How To Become an Interior Designer in 4 Steps

Updated January 26, 2023

An interior designer decorates living spaces and workspaces for a variety of clients. These professionals are creative and artistic, with an understanding of how to work with decor and furnishings to design a space. In this article, we explain what an interior designer does, the skills they need to succeed, the difference between an interior designer and interior decorator, and the steps you can take to become an interior designer.

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What does an interior designer do?

An interior designer considers each client’s unique needs and budget when enhancing their interior spaces. The daily job responsibilities of an interior designer may include:

  • Communicating with each client to understand their desires, needs and budget

  • Creating a design plan, often using computer-aided-design (CAD) and coming up with a budget estimate

  • Reviewing and finalizing design plans with clients and specifying all materials, finishes, flooring and lighting

  • Submitting drawings to building inspectors to ensure all codes are met

  • Collaborating with architects and contractors to create or remodel buildings and spaces

  • Following up with each client after the project has been completed, and making any necessary changes

Read more: Learn About Being an Interior Designer

Interior designers vs. interior decorators

Though the two roles may sound similar, there are some big differences between them. An interior decorator does not need to obtain a degree or license before practicing and they are only involved in decorating an existing room or space. An interior designer’s role does require a college degree and goes well beyond decorating and may also include the creation of the room or space itself.

Skills needed for interior design

Most interior designers are naturally artistic and creative, but they should also have other skills, including:

  • Active listening: Interior designers need to actively listen when communicating with clients. The end goal is for the interior designer to create a space that the client wants, and the designer needs to be able to listen carefully to make that happen.

  • Communication: It is important that an interior designer can communicate effectively, both verbally and in writing, to ensure an understanding of their client's needs and that the client understands the project perimeters.

  • Negotiation: Many interior designers run their own businesses, so it's important to be skilled in negotiating a fair price.

  • Problem-solving: Interior designers are bound to encounter obstacles, setbacks and changes while working on a project. Having good problem-solving skills allows them to quickly overcome any issues and stay on track.

  • Bookkeeping: Interior designers who work on their own need to have excellent bookkeeping skills in order to keep their finances organized. This is important for getting paid as well as keeping track of expenses.

  • Computer-aided-design technology: Computer-aided-design, or CAD, is a useful tool for interior designers. They should be skilled in these programs because they help to create two-dimensional floor plans, as well as to understand blocks, layouts and dimensions.

  • Customer service: An interior designer should have good customer service skills to attract and maintain clients.

Interior designer average salaries

The average salary of an interior designer in the United States is $57,610 per year. This salary may vary based on location, years of experience and project size. For the most up-to-date information from Indeed, please click on the salary link above.

In addition, some of the highest-paying locations on average for interior designers (as of November 2019) may include:

  • San Francisco, CA: $82,781 per year

  • New York, NY: $72,275 per year

  • Columbus, OH: $73,021 per year

  • Los Angeles, CA: $68,536 per year

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How to become an interior designer

Follow these steps to become an interior designer:

1. Earn a degree

The first step is to pursue a degree in interior design. To be a successful interior designer, it is recommended to obtain at least a bachelor's degree from an accredited school.

As an Interior design student, you will likely take courses in:

  • Design theory

  • Textiles for interiors

  • Business practices of interior design

  • Materials and assembly

  • Drawing

  • Color theory

  • Modern architecture and design

  • History of building types

Interior design students who want to increase their salaries and work as researchers or professors should consider following up with a master's degree. Be sure to choose a school that is accredited with the National Association of Schools of Art and Design or the Council for Interior Design Accreditation.

2. Take and pass the NCIDQ

Next, sit for the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) exam. Although licensure is not required in all states, there are many states that prohibit interior designers from doing their work without a license, so it’s recommended that you research requirements in your area.

Students are required to have a combination of education and experience to qualify to take the NCIDQ exam. It was developed by the Council for Interior Design Qualification, and it tests the minimum entry-level competence in interior design. The exam focuses on aspects of design that affect the public's access, health, safety and well-being.

3. Gain experience

You may find it challenging to find an entry-level design job without experience. Try volunteering your services to demonstrate your skills, and look for freelance projects. By finding small projects to work on, you can begin to build your portfolio to show your work to potential clients.

4. Keep building your portfolio

A quality, detailed portfolio is key to getting higher-paying clients. A portfolio is a printed booklet or digital compilation of relevant information about your work experience, accomplishments, skills, interests, education and professional goals. It is different from a resume because it provides proof of your abilities. Your portfolio should have several examples of your past work or projects. Take good photos of all of your work, keep your drawings and designs, and showcase all of it in a well-organized manner. Use your portfolio to gain more clients or prove your skills to a design agency for full-time employment.

Read more: How To Build Your Work Portfolio

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