In residential, public and commercial structures, it’s often in the interior spaces where people live, work and do business. Interior designers are the professionals who design these inside spaces to be functional, aesthetically pleasing and safe. Interior design encompasses the planning and design of both commercial and residential spaces. If you want to prepare for a career in interior design, at least some amount of college education is pretty much essential. Even interior design assistant roles sometimes require a college degree, and you will have a hard time finding employment as an interior designer without taking any college coursework.

Interior designerIMAGE SOURCE: Pixabay, public domain

What Degree Do You Need to Be an Interior Designer?

The most common level of education for interior designers – the one that accounts for 85 percent of the profession – is a bachelor’s degree, according to O*NET. One in ten interior designers reported having an associate’s degree, and the next most common level of education is a post-baccalaureate certificate. Earning a degree is also important for your financial future. Interior designers with a college degree made over $15,000 more per year than those without one in 2019, according to trade magazine Architectural Digest.

Generally, the fastest you can get started working as an interior designer is two years, assuming that you pursue only an associate’s degree and you work in a state where licenses are not required. If you opt to pursue a higher level of education, you’re looking at four, five or more years of study. In some states, interior designers must be licensed before they officially hold this job title. Often, you need to acquire a couple of additional years of supervised work experience before you can attain a license.

The National Association of Schools of Art and Design accredits more than 360 postsecondary colleges, universities, and independent institutes that have programs in art and design. The Council for Interior Design Accreditation accredits about 180 professional-level (bachelor’s or master’s degree) interior design programs.

 In some states, interior designers must be licensed or registered through a process that typically requires a relevant degree, a minimum number of years of experience and a passing score on a test like the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) exam.

The Education Needed to Be an Interior Designer

Whatever level of college education and career preparation you choose to pursue in interior design, here’s what you can expect from your schooling.

Associate’s Degrees in Interior Design

The two-year interior design degree programs offered at the associate’s level can take the form of either an Associate of Arts degree or an Associate of Applied Science degree. Generally, Associate of Arts degrees are intended as stepping stones to interior design bachelor’s degrees, while Associate of Applied Science programs are meant to prepare students for professional industry standards. As such, the curricula of associate’s degree programs in interior design differ considerably depending on the type of program you choose.

An Associate of Arts degree is likely to devote more of the curriculum to general education requirements. However, the curriculum will also include introductory coursework in design and construction, construction materials and methods, the basics of computer-aided design, drawing, three-dimensional design and the history of architecture and interiors. Although many of the classes you take in pursuit of an Associate of Arts degree in interior design are lower-division courses, you might still complete some more advanced coursework, such as a class in advanced presentation techniques. Although this program is intended to serve as the foundation for further interior design study at the baccalaureate level, students will still get to practice their skills through a sequence of design studio courses as they work toward their associate’s degree.

In an applied science program, you might take coursework in more focused areas of interior design study. For example, you might focus on residential design specifically in one course, commercial in another and the use of textiles and finishes in yet another class. You might spend less of your curriculum on liberal arts and science courses and more of your studies on your chosen major, although this difference can vary from one college to another.

Bachelor’s Degrees in Interior Design

A bachelor’s degree in any subject may be sufficient to attain an interior designer job, assuming the student takes some design-related courses. However, students who are serious about the career path should take an accredited course in interior design specifically, since a curriculum dedicated to this discipline will better prepare them for the demands of an interior design career. Students at the bachelor’s degree level may consider a Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Fine Arts or Bachelor of Science in interior design, each of which will provide the basic foundations, concepts and methods of general interior design work.

At the bachelor’s level, degree programs in interior design should include courses in space planning, interior design methods and materials, sustainable design and building systems and detailing. Courses in design principles, philosophy of interior design, lighting and color theory are among the classes students are more likely to expect to take in this major. Other courses, like building codes for interior spaces and the history of architectural interiors, may be less creative and more academically demanding than you might expect.

A lot of the practical skills interior design majors develop come from taking classes in the techniques of sketching and architectural drawing and in computer-aided design for building information modeling, digital architectural drawings and digital presentation techniques. An internship is an important part of many undergraduate interior design programs because it allows students to gain hands-on experience in the real world rather than just in the classroom. Design studio courses are also an important part of the curriculum for interior design majors.

Post-Baccalaureate Certificates in Interior Design

If you already have a bachelor’s degree and you want to further your education, consider a post-baccalaureate certificate. Some post-baccalaureate certificate programs in interior design are specialized in areas like sustainable design or kitchen and bath design. Certificate programs are usually shorter than programs that award a full degree, so you can finish your education and begin reaping the benefits faster.

Studying Interior Design at the Master’s Level

If so few interior designers actually have a master’s degree, why would an aspiring professional in this field consider earning one? Often, master’s degrees in interior design are intended to provide an interior design education to career changers whose bachelor’s degrees and work experience are in another field. In other instances, experienced interior designers are seeking an advanced degree to moving into leadership, research or academic job roles.

You may need to prove your artistic ability with sketches and other work to gain acceptance into a design program, according to the BLS. 

Working in Interior Design

Interior designers are responsible for planning the functionality and appearance of indoor spaces in homes, public buildings and commercial structures. Before they begin a design, interior designers must understand the client’s goals and the purpose and requirements of the process, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). They must choose design elements that will fit well with how the space is intended to be used and how people will move within that space. Interior designers create preliminary sketches and plans that consider the functionality of the room, such as the electrical layout. They determine the right colors, furniture, paint or wallpaper, flooring, lighting fixtures, plumbing fixtures and materials to achieve the design concept and use computer-aided design (CAD) software to create final design plans.

Planning is only part of the work of interior designers. They must also manage the timeline and cost to make sure the project can be completed on time and within budget. Interior designers make sure that the right materials are ordered and installed correctly and that the client is happy with the results.

Though interior design is important for a wide variety of fixtures, rooms, structures and purposes, specialization in the career is common. Some interior designers specialize in a specific type of fixture, like lighting, while others focus on certain types of rooms, such as kitchens and bathrooms. Still other specialties of interior design involve purposes like environmental sustainability or universal accessibility.

Interior designers earned a median salary of $57,060 in 2020, according to the BLS. The 17 percent of interior designers who work in industries like architectural and engineering services have the highest earning potential, with a median annual salary of $62,620. Next most lucrative is the wholesale trade industry, which employed just five percent of interior designers and paid a median wage of $57,300 in 2020. Nearly one in four interior designers work in the industry of specialized design services, which pays a median wage of $54,330. Furniture stores, which employ five percent of the occupation, pay a median salary of just $47,710 per year.

The job outlook for this profession is somewhat disappointing. In 2020, the BLS expected job opportunities in all occupations to grow by eight percent, on average, between 2020 and 2030. For interior designers, though, the BLS predicted that there would be little change in employment opportunities during this timeframe, with a projected growth rate of zero.

Although interior designer isn’t one of the job roles in which statistically significant declines are expected, the BLS noted the possibility of total jobs for interior designers decreasing by a couple hundred during that period. This doesn’t mean that no new interior designers will be getting hired, but rather that most new job openings in this field won’t be additional opportunities but rather vacancies left by interior designers who retire or change careers. Even though the field of interior design isn’t flourishing right now, the BLS expected there to be approximately 7,800 vacant positions for interior designers per year.

As of 2020, nearly one-third of all interior designers were self-employed, according to the BLS. 

What to Look for in Degrees for Interior Design

Choosing a school for interior design isn’t easy. There are hundreds of options out there to consider. To narrow down your college search, you may need to focus on a few factors, such as technical competency training, hands-on experience opportunities and accreditation.

People who confuse the roles of interior designer and interior decorator may be surprised to discover how important technical competency is in this profession. A big part of the job is creating visual representations through hand-drawn sketches and computer-aided design (CAD) drawings and diagrams. A school that emphasizes the development of computer-aided design skills and experience using the CAD software programs that are most widely used in the industry, such as Autodesk AutoCAD and Autodesk Revit, will help you acquire these competencies that employers are seeking.

Perhaps the most important aspect of an interior design degree program is the opportunity to put to work the skills and knowledge you gain and develop an impressive portfolio. Ideally, the school you choose will make design studio courses a priority early on in your studies. Opportunities for internships and other types of field experience are also particularly valuable in this major, since design isn’t something you can fully develop competency in simply by reading textbooks and handing in assignments. The portfolio you put together based on your work in the design studio and as an intern is, more so than your degree or your grade point average, what will capture the interest of potential employers.

Accreditation is another thing to look for when choosing an interior design degree program. Different organizations accredit different types of programs, including:

Accreditation demonstrates that your interior design program meets high standards established by a third party in the industry. Choosing an accredited school may also streamline the process of achieving professional certification or licenses, and prospective employers may prefer job applicants whose degrees came from an accredited institution. 

Related Resources: 

Can I Become an Interior Designer Without a Degree?

What Are Some Areas of Concentration in Interior Design?

Do I Need a Degree to Be an Interior Decorator?

Is an Online Degree in Interior Design Seen the Same by Employees and Clients as an On-Campus Degree?

What Degree Do I Need to Become a Lighting Designer?