An interior decorator goes over paint samples

Interior Designer vs. Interior Decorator: What's the Difference?

If you’re looking for a career that allows you to make spaces look nice, there’s plenty of options. But there’s also lots of different ways to go about that; maybe you want to be the person who picks out flooring and wallpaper, or maybe you just want to adjust sound or lighting, or maybe you want to make a room operate at its most functional. And if so, maybe you’re not sure whether it’s an interior designer or an interior decorator that you want to be - or that there’s a difference at all.

What’s interior design?

The two are most assuredly different careers. An interior designer focuses on the function of the room. Much of their work is done before anyone lives there, before anything close to finishing touches are put on a building. Not only does their job involve a space “healthy, safe and comfortable,” according to the American Society of Interior Design (ASID), but there’s a deep psychological element to interior design as well. Interior designers must understand how people think, act, and work so they can provide an environment that allows the user to maximize a space’s capabilities.

They have to know what the space is going to be before it exists. Designers have to read blueprints and implement a suitable overlying design, all while considering location, intentions, and occupants and being thoroughly up-to-date on any codes or regulations required for the space, whether it’s an office, library, or new home. They help arrange everything from lighting to how sound travels, as well as the plumbing and safety regulations. They work closely with architects and contractors to create a cohesive, usable environment.

What’s interior decorating?

Interior decorators come later. They fill a space with aesthetically pleasing and appropriate decorations. They may choose what color to paint the walls and which fabric to make the curtains from. Additionally, their responsibilities may include choosing the bed frame or office chairs that match those curtains, and which pieces of art to hang on those painted walls. They bring immediate specific function to a space, creating something specific to each individual occupant, rather than to the building itself.

What’s the difference?

Simply put, designers design, and decorators decorate. Interior designers work on a more global plane, while interior decorators apply the finishing touches. It may be apt to say that while beauty comes before function for interior decorators, function and safety must come first for interior designers. Interior designers are trained to know what can structurally go where and which materials are appropriate for a specific purpose. Interior decorators can color and modify additions, but they can’t alter anything structurally. There are also more concrete separations between the two. Although an interior decorator may charge more than an interior designer, there are years of training required for design. Along with a degree, there’s generally a period of apprenticeship for interior designers, not to mention tests and licenses that are geographically dependent. Interior decorators have no requirements whatsoever. While this doesn’t make their position any less important (we are undoubtedly creatures who put an awful lot of stock in beauty), it does create a lot more restriction, especially for commercial buildings. While designers can do anything decorators can, decorators can’t say the same.

Last Updated: July 25, 2015