How to become an interior designer

How to become an interior designer

I have received a ton of messages about how I became an interior designer. The truth is, this is such a broad topic that cannot be answered in a single email.

In some states, you’ll need to complete a 2-4 year degree and become licensed in order to practice interior design. While in other states, you can essentially practice as an “interior decorator,” which can be the professional equivalent. Whether you are planning on attending design school, or you are ready for a quick career change, I’ve created a master post answering everything you need to know to become an interior designer.

My Story

When I was in High School, I did not plan on becoming an interior designer. I knew I liked art, design, and architecture, but I hadn’t settled on what exact career path I wanted to follow just yet. I decided to start with some drafting classes, along with graphic design and studio art classes. Many colleges require at least some form of art, design or drafting classes prior to being admitted to their program. After graduating from High School, I was still unsure of what field I wanted to go into. College was expensive, and I knew I did not want to change majors. I decided to start off at a two-year college and earn my Associates Degree, while also taking additional art and drafting classes. If you know you are going to major in an architecture, or design-related field, I highly recommend getting the general requirements like a foreign language, math, and science out of the way before you begin your major credits. You’ll be pulling a lot of all-nighters as it is. During these two years, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to pursue interior design. After graduating with my Associates Degree, I attended a state school with a CIDA accredited interior design program. After college, I sent my resume to design firms around Florida, where my family lived and I knew I wanted to live. I worked under a licensed Interior Designer, and then I continued working in residential and commercial interior design.

What is an Interior Designer vs Interior Decorator

Up until just a few years ago, this was a very black and white topic.

An Interior Designer graduated from a 2-4 year accredited institution, worked under a licensed interior designer for the required amount of years (this varies depending on how many years you completed in school), and successfully passed the NCIDQ licensing exam.
An Interior Decorator can be just as talented as a designer, but may not have all or any formal education from an accredited institution, hasn’t worked under a licensed interior designer, and/or has not taken the NCIDQ licensing exam.


However, some states have passed individual laws that may not require you to meet some or any of those requirements. For example, in the state of Florida, you are not required to meet any of the requirements in order to practice residential interior design. Only those practicing commercial interior design would need to meet those requirements. (Although, if you were to pass the NCIDQ exam, you would become licensed in both residential and commercial interior design). These laws are constantly changing, therefore I encourage you to educate yourself on the laws in your state.

If you plan on becoming a licensed Interior Designer

If you are still in high school, start by taking some art, graphic design and drafting classes. Check to see if your local college offers any of these courses.

Look into CIDA accredited schools and make a list of their entry requirements. Every school is different. Some programs require a portfolio before applying, while others require you to take prerequisite courses regardless.

You’ll spend the entirety of your time in design school learning about and deciding which field of design you’d like to work in. There’s residential, commercial, hospitality, and healthcare to name a few. You can also specialize in furniture design and product design. The possibilities are endless! You are a designer – a creator.

After school, you’ll then need to work under a licensed interior designer. If you have an associate’s degree in interior design, you’ll need to work 3 years full-time under a licensed interior designer (5,280 hours). If you have your bachelor’s in interior design, you’ll need to work two years full-time (3,520 hours). If you have your bachelor’s degree in another field and a master’s degree in interior design, you will need to work two years full-time (3,520 hours).

NCIDQ will verify your work experience prior to taking the exam. Click here to see the licensing requirements.

Afterward, you’ll need to maintain your CEU, or continuing education units. These need to be completed every two years and can be taken online with an exam or in-person (check for locations near you) in order to maintain your license.

How to become an Interior Designer without going to school

Many states do not require formal education. Here’s what you need in order to be able to market yourself as an interior designer without a degree:

  • First, check with your state to see if you are able to classify yourself as an interior designer, or if you are required to label yourself an interior decorator.
  • You will need to establish a portfolio of work. Yes, you need work to get work — but there are ways to work around this. Begin by staging and photographing your own space, and then work your way to friends and family. You don’t need to only photograph whole spaces: you can zoom in on tiny details, like a chair or a tabletop. This will give you more photos for a potential client to scroll through. You can also create different scenes in the same space.
  • It’s important to market yourself. Start by creating social media pages. I recommend Instagram, Pinterest, Houzz, and Facebook to start. Start by posting your photos on Instagram and take advantage of hashtagging. While you’re at it, check out other hashtags for inspiration and ideas. Follow other interior designers and take note of how and what they post. When you’re running low on content, repost other photos that inspire you or fit your brand. (Always ask for permission first).
  • Create a website. If your business surpasses the referrals of friends and family, I highly recommend creating a website with your own domain. Your domain name should either be your name or the name of your company. Try to be consistent with your social media account names.
  • Create a professional email. Once you secure your domain name, you should be able to obtain a professional email, @yourdomainname.
  • Design a logo, or hire someone to create one for you. Having a logo will make you stand out from your competition and will help to establish your brand.
  • Snag yourself an LLC. If you are designing for clients that are outside your immediate friends and family circle, I highly recommend establishing yourself as an LLC early on. Not only will having an LLC further yourself as a company and brand, but it will also help to protect you as an individual.

If you want to work for a design firm

Start by making a list of your favorite firms and study their design aesthetic. What are they looking for? I often look at previous job postings by these companies so I have an idea of what they’re looking for. If you want to make yourself stand out, I recommend becoming LEED GA certified. This is especially great to have if you are working with new construction.

Make sure you’re familiar with Design software. Research what technology the design firms in your area are using. I recommend familiarizing yourself with AutoCAD, SketchUp, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe InDesign. There are plenty of video tutorials online for those with no knowledge, intermediate, and advanced knowledge online.

Preparing for your interview 

We always ask to see portfolios, regardless of whether or not you have previous experience working for a firm.

If you have a portfolio of work from each of the programs I mentioned above, make sure they’re relevant and up to date. This is the time to clean up your designs, and maybe even tweak your work where you see fit.

If you are self-teaching yourself these programs, create a project for yourself:

  1. Start with a living room and kitchen, and then give yourself a scenario.
  2. Design a floor plan in both SketchUp and AutoCad and list your specifications separately. Make sure you can justify why you specified what you did and how it’s relevant to your “client” or scenario.
  3. (Accurately) dimension the plans to demonstrate your proficiency.
  4. Take that floor plan and render it in Photoshop.
  5. Lastly, organize your portfolio in InDesign.

If this is done successfully, you’ll have shown a working proficiency in all of these programs.

How much does an Interior Designer make?

The national average for an interior designer is $51,775/yr. However, I don’t like referring to the national average, or even the starting salary. Interior design is such a broad field, as you can see. Your salary could be completely different depending on which field you specialize in. Also, and most importantly, many designers work part-time. I know designers who have been in the industry for years and only take on one or two projects a year. There are also many designers who do projects for fun on the side but do not use design as their main source of income. These instances can drive down the national average. I can tell you right now that interior design is a very lucrative field to be in, especially right now. Whether you work for yourself, a firm, or on commission — interior design can be a very rewarding career.



2 Responses

  1. I absolutely love this and so glad I found your blog! My 20 year old sister just started a 2 year program at a local community college and she loves it but feels a little lost on where to take her career. Totally sending this to her!

    Sydney (

    • HI!
      I’m SO glad to hear that! Please tell your sister to feel free to reach out to me with any career questions. I’m happy to help!

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