Interior Designer or Decorator: What's the Difference?

The terms "interior designer" and "interior decorator" are often used interchangeably, as if they were identical professions. And while both may have the ability and talent to create beautiful rooms -- as well as roles that often overlap -- the two are not synonymous.

Okay, then what's the difference between interior design and decoration? Webster's defines interior design as "the art or practice of planning and supervising the design and execution of architectural interiors and their furnishings." But, under interior decoration it states, "See interior design." No wonder so many people are confused. Let's take a brief look at both and then try to clarify the differences between interior designers and interior decorators.

Interior Designers

The American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) defines an interior designer as one who "is professionally trained to create a functional and quality interior environment. Qualified through education, experience and examination, a professional designer can identify, research and creatively resolve issues and lead to a healthy, safe and comfortable physical environment." At it's heart, interior design is the art and science of understanding people's behavior in order to create functional spaces within the structures that architects design.

Interior designers are responsible for a wide variety of tasks including: organizing a space to suit its function, making sure that designs match are in compliance with building and safety codes, managing the construction and installation of a design, and even designing for appropriate acoustics and sound transmission. An interior designer is also responsible selecting and specifying fixtures, furnishings, products, materials and colors -- but note that is just one of many responsibilities.

Interior designers are also -- in some, but not all states -- required to have a license (usually acquired by completing the NCIDQ exam). This licensing certifies that the designer is a qualified professional who has the background and schooling required to make complex decisions about interior spaces.

Interior Decorators

Interior decorators, on the other hand, are primarily concerned with surface decoration -- paint, fabric, furnishings, lighting and other materials. Decoration is often characterized as the furnishing or adorning of a space with appropriate (often fashionable or attractive) things.

"But wait," you say. "Don't interior designers do that too?" The answer is often yes, but the biggest difference is that the interior designer typically has a number of other issues on his or her mind. For instance, when it comes to floor coverings, an interior decorator will probably be responsible for choosing the type, color, texture, and pattern. The interior designer, on the other hand, will make the selection based on those criteria, with an additional eye towards the appropriateness of type, usage, sound transference, acoustic properties, flammability, off-gassing properties, static electricity requirements and flammability.

Separating the Two

Decoration, although an undoubtedly key element of an interior, is not solely concerned with human interaction or human behavior. That is primarily the realm of the interior designer. And while both an interior designer and interior decorator provide input on aesthetics, the interior designer typically goes beyond that to provide further input on the functionality, efficiency, and safety of a space.

Interior designers and interior decorators both perform important jobs -- but it's important that we don't continue to confuse the two. To do so is a disservice to both of professions. So next time you see your local interior designer or decorator -- make sure you call them by the right title!