How Important is an Interior Design Degree?

How Important is an Interior Design Degree?

A couple of years ago I wrote the article, Do You Need A Degree in Interior Design?.  The advice in that article is the same I'd give today.  But today I'd like to talk a little more about this topic because I still get asked all the time if someone should get a degree. 

Lately, a lot of those who have been doing the asking are people looking to change careers or are starting back up again after their kids have gotten a little older.  They want to know if they need to go back to school.  

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Q: Do I need an interior design degree to run my own design firm?

I get asked this question, a lot.  And the answer is: it depends.  The necessity of a design degree for working in interior design could be as important as a Masters in Creative Writing to a writer, nice to have, but ultimately not necessary or it could be as important as a degree in Architecture, required to become a licensed architect.  The importance depends on what you want to do with your degree (or lack of).

Getting a degree in interior design is different from being licensed (usually by NCIDQ) in interior design.  You get licensed in interior design by taking a difficult exam (NCIDQ) after completing interior design coursework.  The National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) says that a "formal interior design education is an essential foundation for a successful practice".  Being licensed allows you extra privileges in some states to sign, seal, and/or permit.  Which means that you can sign and/or seal certain documents for construction purposes and permitting.  A good place to check the state licensing regulations is ASID's website.

If you live in a state that gives designers licensing privileges, it may be worth it to get a degree in interior design and take the exam.  If you would like to be working on new construction and remodels it may be worth it to get a degree and take the exam (or get a general contractors license).  If you'd like to work for another designer who requires degreed designers, it may be worth it to get a degree and take the exam.  If you'd like to work in an area that clients prefer licensed designers, it may be worth it to get a degree and take the exam.  If you are going to be working in commercial or hospitality design, you need to get a degree and take the exam.

However, you don't need an interior design degree to run your own business.  You don't need to be an interior designer to run a design firm.  You can hire people who have degrees and never do any design yourself.  You could work with other professional, like architects and contractors who will be doing the construction documents and you're providing design direction.  You could also only focus on the decorating part of design, the furniture and soft finishes that don't require a degree.

Being licensed will never hurt you, more knowledge and education are not harmful.  But a design education is not cheap and I don't want you to spend a fortune on schooling when much can be learned by experience.  Experience is not something that is negotiable when embarking on a career as an interior designer.  I wholeheartedly think that to run your own design firm you need to work for another designer first.  Preferably several.  There is no shortcut to on-the-job training.  Not even a degree can prepare you as well as working experience.  (You may be interested in reading Working for Someone Else).  Experience doesn't cost you several thousands of dollars in tuition.

There are skills that you need to have and either you get those through schooling or experience.  Most skills can be learned just through experience and dedication to learning. Other skills must be demonstrated to the state and so they can give you a piece a paper and a few letters after your name.  The path you take depends on where you want your interior design career to lead you.


Business of Design 10 Things You Won't LEarn in Design School by Capella KIncheloe Interior Design Phoenix

There have been many times that I have heard designers lament about how design school didn't prepare them for a career in design.  Usually, it's just a single focus, one of those I've listed below  that they feel were missing from their formal design education.

I've been thinking about doing this post for about 3 years, so it is a culmination of conversations I've had with dozens of designers.  I should tell you that every school has different curriculum and the designers I spoke to did not all go to the same school.  I also focused on residential interior designers who are self-employed or their ultimate goal is to be.

I've always said that it is important to work for someone else before navigating this wondrous world of self-employment and that is where you'll learn the most important lessons in being an interior designer.  It's the experience that can't be taught in school.  "I feel like some of these things you fully don't grasp until you apply them in real life, said Chicago designer Edyta Czajkowska.

I've heard from many that design school provides the fundamentals, some used everyday and others as useful as calculus, but it could better prepare a designer for anything other than a career working for a large design firm.  As my friend Claire Watkins put it, "Even if it's not the graduates' responsibility, clients don't come out of nowhere, books don't balance themselves and the government isn't going to tell you what to pay in taxes. I think it would be helpful for every grad to have their eyes open on these ideas and the 'behind the scenes', not just 'here's my role - and I'll blindly perform it'".


1. Interior Design is a business first, then an art.  Forget color boards and room schemes - what you should be learning about is sales and bookkeeping.

2. Client Acquisition.  Where do you find clients and once you find them how do you convince them to work with you?

3. Budgets & Costs. Many design schools are working with outdated materials or give hypothetical (and often unrealistic) prices on furniture, fixtures, and other elements that make up a house.

4. Problem solving - Interior design is really just solving one problem after another and those analytical skills need to be exercised.  Tiffany Rene states, "I've noticed how even some 'top designers' are oblivious to what it takes to coordinate a successful installation.  Likewise, they specify furnishings without any regards to what it would actually take for the installers to move the item(s) into the space which is how we end up with crane and hoist situations."

5. Business finance & accounting - I've heard from some that they had great business of design classes and others had zilch.  My friend and former co-worker Leah Talanian, says "Yes I was warned, unfortunately it was too late, of all the time doing the business side and paperwork.  So a stronger class in time management and an organizational skills class for the business side would have been great!"

6. Client psychology.  Interior design is up-close and personal.  Understanding client psychology plays a large role in how projects get done  and why clients do what they do (They're crazy. Kidding. I'm kidding!).  Connection, understanding, and communication in integral in the design process.

7. Setting Fees.  This is such a hot topic in interior design right now and it seems like people can't stop talking about it.  How to make money doing interior design would be a great class in design school.

8. Hands-on experience.  Several designers expressed the desire for more real-world experience in school.  From role-playing client meetings and presentations to visiting actual construction sites.

9. What a contact or letter of agreement looks like.  Designers told me that this subject was never addressed in school and if it was it was just stating the necessity to have one, not what it might contain.  It's not surprising then, that my post Anatomy of Interior Design Agreement is the #2 result on Google when you search "interior design contract".

10.  How houses are built.  "Being on a jobsite and learning more about construction documents would definitely have been more valuable.  Learning a bit more about HOW a house is built and reading those details on blueprints would’ve been a great additional part of design school training," said Kristin Hazen.  Fellow Phoenix designer, Julie White echoes, " (In school) there was too much theory and focus on concepts without enough detail of construction and how things are built. I feel that designers need to somewhat know how things are made in order to design something that's possible to be built."

If you're considering going to school for interior design, remember that each program is very different.  Ask about hands-on experience, if the teachers and instructors are currently working in the field, and what sort of jobs graduates get.  Obviously, if you're looking to work for yourself one day, you'll need to find a program that can prepare you for that.  You'll want teachers who are working as interior designers today, because the field is very different than it was even 5 years ago.

If you liked this post, I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

PS: You also might like Business of Design: Best Practices or my series 10 Things Interior Designers Won't Tell You.

PSS: This is probably one of my longest posts ever at over 900 words.  Whew!

PSS: If you're interested in business training for interior designers visit