who want to explore their interest in interior design without committing to a formal degree program. Learners can take classes at multiple levels that successively build their skills.
3D CAD Fundamental - National Taiwan University: Computer-aided design (CAD) platforms are widely used in interior design, and emerging professionals can strengthen their employment prospects by cultivating their proficiency. This class, offered by National Taiwan University through the Coursera open enrollment platform, introduces students to the fundamental basics of CAD software tools.
Elements of Style: Designing a Home & a Life: This entry in the Elements of Style series covers the fundamentals of residential interior design in an accessible format that is suitable for lay people. Written by author, blogger, and designer Erin Gates, the book includes extensive practical advice and detailed illustrations that clearly demonstrate key principles.
The International Journal of Art & Design Education: This peer-reviewed publication includes insightful articles from scholars and experts covering topics like art history, design theory, creativity, and applied visual arts. It offers resources to individuals seeking insights based on new scientific and academic research.
Journal of Environmental Psychology: Interior design professionals draw heavily on the principles of environmental psychology in their work, both intentionally and subconsciously. This specialized branch of psychology focuses on how an individual's surroundings impact their mindset. Obtaining advanced insights into this area of inquiry can yield powerful design tools and strategies.
Journal of Interior Design: Another peer-reviewed academic journal, this publication includes articles from credentialed scholars in many different branches of the humanities and social sciences, including architects, art historians, educators, and leading interior design professionals. Topics cover the theories, practices, and ongoing research that continue to shape the field of interior design.
Urban Design: Launched in 1987, Urban Design follows the latest policy developments and stylistic trends driving contemporary approaches to urban design and development. Interior designers working in dense metropolitan areas can draw on emerging movements to inform their work, creating an enhanced sense of harmony between the interiors they create and the communities in which they live.
Frequently Asked Questions
As with other creative fields, launching a career as an interior designer is challenging. However, it brings great rewards to those who enjoy beautifying spaces and using their talents to find solutions to design problems.
Many interior designers begin their careers working for established design firms. Some continue to follow this path, while others eventually leverage their client and professional networks to launch their own ventures. In either case, a strong portfolio of successful design projects represents the most critical credential. Degrees and certificates can also help a great deal.
Careers for an interior design major go beyond traditional interior designer work. You can also qualify for positions in property management, furniture and textile design, exhibition design, and visual merchandising. Some interior designers also pursue careers in television and film, where they occupy roles in production design departments.
The BLS projects a 4% increase in the number of interior design jobs in the United States between 2018 and 2028. This is roughly equal to the average projected growth for all professions over the same time period.
According to BLS data from 2019, interior designers earned a median annual salary of $56,040. This is significantly higher than the nationwide annual median wage of $39,810.
Read More About Interior Design on BestCollegesThe Best Online Master's in Interior Design Programs of 2020 Master's in Interior Design Program Guide
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