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All the Information You Need to Become an Interior Designer


Maybe you see yourself as the next Mario Buatta or Kelly Wearster…but where do you begin? If you’re wondering how to become an interior designer, we can help. Perhaps you’re just starting out in the field—either fresh out of college or just applying to design school. Or maybe a few years into your career, you’re considering a professional pivot. Or perhaps when you were hiring an interior designer, you thought, I can do this! Whatever the circumstances, you’re considering a potential move toward a career in interior design. And if you can make this transition strategically, you may be able to turn a hobby or interest into a full-fledged interior design career.

To that end, let’s focus on the following considerations when prepping for a career in interior design: What are the most important things to take into account? How does one successfully embark on an interior design profession? Though the path to the desired end result of becoming an interior designer may vary, landmark goals along the way remain consistent. With this idea in mind, AD PRO has distilled a step-by-step guide of how to become an interior designer.

Do some serious self-reflection

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First, why are you drawn to the interior design profession? What design skills do you already have? Why would you be right for the job? Consider if you truly possess a passion for interior design, rather than merely a flair for decorating. It’s also important to know the difference between the two fields: Anyone with an eye for decorating—who has great taste and enjoys playing with color, textures, textiles, and furniture—can be an interior decorator. But only accredited design professionals can call themselves interior designers.

Are you willing to put in the time and effort to take interior design courses in college and/or attend design school and take the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) exam, which is required in most states to become a certified interior designer? If your area of interest falls more into the decorating realm, then go that route. Otherwise, if interior design is your proclivity, then assess your skill set and jump in and make your design career happen.

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It’s also a good idea to contemplate the specialization you might want to pursue to plan a career path. Are you more drawn to residential or commercial interiors? Would you prefer health care or education design? Or is retail, hospitality, or restaurant design more your thing? Do you aspire to work for one of the top 10 commercial interior design businesses in the country? Or aim to launch your own boutique interior design firm? Though specializing 100% is not required from the start, it is beneficial to think about where you’d like to land in your career in the coming years, so that you devise a proper road map.

“Having your short- and long-term goals charted out with an outline of when you want to reach them helps tremendously in keeping you motivated,” notes Carolyn Ames Noble, chair of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) National Board. “That being said, it’s also important to remember that it’s okay if not all of your goals are met, but that it’s the journey along the way that helps mold your character and career.”

Ames Noble continues, “If you have a specific direction you want to take, put your energy into that area. However, from experience, I believe it is key to remain flexible. As I was starting out in my career, the Great Recession completely changed my trajectory, and I found myself learning new skills in materiality, research, and marketing, which are now as fundamental to me as my core skills in interior design. With the pandemic, a lot of transitions occurred, and many interior designers found innovative ways to adapt, which sometimes meant venturing out of their dedicated sector of choice.”

How long does it take to become an interior designer?

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That depends. If you opt for a bachelor’s degree in interior design, expect to spend four years studying the ins and outs of the field. It’s also possible to become an interior designer in less time through an associate’s program, which takes two years. Be sure to think about the need for internships and work experience as well—all of these elements an affect your timeline.

What qualifications do you need? Is going to design school essential?

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In order to become a licensed interior designer, at least an associate’s degree—and more likely a bachelor’s degree—will be needed, and a master’s puts you at an advantage. A degree in any field related to interior design is acceptable, but your coursework should include interior design, drawing, and computer-aided design (CAD). Degrees in fine arts, drafting and design tech, interior architecture, or theater design, for example, from a number of US colleges and universities could set the right foundation for an interior design career—just as long as you carefully plan a course of study that includes a range of design classes.

Look for classes that cover interior design topics such as:

  • Principles of Interior Design
  • History of the Built Environment
  • Color Theory and Application
  • Materials and Applications
  • Drawing and Composition
  • Perspective and Rendering
  • Interior Lighting
  • Computer-Aided Design
  • Sustainable Building Design
  • Business Practices
  • Building Codes and Standards

David Harper, associate dean at the New York School of Interior Design (NYSID), stresses the importance of earning an interior design degree. “Formal education is a very deliberate path toward professional practice,” he says. “Certainly, you can learn about what interior design is and what interior designers do without a formal education, but, if your goal is professional practice, then embarking on that journey without a roadmap (formal education) makes for a long and potentially incomplete journey.”

Nansi Barrie, a consultant and the former career services and internships coordinator at NYSID, recommends taking advantage of the career services department at your college or university. “Work with your advisor and pinpoint your goals, so you can hit your target or come close to the sector of the industry you are interested in,” she says.

How to find the right design school

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If you opt to attend interior design school, do some research to discern which programs are best suited to you. Consider if you’d fit in better at a large or smalls school, a city, suburban, or rural campus. Conduct site visits to see which atmospheres resonate with you most, evaluate the curriculum to see if it aligns with your professional ambitions, and consult current students and faculty to glean their perspective on the student experience at that school. Finally, talk to the admissions staff to see what you can do to make your candidacy stand out among a sea of qualified aspiring interior design students.

When discussing why obtaining a formal interior design degree is so important and useful, Harper notes, “In the best of scenarios, courses are taught by individuals who have been design practitioners themselves. You are learning not just from a book, but from individuals who have done the things they are teaching you. They are passing along firsthand experience to help prepare students for the reality of interior design practice.”

How to properly vet a design school

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When deciding where to attend design school, looking for degree programs that are accredited by the Council for Interior Design Accreditation (CIDA) is a wise decision, as the organization stays abreast of the most current trends, regulations, and practices of the interior design industry. According to the CIDA, “[Its] accreditation process is thorough and focused solely on interior design programs that culminate in a professional-level degree. Interior design programs that voluntarily undertake the CIDA accreditation process demonstrate a strong commitment to quality and continual improvement.”

Though it’s not essential that your design school be on the CIDA list, it’s a helpful qualification to look out for when beginning your research. It would also serve you well to consult a current list of the best interior design schools. Though it varies slightly, the top five interior design schools consistently rank as the following (in various order, depending on the year):

  • Savannah College of Art and Design, Interior Design, Savannah, Georgia
  • The New School, Parsons School of Design, Interior Design, New York
  • NYSID, New York
  • Rhode Island School of Design, Interior Architecture, Providence, Rhode Island
  • Pratt Institute, Interior Design, New York

When attending design school or studying design at the college or postgraduate level, find a mentor, take advantage of the highly skilled faculty, and network with your contemporaries. Establishing relationships with faculty will prove to be instrumental in your career advancement. Let them know you’re looking to be mentored, and listen to the advice they give based on their real-life experience. Leverage their contacts to meet people in the design industry when you can: Opportunities for learning abound in this type of educational setting.

ASID offers tips on how to become an interior designer, which include making an appointment with a faculty member at the schools you are most interested in to evaluate whether or not a program is right for you. Ask specific questions about the types of classes offered, the teaching philosophy of the interior design program, what percentage of graduates actually pursue interior design careers, and what types of jobs they have landed. Top design schools have a stellar record for post-grad job placement.

SCAD professor Tara Headley, who is chair of the board of trustees for the International Interior Design Association (IIDA) Foundation, president of IIDA Georgia chapter, and a senior interior designer at IA Interior Architects, advocates getting involved in an organization like hers while still in school in order to start making connections in the field. “Start engaging before graduation,” she urges. “Volunteering with the student board or even with the professional chapter helps set the tone for your involvement, and people will remember your efforts.”

How to get started as an interior designer

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Working at an internship while still in school is imperative for gaining real-life practical experience, and helps position you for success post-graduation. “For those still in college and trying to figure out what kind of career they want to pursue, I would 100% recommend looking for internships at design firms. Internships allow you to not only get experience and build your resume, but also to figure out if this is where you can see yourself in the future,” Ames Noble says.

David Sprouls, president of NYSID, recommends doing as many internships as possible, in a variety of areas. “If you have a specific interest, definitely do an internship but be open and explore. You never know,” he says, noting that it’s valuable to be able to “test out” specific aspects of the profession before seeking a full-time design job. Internships allow you to take classroom knowledge and apply it in practical ways, while also learning how to navigate an office environment. Firms are more likely to hire candidates who have been exposed to aspects of the culture of a design studio before graduating and obtaining an entry-level design role.

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Again, rely on the expertise of career counselors to help you secure an internship that coincides with your areas of interest. But don’t be too hyper-focused on any particular subject at this point; instead, consider a wide range of interests within the interior design field. Keep an open mind to different aspects of the industry. You might surprise yourself: Maybe you think you want to focus on retail design, for instance, but hospitality ends up piquing your curiosity. In this early phase of your design career, it best suits you to have a broad base of experience before ruling out any possibilities.

In addition to internship experience, mentorship can also help ignite your career. The IIDA offers a national program that pairs more than 1,000 students with mentors annually. Headley explains how the IIDA mentorship program has evolved: “Students shadow a professional for a day, attending client meetings, presentations, learning about office culture, et cetera. It’s a glimpse into the working world and provides the opportunity for a valuable connection even after the program ends,” she says, adding, that “IIDA pivoted to a virtual mentorship program during the pandemic. This allowed students to be able to connect with a design professional and learn about the industry remotely.”

Master essential interior design skills

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There’s more to being an interior designer than creativity, impeccable taste, and a keen designer’s eye. “Effective communication goes a long way in every aspect of a designer’s life, from landing the interview to getting the job and being promoted throughout your career,” Headley offers. “The art of storytelling is critical when it comes to explaining a concept or showcasing the design in the earliest stages. That is something that needs to start in class when students are presenting their projects.”

Organizational, time management, project management, and communication skills are all prerequisites for the job, as is some very specific technical knowledge. While mastery of drawing and perspective are fundamental for every interior designer, computer-aided design now is as well. CAD technology—in the form of computer software such as Autodesk AutoCAD, CorelCAD, SmartDraw, ARCHICAD, DraftSight, and CAD Pro, among others—allows you to render your design ideas in 2D and 3D models with proper dimensions, colors, texture, and other design details.

In addition to CAD, other computer software that today’s interior designers are expected to know include SketchUp, a basic 3D-modeling computer program; Autodesk 3Ds Max with its easy-to-learn interface for 3D rendering and simulating interiors; Autodesk Revit, which is highly technical in nature and created specifically for A&D professionals for Building Information Modeling to allow users to quickly make elevations, sections, and plans; and Infurnia, a feature-rich, complex interior design program. An interior design professional who is well-versed in these software tools will have a definite advantage over the competition.

Obtain proper interior design certification

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At the moment, 28 states require licensure for interior designers, which includes passing the NCIDQ exam. NCIDQ is the most common interior design certification, recognized in the United States and Canada as a benchmark for proficiency in the profession. In order to qualify to take the NCIDQ exam, you must first earn an associate, bachelor’s, or master’s degree and complete a certain number of hours of work experience depending on the level of education. Comprising three parts—the Interior Design Fundamentals Exam (IDFX), the Interior Design Professional Exam (IDPX), and the practicum—the NCIDQ exam covers subjects such as construction standards, design application, building systems and codes, project coordination, and contract administration. You may take the first part—the IDFX—once you’ve graduated from design school even if you haven’t completed all the required work hours. The IDPX, meanwhile, is available to you once you’ve completed both your education and work requirements, and the practicum is the final exam. Fees for each part of the exam are paid separately.

While this three-part test may sound arduous, you should have gleaned all the necessary information through schooling and practical experience to fare well enough to pass the exam and obtain your NCIDQ credentials—you need a score of at least 500 out of 800 to pass. And this is certification that’s definitely worth having even if it’s not required by your home state, as it legitimizes your skill set and experience to clients and employers.

Create a striking interior design portfolio

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Anyone who wants to become an interior designer needs an interior design portfolio. If you’re fresh out of school and don’t have examples of paid client work, use student work, internship experiences, non-client design projects, self-initiated work, and side projects to help illustrate your design process and capabilities. Sprouls says, “We evaluate many portfolios at the New York School of Interior Design, and there are a few characteristics that make some stand out. First and foremost, we like to see a portfolio that demonstrates design thinking…. We want to see that designers understand the process.” He notes that a portfolio should demonstrate more than merely the finished project: It should also weave a narrative that showcases how you interpret the clients’ needs, project goals, and challenges through the execution of beautiful designs.

A few points to keep in mind when creating your interior design portfolio:

  • Use your portfolio as the opportunity to create an impactful first impression.
  • Show off who you are with an interior design portfolio that reflects who you are as a designer and an individual.
  • Highlight only your best, most striking work through stunning photography and additional visuals, such as drawings, sketches, and so on.
  • While it should be highly visual, be sure to include concise explanations of project goals and design challenges, too.
  • Keep it fresh by updating content several times a year or as new work warrants it.
  • Don’t forget to include your CV and contact info.

Establish your brand through social channels

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Defining your own brand is vital to positioning yourself as a proficient interior designer. How do you see yourself as a professional? How do others view you—and how do you want them to perceive you? What’s your unique value proposition? What are your goals as a designer? Who is your target audience? Pondering these questions can help you to clearly delineate your personal brand.

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Next you’ll need to translate that ideal visually into an interior design website and social media profile. Make sure your brand accurately reflects your style and sensibility as a designer. For example, where applicable, employ colors, typography, and imagery that’s true to your aesthetic. Focus on the details and be consistent with your brand message across all channels of communication—be it online, in person, via email, or phone. How you dress, act, speak, and write all should align with your personal brand. Visitors to your website should have an immediate sense of who you are as a designer, and your skills and accomplishments should speak loud and clear. This is no time to be humble. Show off who you are and put your best foot forward.

Establish an online presence that permeates all social media channels. Become a social networker. Maintain a consistent brand message throughout LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. And contribute frequently, making sure your updates are on-brand. Use these social media platforms as tools to cultivate your brand, make connections, and seek employment.

AD PRO also offers a supremely valuable resource with its AD PRO Directory, which connects clients with interior designers, architects, and landscape designers that have been fully vetted and fulfill the stringent standards of AD. As long as an interior designer has some work to show in their portfolio—commissioned or not—they can apply and be considered for inclusion in the AD PRO Directory. It only takes a few projects to show to be included, and being in the directory affords designers opportunities to meet new clients and further develop their network.

Continue your education

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Once you graduate from design school and take the NCIDQ exam (if applicable), your design education should not stop. Keep your skills fresh and maintain your competitive edge by seeking out continuing education opportunities. Sign up for design or business courses online. Audit a class that helps you with practical application of design theory. Take the LEED exam, and become a LEED-accredited professional for Interior Design and Construction. Learning the ins and outs of environmentally sustainable design, building, and construction practices likely will make you a more attractive job applicant at a design firm over a candidate who lacks this knowledge.

And plan to take some continuing education units (CEUs) during the course of the year to stay abreast of current industry trends—and earning CEUs annually is also a requirement of industry organizations like AIA, ASID, IIDA, IDC, and ASLA, as well as to maintain one’s status as a certified interior designer (CID). One CEU is defined as 10 contact hours (one contact hour equals one clock hour) of participation in an organized, relevant continued education experience, which can include seminars, conferences, events, in-person programs, and classes. Detailed information on its CIDA’s website offers lists of schools and programs that meet quality standards of the interior design profession.

Another way to remain relevant and constantly evolve yourself as a designer is to stay current with interior design trends by subscribing to design mags like AD and Interior Design or specialized trade publications like Hospitality Design. Read designer and design association blogs. Follow tastemakers on social media. Download design apps, such as Houzz, which provides a vast marketplace of interior design products; and peruse 1stDibs, Incollect, or Chairish, which are valuable resources for highly coveted vintage and rare artisan finds.

Network, network, network

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Networking is the key to success in any profession, but especially in the highly social A&D community, networking is everything.

  • Make connections with peers as well as professors in design school.
  • Join design organizations, such as IIDA and ASID.
  • Reach out to designers you know and admire and ask for informational interviews.
  • Attend local trade shows and industry functions.
  • Be open to networking online, via LinkedIn, for example.

“There is an immense value in networking for anyone trying to get started in their career but especially in the design industry, and I would recommend starting with identifying a professional association to help drive your career,” Ames Noble says.

Likewise, Headley stresses the critical nature of networking and advocates for doing so via an association like IIDA. “The connections you make with others in the field both locally and on a national level can be invaluable resources throughout your life,” she says. “As a new designer in the field, making connections organically may be difficult, but joining IIDA is definitely a great place to start.”

Attending trade shows is another viable avenue for fostering relationships. “Trade shows are a great starting point for inspiration and networking. They often host educational programs as well so that you can hear from top designers about recent or upcoming industry developments,” notes Ames Noble. “I would also encourage budding designers to explore international trade shows to gain a broader perspective on the world of design.”

Headley stresses, “Networking is definitely the key to advancing your career in an industry such as interior design. And LinkedIn can be a valuable tool.” She offers a few tips when using the professional networking site:

  • Make the “About” section an engaging peek into who you are as a professional.
  • Articulate your experiences in your education and volunteer sections with explanations of what you’ve learned in classes and your responsibilities in any positions you’ve held.
  • Show any awards you’ve received, as this helps set you apart from others.
  • Post and interact with posts on the main page. The more you engage, the more likely your profile is to be seen.
  • Avoid reaching out randomly to professionals if you don’t have some kind of connection.

Bottom line: Be open. Be social. Surround yourself with fellow designers. And plant yourself in the design world where you want to live.

Apply to a wide range of interior design jobs

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Cast a wide net as far as areas of interest, explore a host of interior design jobs, and remain open to all opportunities. If something sounds remotely interesting to you, apply to the post. You never know the connections you’ll make by speaking with people at various design firms.

“This is an exciting time to be in interior design, the field is ripe for new thinking, imagination, and bold innovation. Being multifaceted and open to new experiences will be key,” Ames Noble says. “Sometimes having a specific career arc can limit yourself from what you can become and what you can offer. The future of the practice probably won’t be as linear as it used to be.”

Arrange meetings to learn about firms and their areas of expertise. Ames Noble recommends “asking those people in your ‘dream job’ position for an informational interview. This helps you get a better idea of what the job consists of and how that person you’re interviewing got their job, and it’s also a great networking opportunity.”

Research different interior design jobs, and become well-informed about distinct roles within a design firm so that you see which types of positions are most in line with your background and skill set. Learn about the company culture, the workforce, and upper management at the design firms you are targeting for employment, and pay attention when visiting workplaces for interviews. Ask yourself if you can see yourself working in this office among these colleagues. It would behoove recent grads or those looking to get started in the industry to seek junior design positions that will help develop the skills needed to grow in the profession.

Headley recommends vetting a potential employer during the interview to see if their actual core values in practice are aligned with what’s important to you as a person and professional. For example, if work-life balance is an issue that’s crucial to you, she advises, “Ask them what expectations are surrounding deadlines, if they’re flexible with schedules, and so on. A red flag would be an expectation that employees are to consistently work late to meet unrealistic deadlines.” She adds, “Any honest insight you can gain into a company’s culture will help you make the right decisions on where to work.”

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