Interior Architecture vs. Interior Design: What's the Difference?

By Indeed Editorial Team

February 22, 2021

If you have an interest in planning interior spaces for living and working, you have more than one career path to consider. Interior architecture and interior design both involve creating appealing rooms and indoor areas, but these fields have distinct responsibilities and requirements. In this article, we discuss the difference between interior architecture and interior design to help you discover the right career for you.

What is interior architecture?

Interior architecture is a practice that incorporates the art of design and the science of architecture, and it focuses on the technical aspects of planning and building a room. This field involves making the room safe and functional as well as designing aesthetically-appealing lighting, color and texture for a space. Professionals who practice interior architecture typically focus on a combination of structural elements, building materials and artistic components.

Interior architect responsibilities

Interior architects often manage complex sets of tasks to address when planning a room. Their projects typically begin with meeting with clients to determine their requirements and preferences for spaces. Some interior architects specialize in designing new spaces, while others focus on refurbishing existing spaces. Those who focus on the latter analyze the existing interior structure of the space to assess any limitations or requirements. Those who specialize in designing new spaces may work with other architects to ensure that their plans for the interior space work seamlessly with plans for the rest of the structure.

As they develop interior plans, these architects assess the environment around the space, study the natural light and assess the feasibility of potential plans. Many interior architects then sketch their preliminary ideas manually before using computer-aided design (CAD) and drafting and building information modeling (BIM) applications to create scaled plans for the interior space. These plans often reflect aesthetic aspects of the design along with structural elements like electrical, plumbing, heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems.

Interior architects are also responsible for creating project plans that include cost estimates and proposed timelines. Most seek out contractors to carry out their projects, which may involve drafting agreements and hiring temporary team members. Interior architects also frequently collaborate with other architects as well as interior designers, engineers and construction teams, especially when working on complex projects.

Because their projects involve safety and sustainability, architects must understand and abide by building codes and government regulations that apply to the interior space. They often research and test building materials and construction methods to confirm that they adhere to required codes and regulations.

Once projects commence, interior architects often visit the construction site to oversee progress. They may supervise contractors, manage scheduling and ensure that the construction team uses the appropriate building materials and methods. Interior architects also assist with material tests required by local agencies or codes.

Related: Learn About Being an Architect

What is interior design?

Interior design is a field that focuses more on art than functionality and incorporates aesthetic elements such as furniture, flooring, walls, window coverings and artwork. It also involves color schemes, textiles, lighting, design materials and sustainability. Interior design applies to a wide variety of spaces, ranging from residential and corporate to public and industrial.

Interior designer responsibilities

Interior designers are responsible for making rooms and indoor spaces comfortable, functional and aesthetically pleasing. Most interior designers begin projects by assessing clients' needs and objectives, which typically include how they intend to use the room and the ways people will move through the space.

After meeting with clients, interior designers research materials and sketch ideas for plans. Many interior designers also use CAD and BIM programs to create two- and three-dimensional plans. These digital plans usually feature room layouts, electrical and plumbing systems, materials for walls and flooring and specifications for lighting and furniture. In most cases, plans also include building permits needed to carry out the design.

Interior designers then estimate costs and timelines, order materials, apply for essential permits and seek out contractors to complete the work. Most interior designers manage small teams of contractors, and they also work closely with architects, engineers and tradespeople. They typically oversee all construction and installation related to their plans, and they may perform some of the design and installation work themselves.

While some interior designers are generalists, many choose areas of specialization. Some may focus on certain styles, particular rooms, such as kitchens and bathrooms, or types of structures, such as residential or corporate spaces.

Related: Learn About Being an Interior Designer

Interior architect vs. interior designer: main differences

Although their work has many similarities, interior architects and interior designers have many differences, especially in terms of requirements. Discover the main differences below.

Post-secondary education

Although interior architects specialize in planning and building indoor spaces, they must meet all the standard requirements for architects to use the title. Architects must have a bachelor's degree in architecture, which usually takes about five years to complete. This degree provides them with a foundation in the history and theory of architecture, building design and construction methods and CAD and BIM programs. Some interior architects also opt to pursue a master's degree, which can help professionals prepare for more specialized or advanced positions.

Most interior designers need a bachelor's degree, although many also choose to obtain a master's degree. Those seeking the best degree options should look for programs approved by The Council for Interior Design Accreditation, which accredits general offerings, or the National Kitchen & Bath Association, which accredits specialized programs.

Training and work experience

To secure a license, interior architects have to complete a paid internship offered by the Architectural Experience Program (AXP). Most internship programs last for about three years and provide experience with creating interior plans, drafting material specifications, analyzing installation requirements and researching building codes. Some of these internships also include experience working with contractors, engineers and construction teams.

Unlike interior architects, interior designers do not have to complete internship or training programs. However, they do need to acquire at least two years of interior design experience to become licensed.

Related: Definitive Guide to Internships

Certifications and licenses

Regardless of their specialty, all architects must have a license to work in the field. Each state has its own licensing regulations, but most states have the following requirements:

  • Earn a bachelor's degree from a university program approved by the National Architecture Accrediting Board.

  • Complete a three-year AXP internship.

  • Prepare an AXP portfolio.

  • Take and pass the Architecture Registration Exam.

  • Conduct an interview with the state's licensing board.

Interior architects may have to renew their licenses up to once per year, which often requires completing continuing education credits.

In contrast, interior designers are subject to more varied requirements. Only select states require interior designers to have a license. States that demand licenses usually have the following requirements:

  • Earn a bachelor's degree.

  • Complete at least two years of full-time work experience in the field.

  • Pass an exam.

Work environment and schedule

Interior architects usually divide their time between planning in offices and working on construction sites. In offices, they typically meet with clients to discuss projects, use computers to create detailed plans for interior spaces and develop budgets and timelines for projects.

They may also meet with other architects, engineers, interior designers and construction managers to coordinate more complex projects. When working on construction sites, interior architects oversee projects and construction teams, ensuring that projects are completed on time, within budget and with sufficient quality levels.

Most interior architects have full-time jobs, but their hours may vary from day to day. They may work during the day, in the evenings or on weekends to accommodate client needs and construction crew schedules. Interior architects may also work overtime when completing projects or nearing deadlines.

Interior designers also tend to divide their time between working in offices and traveling for work. When they work in offices, interior designers usually meet with clients, research materials and decor options and use software applications to create designs for spaces. When they travel, they may meet with vendors to browse or retrieve materials, or they may go to client sites, where they carry out their design plans.

Like interior architects, interior designers typically work full-time schedules but may have non-standard hours. They may work in offices or talk with vendors during the day and meet with clients in the evenings or on weekends.

Related: Guide: How to Choose a Career

Browse more articles