When considering help with a home renovation, it’s natural to get confused between designers and decorators. Admittedly, interior design and interior decorating sound like interchangeable terms for the same job – and in fact, some overlap exists: both deal with the interior of a property, making it an attractive living space, functional.
Yet there are important distinctions between the two. In a nutshell, interior designers usually deal with structural issues; decorators with stylistic ones. But designations and duties can get spongy when it comes to homes. Many interior designers offer decorating services, and many interior designers consider what they do as “designing.”
Knowing the differences between interior designers and interior decorators, and understanding when you should hire one over the other, can save you money, time, and heartache — and improve your chances of succeeding with your home project.
What is an interior designer?
An interior designer is a professional trained in creating harmonious and usable rooms and spaces in a building – the architect of its interiors, so to speak. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) defines interior designers as those who “make interior spaces functional, safe, and beautiful by determining space requirements and selecting essential and decorative elements.”
Interior designers take a comprehensive, structural approach to a space. They’re trained to work with the things you see – the shape, size, and layout of rooms – but also the things you don’t, like the location of HVAC, plumbing, electrical, and building systems. other functional systems, as well as their equipment and accessories.
Interior designers often work alongside architects and general contractors on new construction. Many also specialize in a specific niche, such as office buildings, hospitality, green spaces or residences.
No US state requires a license or qualifications to do home interior decorating (although some do require certifications to work on commercial projects). However, the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) sets specific requirements on how to qualify and style as an interior designer. They include:
- Complete 40 semester hours or 60 quarter hours in an accredited interior design program at a design school or other academic institution
- Pass the National Council for Interior Design Qualifications (NCIDQ) exam
- Obtain at least 10 additional hours of interior design training every two years
In addition to passing NCIDQ and ASID membership, many interior designers earn credentials from other industry associations. Common complementary courses include: American Lighting Specialist (ALA), Council for Interior Design Accreditation (CIDA), and Interior Design Continuing Education Council (IDCEC).
What is an Interior Decorator?
Interior decorators are more like interior stylists. They furnish and decorate areas and spaces, but they are not qualified to build, design or make structural changes to them. That’s not to say they can’t transform a room, using their expertise in:
- Selection, placement and arrangement of furniture
- Selection of paintings, wallpapers
- Window treatments
- Purchase of decorative accents
- Overall use and color combinations throughout the space
There is no specific certification, exam, or formal education required to become an interior decorator; it is an area associated with learning and on-the-job experience, although of course some decorators may have studied art, architecture or design.
Decorators have their own business or may be affiliated with a furniture or appliance retailer. They often order or buy items directly for you and help set them up or arrange them in the room.
Main differences: interior designers and decorators
So what are the main differences between an interior designer and an interior decorator?
Interior designers generally have more academic training and formal education than decorators. Many have a bachelor’s degree (BFA or BS) in interior design or a related field. On the other hand, there is no interior decorator diploma; most practitioners learn their craft on the job.
Then there is the price you pay for their services. Designers and decorators charge in different ways, either by the hour, a flat rate per project, or a percentage based on the total cost of items and services purchased – or sometimes, a combination (such as hourly consulting fees or fixed, then a commission on purchases). Either way, interior design fees tend to be higher than interior decorating fees, simply because the level of education and credentials an interior designer has to invest.
According to HomeAdvisor, the average hourly rate for an interior designer is $50 to $200 per hour, compared to $50 to $150 per hour for a decorator. In some cases, decorating tips may be included for free when you purchase furniture from a particular retailer.
Difference in rights
But the biggest difference is what the two professionals are trained to do.
“The designer focuses more on the functionality of the spaces and the furniture, while the decorator focuses mainly on the aesthetics and style of the space and the furniture,” explains Elvis Alcequiez, architect designer at Forever Architect, who has worked with interior decorators and designers.
“A designer will consider the interaction of space with its [external] environment, including natural influencing factors such as wind and sun,” he adds. By contrast, a decorator’s gaze remains introverted, focusing on “the use and combination of colors in spaces and furnishings,” he adds. In other words, they give the room a look.
Let’s say you were going to remodel your kitchen. A decorator might pull together the existing space by coming up with a style (such as “farmhouse” or “contemporary”), help select paint colors and tiling, furniture and appliances; even add accessories such as wall decorations, pendant lights, vases or interesting objects and help organize the kitchen cabinets better. They would aesthetically transform the kitchen, helping it appear more spacious and maybe even finding you some space to store or operate.
On the other hand, an interior designer could come up with a completely different layout for the kitchen. They would show you how to make it bigger or change the configuration of major appliances (and the lines/wiring/pipes that come with it). They could help you find and replace countertops, design new custom cabinetry, add an island; they might even supervise such contractors in building and carrying out renovations.
So why the confusion?
Faced with these differences, why does confusion persist between interior designers and decorators? Partly because some interior designers don’t just design a space, they also decorate it. But more often than not, it’s because many interior designers dress up with the more prestigious monikers of “designers” or offer “design services” – even when they’re primarily just furnishing. While some states regulate professionals who can call themselves “interior designers,” the warrants only apply to those who work on commercial buildings. Design/decoration services are unregulated for residential projects: when it comes to home interiors, anyone can be called anything.
Example: Popular online interior design services that work with clients virtually, via uploaded room photos, software renderings, and computer consultations. Despite their name, these services primarily offer decorating ideas and furnishing suggestions; they do not reshape spaces. Some won’t even work on new construction or rough spaces.
Do I need a designer or a decorator?
The choice between an interior designer or a decorator depends on the scope of your design project and your budget. An interior designer can handle any type of project, no matter how complex, including structural and functional improvements. They are ideal for a new construction, addition or major renovation since the designer can also work with (and supervise) contractors.
An interior designer steps in when the room is a reality and is more limited to the cosmetic aspect of a job, focusing on furnishings, the flow of the room, color selection and home accents . Although the decorator works on a smaller scale than a designer, their services can be more than enough, especially if you basically need a shopping friend to brainstorm ideas and find the perfect piece of furniture.
Choose the professional
You don’t know what the professional in front of you is capable of? Try searching for these various initials after their names – the credentials that are the hallmark of licensed and certified interior designers. A decorator probably won’t have these affiliations, regardless of the name of their business.
And ask them exactly what they’re doing and what they’ve done on previous projects they display in their portfolios. Are they working with a new space? Can they help you change the footprint or function of a part? Will they actually help you find furniture and accessories? Supervise contractors or installers?
The best choice comes down to what you need. “When there is a significant space problem and the required solutions are focused on improving the quality of the space, it is best to hire an interior designer,” says Alcequiez. “However, if the space is working and just needs to improve the aesthetics and style, it’s a good idea to hire a decorator.”