Skip to Main Content
Home Ownership

What does an interior designer do?

Interior designer working with clients
SrdjanPav/Getty Images
Interior designer working with clients
SrdjanPav/Getty Images

At Bankrate we strive to help you make smarter financial decisions. While we adhere to strict , this post may contain references to products from our partners. Here’s an explanation for

ON THIS PAGE Jump to Open page navigation

Pulling a room together (or an entire home) takes energy and talent. After all, there are many decisions to be made about color, finishes, size, scale, focal points, room layout and more. Not everyone is cut out to make such decisions. Frankly, it can be overwhelming.

Luckily, interior designers are trained to transform spaces — taking the guesswork out of home design. Colleen Primm of Colleen Primm Design, a Cleveland-based firm, explains, “Interior designers can create the feeling in a space the client is looking for but doesn’t know how to create on their own.”

Let’s look at what interior designers do, what they cost and how they can work with you.

What is an interior designer?

An interior designer is a professional trained in creating a harmonious, functional space inside a building. Interior designers often specialize in a certain field, such as residential (homes), commercial (businesses) or hospitality (hotels). Within the residential field, some specialize even further, in kitchens/bathrooms or (increasingly popular, as the population ages), home modifications for seniors.

The typical process starts with a meeting. Most designers will present their portfolios so you can view photos of previous projects. The portfolio should give you a good idea of their style and attention to detail. If you like what you see, you can move on to discuss your goals, budget and needs.

After touring your home or the site where your new home will be, the designer can then use your preferences to sketch out what the final product might look like. Or, they might create boards (literal physical ones or 3D computer renderings) featuring many of the room’s or rooms’ most important elements, such as colors and themes; materials and fabric samples; lighting; floor, ceiling and wall finishes; and fixtures. They will typically propose a budget and contract detailing their services.

Once you approve the design of the space, the interior designer will source the items needed for the room, such as furniture and accessories. In some cases, an interior designer may go shopping with you to help you choose the items and/or serve as a project manager, overseeing the work of contractors.

Education and training

Interior designers must earn a minimum of an associate’s degree from an accredited school, but many earn a bachelor’s degree (BFA or BS) in interior design, or even architecture. Some of the courses required may include drawing, lighting design, architecture, environmental science, professional practice and computer drafting. Some of the more prestigious institutions, such as the New York School of Interior Design, Savannah College of Art and Design and Rhode Island School of Design, are specialized, but offer a liberal arts education as well.

As the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes, interior designers must be able to draw, read and edit blueprints. They also must be well-versed in national and local building codes, inspection regulations and accessibility standards.

Because they deal with construction, electrical wiring and plumbing, interior designers have to be state-sanctioned, and each state has its own licensing or certification requirements. Most states that require credentials will mandate that designers pass the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) exam.

Besides the NCIDQ certification, reputable interior designers often have other credentials. Look for these initials after their names:

  • American Lighting Specialist (ALA)
  • Council for Interior Design Accreditation (CIDA)
  • Interior Design Continuing Education Council (IDCEC)

How do interior designers charge?

Interior designers typically charge for their services in one of three ways:

  • Hourly or monthly. Rates typically range from $50 to $200 per hour, but can go as high as $500.
  • Flat rate by project, depending on the room or scale of the job. Typical range: $200 to $2,000, though it could go as high as $12,000.
  • A percentage based on the total cost of construction, items and services purchased, anywhere between 10% and 40%.

What’s the difference between an interior designer and an interior decorator?

Obviously, there’s overlap between the two professions. Interior designers do offer decorating services, and many interior decorators style themselves, rather confusingly, as designers.

The main difference: An interior designer typically has more education than a decorator. Decorating is just one aspect of a design project — interior designers are capable of furnishing a room but also of envisioning and creating (theoretically, at least) its internal structure and bones. In contrast, a decorator is not certified to design a space. They deal with furnishing it, but not with any fundamental changes. They could suggest structural alterations, but are not qualified to carry any out.

For example, a decorator could help you remodel your bathroom — replace fixtures, refresh the walls or floor, add new accessories. A designer would be called for if you wanted to dramatically enlarge the bathroom, add a separate shower or re-arrange the placement of the tub, toilet or sink.

If all you need is some help choosing a few accents or pieces of furniture, or coming up with a color theme, an interior decorator may work. But if the project is larger and includes a major renovation (or new build), space planning, coordinating with an architect and contractors, a certified interior designer is the best option.

Working with an interior designer

When choosing an interior designer, ask for referrals from past clients. Check the designer’s training and certification, as well as pictures of rooms and projects they have completed in the past.

Interior designer Courtney Wollersheim of Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin-based firm FLOOR360, recommends, “Find out how the designer bills — is it a monthly retainer or an hourly rate? Also ask if they bill on products or materials purchased for your project. If on a budget, maybe the designer offers a package with a flat rate that fits your needs.”

Wollersheim adds, “Ask for a detailed description of what their services entail.” And get everything down in writing, to avoid misunderstandings.

Communication is key when working with an interior designer, especially when you get down to planning the project. Choose a designer that takes your preferences into account and understands what you are looking for. Remember that you have to live with the final product at the end of the day. If you feel uncomfortable voicing your opinion or pressured into a design that does not fit your budget or style, you will likely be better off with a different designer.

When do you need an interior designer?

If you need help pulling a room together, coordinating different rooms, or choosing the right finishes for your home, an interior designer is ideal. If you are working with an awkward space and you are having trouble envisioning the best layout or your home’s flow, an interior designer may have fresh space-planning ideas that work. Plus, they can help you avoid the costly mistake of making the wrong choice in flooring, paint color or furniture.

“Interior designers are hired to spend a client’s money wisely by telling them where to spend their money and where to save,” Primm notes. In addition, they understand design styles well enough to ensure your space withstands the test of time.

Working with an interior designer comes at a cost, but it may be well worth it. The designer is there to guide you in making the choices needed to create the most functional, aesthetically pleasing room or home possible. Always remember, though: It’s your dream. They just make it a reality.

Written by
Cynthia Paez Bowman
Personal Finance Contributor
Cynthia Paez Bowman is a former personal finance contributor at Bankrate. She is a finance and business journalist who has been featured in Business Jet Traveler, MSN, CheatSheet.com, Freshome.com and TheSimpleDollar.com.
Edited by
Senior homeownership editor