The need for formal schooling in interior design is debatable. According to the American Society of Interior Designers, at least 50 percent of all practicing designers in the United States have completed two or more years of college or vocational training; 40-45 percent have completed a four-year college program. Of the four-year college graduates, 40 percent received a degree in interior design. The remaining 60 percent have degrees in architecture, fine arts, liberal arts, industrial design, education and business administration, among other subjects. Depending on whether you are interested in contract or residential design, the requirements will vary. Residential design is less likely to require formal schooling and a specific background, whereas contract design is more restrictive, often necessitating a design degree. There are many, many successful residential decorators (who might call themselves designers, depending on their location) who have absolutely no formal schooling in design. However, many of these individuals have other outstanding characteristics and qualities that have made them a success. They probably have a very strong work ethic, outstanding taste and an eye for beauty. They most likely have very strong people skills. They probably have excellent presentation skills and are well versed in the art of sales. "Design isn't so much about decorating as sales. You have to sell yourself, your image, your ideas and the products,"says one top residential designer.
Young would-be designers have plenty of options. With some serious networking and hard work you can probably get in the door in a support position at a residential design firm and work your way up from there, taking night courses in design to increase your pace up the ladder. If you are switching careers and don't have years to spend climbing the corporate ladder, a degree or at least certificate in design is very beneficial. Having a degree will open you up to working at both residential and commercial firms and will get you a better position than someone with zero design education but you will definitely still have to put in many years of hard work to get to head designer. Going out on your own is usually not an option for most brand new design graduates or those with little concrete experience. Most clients will want to see a portfolio of a designer's work, which won't add up to much if a designer only has school projects or pictures of her own living room to show.
The main thing to keep in mind is that interior design is not the glamorous job it may appear to be. If you envision days spent shopping for fabrics and picking out furnishings, that's really only about ten percent of the job. "Be prepared to work very hard when you first start out,"says one designer. "A lot will be expected of you and you will need to pay your dues. Be very sure that this is what you want to do. Design, particularly if you work for one of the big firms, is not always as creative or glamorous as you might think. It is a business and it is about business. On the other hand, if you are good, there are great opportunities out there."
The field of interior design is still evolving, and what designates an interior designer varies by location. ASID provides a list (www.asid.org/design_basics/proessional_credentials/reg_law_agencies _state.asp) of requirements by state. 22 states, as well as the District of Columbia, have some regulations regarding what qualifications an interior designer must meet. Other states not on that list either don't have any requirements or are in the process of defining them. It's important to make sure you know the requirements for the state where you intend to practice. It is also important to remember that decorators (as opposed to designers) do not have to meet the same requirements. Currently, designation requirements are still being debated in many localities. For example, the October 2004 issue of Interior Design details the efforts of Ruth Lynford, the legislative chair of Interior Designers for Legislation in New York, encouraging a bill that would reserve the title of interior designer "for those who meet certain educational and professional qualifications and pass an examination on fire, safety and building codes."(Anyone practicing for 15 years or more would have been able to apply for an exemption.) After two years, the bill was finally passed, only to be overturned by the Governor. Only time will tell how successful future legislative measures will be.
States that do register and license designers typically require some combination of education and work experience and possibly passage of a qualifying exam. The most popular exam is offered by the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ). This organization, founded in the early 1970s, was created to establish the necessary qualifications for designating a professional interior designer. The NCIDQ administers a qualifying exam that entitles successful candidates to become certified in interior design and a professional member in interior design-related organizations such as the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID). The exam tests knowledge of safety and health issues, space planning, historical styles, fabric selection and math. Requirements for taking the NCIDQ are: four to five years of interior design education plus two years of full time work experience in interior design, or three years of interior design education plus three years of full time work experience in interior design, or two years of interior design education plus four years of full time work experience in interior design.
Membership in ASID or other professional groups such as the International Interior Design Association (IIDA), while not necessary to function in the industry, does hold weight and can be beneficial in acquiring clients. These organizations have various types of memberships, such as student, professional, allied and industry. They provide opportunities for networking and further education in addition to being great sources of information. ASID has forty-two chapters throughout North America. To become a professional member, an interior designer must have passed the NCIDQ exam in addition to having a course of accredited education or relevant work experience. Allied members are not required to have passed the NCIDQ exam but must either have acquired a four or five year bachelor's degree in interior design or architecture, or two or three year degree or certificate in interior design, or six years of full time work in interior design or architecture. The ASID website (www.asid.org) provides its members valuable information for networking and industry information. It even has an area for posting resumes and searching for candidates.
It is imperative for designers in contract design to be licensed. In this portion of the industry, designers work primarily on large commercial properties such as hotels, resorts and cruise ships, and it's critical that designers in these areas have knowledge of safety regulations and codes. In residential design, it is not as important, since the design space is mostly private and not required to meet such stringent regulations.
Just as the American Bar Association (ABA) reviews and accredits educational programs for the legal profession, the interior design industry has The Foundation for Interior Design Education Research. FIDER was established in 1970 to develop standards for interior design education. It is responsible for accrediting interior design programs and ensuring a program meets the qualifications of the industry. Attending a FIDER-approved school is not required to practice interior design or to take the NCIDQ, but the accreditation suggests that the institution and its graduates are concerned with meeting industry standards. FIDER provides a list of its approved programs by state. Whether to pursue a formal degree in interior design or to take a more general approach is an important decision that will affect future employment. If you're interested in pursuing a career in commercial or hospitality design, it's highly advisable to complete a formal degree. According to a recent interior design graduate of the Parson's School of Design in New York City, her first job with a hospitality firm would not have been possible without such a degree. In fact, her firm would not have even contemplated her resume without the requisite design degree. (Interestingly, Parsons is not FIDER accredited, yet it has a strong reputation in the interior design community.)
On the other hand, if residential design is more appealing, then a less traditional approach is acceptable. Many employees and even principals at well-recognized design firms hold no formal qualifications in interior design. It is not unusual for highly successful residential interior designers (or decorators) to have no formal background in the field; instead, they often hold degrees in art history, architecture or fine arts. If a degree is the chosen path, there are several methods for acquiring it. Many schools offer a bachelor's of interior design (BID) or bachelor's of fine art with a concentration in interior design (BFA). Others provide associates degrees and continuing education courses which are also a means of gaining some formal training. Some schools also offer interior architecture degrees. These are architecturally based degrees with an emphasis on interior design, but they are not exact substitutes for an interior design education.
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