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Interior Designer, Interior Stylist, Interior Decorator, Interior Architect. What’s the difference?

Are you an interior designer? Guess what? The majority of people have no idea what it is what you do. Of course, they get the gist of it, …


Interior Designer, Interior Stylist, Interior Decorator, Interior Architect. What’s the difference?

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Table Of Contents

Are you an interior designer? Guess what? The majority of people have no idea what it is you do. Of course, they get the gist of it, as in “designing the interiors of buildings” but when it comes down to the actual services, nada, no idea.

Most people believe an interior designer is someone who uses the word “darling” as punctuation and who walks around animatedly, spending a client’s money on things they don’t need. No wonder the world is confused, they think that they will be paying an interior designer thousands for a mood board (that they haven’t a clue what to do with, by the way) and to walk around their home, wave their hands about telling them what it is “they” will be doing to the place.

Historically, an interior designer would be paid quite a lot of money to put their design “mark” on someone’s home, so this idea of eccentric interior designers is not totally unfounded. Indeed there are still high profile designers who are paid to deliver this type of service today, but they have a definite style that clients are paying for.

The interior design industry has really changed in recent years and an endless amount of niches and off-shoots depending on location have added a bit of confusion to the mix. The introduction of E-services, online design, blogging/vlogging and all things #decor have opened up interior services to many new markets and also to new customers who can afford their services.

So let’s sort this out once and for all. This post aims to provide an easy explanation for interior designers and their clients so when someone asks for clarification, you don’t have to try to explain all of this every time. Hopefully, it will also act as clarification world-wide as you will see, geographical locations are in fact big culprits in all the confusion.

Interior Stylist

An interior stylist is often confused with an interior designer. Understandably as often, interior designers can take on an interior stylist’s role and vice versa, however, the majority of the time, their roles are quite different.

In order to clarify we need to understand what styling is. Styling, (like what hairdressers and fashion stylists do) focus on making the end result look a specific way.

(That is not the dictionary meaning, however, as it’s quite misleading: The Oxford English Dictionary says that styling is: “The way in which something is made, designed, or performed”. I hope you agree that my description is much more useful!)

Both an interior designer and interior stylist focus on making the end result absolutely perfect, but the interior stylist’s main role is to focus on the end result, whereas for an interior designer, the styling part is usually the final result or the icing on the cake and usually, a lot of work has been undertaken to transform a space prior to getting to this point (depending on the project of course).

An interior stylist’s role can vary quite a lot as they can work on commercial, retail and domestic projects but the majority of the time, interior stylists work for magazines on editorial projects or freelance for themselves. For example, they work with a “Styling Team” to showcase products like furniture, art and anything you can think of! Many interior stylists can also work alongside developers to showcase the finished product of a home before the sale (not to be confused with an interior stager’s role, however).

If someone refers to themselves as an interior stylist, they are predominantly focusing on the following roles:

  • Interpreting a client brief, usually to sell a product or service for marketing purposes.
  • Work with magazines for photo-shoots, styling the spaces to showcase products.
  • Can work alongside photographers to make the photo-shoot look fantastic.
  • Depending on the project, can source furniture, props, sets and location.
  • May be asked to decorate the space (but not always).
  • Can have a creative directors role, depending on the brief.
  • Can get involved in designing the space prior to the shoot, but making the photographs (or event) look specifically like the look they are going for is the main aim of a stylist’s work.

Interior Stagers

Interior Stagers are similar to stylists in the way that their work revolves around preparing a space for an event, (aka preparing a property for sale). An interior designer could also take on this type of project but often it is a niche area.

An interior stager not only prepares a property for sale, but they also dress the home for the sale. In a similar way to stylists, their work aims to bring a high return of profit for the seller and in a stager’s case, of the property.

A stager may perform all or only a few of the following roles:

  • Work with the real estate agents to define the target market and what kind of people the property should attract in order to bring the client the greatest return on investment.
  • Prepare the property for sale, which may include providing decoration or other services.
  • Assess a property and present potential opportunities for alteration prior to selling a property.
  • Position furniture to help spaces flow and to capture views to highlight the potentials of each space.
  • Find uses for odd spaces in properties to help potential client’s see value in areas that aren’t easily obvious.
  • Creates an interior and or décor design for the sale of the property depending on the target market for sale. This can include new soft furnishings, furniture and window treatments.
  • Can work with existing furniture, may hire furniture or supply furniture and décor accessories for the duration that the property is on the market.
  • Can get involved in designing the space prior to the shoot, but making the photographs (or event) look specifically like the look they are going for is the main aim of a stylist’s work.

Interior Decorators

In some areas of the United States, the title and some of the functions of an Interior Designer are protected and so a license is required to call yourself an Interior Designer.

The term interior decorator isn’t really used in the UK or Europe as licensing to call yourself an interior designer is not required. The word decorator implies that they don’t provide layouts or drawings and this may limit the perception of an interior designer’s services.

In Australia the term has started to be used more frequently, however, the title of interior designer is not protected and perhaps (my assumption only) the term is being used more frequently to distinguish brands or services provided by interior designers who want to focus on specific niches.

An interior decorator predominantly focuses on the look of a space and therefore focuses on choosing paint colours and furniture and “decorating”. Interior decorators generally advise on color, textiles or fabric, room layouts, furniture styles, and finishes depending on their experience and niche. They would rarely propose an extension or building work, so they work with an existing building fabric.

If someone refers to themselves as an interior decorator, they will usually lean towards these types of services (although just to clarify an interior designer, may also provide all of these services):

  • Translating a client brief into a vision/design for the client.
  • Create mood, material and or samples boards to express ideas and get the approval of finishes and fabrics from clients.
  • Advise on interior styles, fashions, trends, décor, accessories and furniture.
  • Design the overall look and feel of rooms with furniture, décor items and finishes (without altering the positions of walls, windows and doors, usually).
  • May provide an up-cycling furniture service to creatively fit existing items into a new scheme.
  • Can provide a decorating service (as in, physically painting walls etc).
  • Depending on their expertise or niche, may work specifically with particular furniture or décor retailers or tradesmen, selling and promoting their products or services. (These can be through Joint Ventures or affiliate links).
  • Design and or make and supply soft furnishings such as window treatments, cushions and other fabric or textile items.
  • Can design furniture or upholster existing pieces of furniture.

Interior Architects

The title of “architect” is protected in the majority of the world. This means that unless you have specific training, are licensed and or are currently registered with a body who monitors the work you do, using the title architect is prohibited.

There is quite a lot of crossover between an interior designer and an interior architect’s role however and this crossover is even more confusing in some areas around the world as many interior designers call themselves interior architects and vice versa! Often, this is because they undertook and qualified with an interior design or an interior architecture degree and depending on where they find work swap and change their title.

An interior architect (in most places around the world) can call themselves an interior designer, but an interior designer, unless registered or licensed as one, cannot call themselves an interior architect.

The job role of interior architects is protected in some areas around the world but not others. So this also adds to the confusion. Licensed interior architects have a duty to oversee work and sign off plans in some states in the US and undertake a lot of liability. Similar to architects, they need to oversee and take responsibility for specifications, designs and drawings and they sign-off or stamp drawings for regulatory purposes. This is not the case in most other parts of the world as regulatory or government bodies undertake that role.

Due to their level of experience, it would be safe to assume that interior architects are possibly the most educated of all “Interior Designers” in a sense that they understand art, architecture, science and design as well as the nuances of buildings in specific locations. Assuming they have qualified and are licensed, then it may also be safe to assume that they have achieved a minimum amount of work experience in the industry as that is required for licensing and sometimes to keep registration current.

Interior architects, because they have knowledge of the structure and the internal building envelope can be more involved in the more technical aspects of interior design. Their work crosses over into that of an architect, although an architects work is predominantly focused on the building envelope and site context (although, they can also provide interior design services!)

Often, interior architects are required on larger projects like large commercial developments and masterplans because it helps to segregate these roles (even if there is a crossover) as there is so much work to do to bring the project about.

Ok, so now that we have clarified that, what range of possible things do interior architects do?

  • Create and convert the brief into a design. The design usually has an artistic idea to provide a creative solution to the brief.
  • Work to budgets and negotiate project fees.
  • Can form agreements and contracts for undertaking work.
  • Design interior spaces for any type of project such as commercial, domestic or retail (although often they often specialize in one field and one location due to the knowledge of regulations).
  • Draft plans, provide technical as well as the design documentation required for all stages of a project, from concept to completion (and in some places, sign-off).
  • Coordinate design and construction information from other building consultants such as architects, engineers, mechanical and electrical engineers, drainage engineers etc. to ensure there is no clashing information.
  • Research and specify appropriate materials, finishes and design spaces for a project that comply with building codes.
  • Can design or specify all elements of the Furniture, Fittings and Equipment Packages (but often don’t).
  • If part of a larger firm, may also cross over into branding and provide turnkey styling services.

Interior Architects

So what does an interior designer do? Interior designers concern themselves with all things interior related and can provide services across all the other interior fields (if qualified). They can provide something as simple as a design or styling service and depending on their niche can also provide detail drawings for construction purposes. Some interior designer’s even have a building team that undertakes the building side of the project.

No wonder this can be so confusing for clients! Explaining what it is we do could turn into quite a long conversation, so I have provided a spread of services that an interior designer often provides, but it is important to note that this can vary from country to country as well as from interior designer to interior designer.

It is also important to note that many interior design offices have qualified architects or technicians working alongside them, so they can offer a larger variety of services. Some interior designers are also builders and others rent furniture for interior styling and staging purposes.

Typically, interior designer’s can provide everything from space planning to décor designs for the interiors of a building and project manage the process to completion. They also, often include styling the end result as a complete service.

A typical interior designer will usually be able to undertake the following services:

  • Translating a brief into a design.
  • Work to budgets and negotiate project fees.
  • Undertaking feasibility studies and reports.
  • Create designs to suit a specific budget.
  • Provide presentations, mood, ideas and sample boards to clients in order to explain ideas and get approval for finishes for all interior spaces for commercial, domestic and retail.
  • Design, specify and/or source finishes such as flooring, ceilings, wallpaper and paint for a project (often – but not always, in line with local building codes).
  • Design the layouts or space planning of buildings, usually to articulate an artistic and practical idea. (This may include moving walls, doors and windows).
  • Design and detail bespoke furniture and upholstery items such as headboards, chairs, sofas and built-in furniture.
  • Specify, source and supply furniture, fittings and equipment from trade-only sources and potentially pass on trade discounts to clients.
  • Design and create lighting and electrical layouts for refurbishment and new-build projects.
  • Provide tender documentation and information for pricing a project.
  • Project manage a project overseeing the installation of items including kitchens and bathrooms or in a commercial situation offices and installations.
  • Provide turnkey or styling services in order to finish the project to attain the visualized and agreed end result.

Interior designers can also provide the following services depending on their expertise and licensing:

  • Design and build services to take a project from start to finish with one company.
  • Supply, installation and/or rental of furniture, fittings and equipment.
  • Provide documentation to gain approvals such as leaseholder applications and planning or building regulations consents.
  • Provide branding integration as part of commercial design services.

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Phew! Whether you are thinking of transition into interior design, are already an interior designer or are a potential client looking to see what services an interior designer might offer, I hope that has given you some kind of clarification. I have tried to explain the wide variety of services that an interior designer can provide, whilst also clarifying the niches in the interior design industry in a clear and easy to understand way.

If you liked this post, please share it and tell everyone which kind of interior designer you are and what services you offer!

The information in this post comes from my own experience working on projects worldwide, please do let me know if you feel I missed anything out or if you would like to add anything.

Please share your experience if you work in any of the fields mentioned above and if there is anyone reading from Europe or America, please do take the time to let us know if you agree with the nuances between the industries.

Jo Chrobak

Jo Chrobak

Jo Chrobak is an architectural and interior designer and mentor at the Interior Designer’s Business School that trains interior designers to set up professional and successful interior design businesses and gain experience working on real projects. She is trained in architecture, interiors, business and life coaching and runs her architectural and interior design studio just outside of London in the UK.
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  1. Avatar of Mairéad Collier

    Great information thank you Jo. Clear and concise.

  2. Avatar of Jessica

    My strength is in interior decorating. People ask me all the time to come and stage or decorate their house but I am a teacher and just don’t necessarily have the time. How would you advise someone trying to start out as an interior decorator, maybe while pursuing higher education for some interior design classes to get licensed?

    • Avatar of Jo Chrobak

      Hi Jessica,

      Interior decorating doesn’t usually require a license (search for the most up to date information about licensure with your local government). The best thing is always to start and get as much experience working on real-life projects as possible. If you can work on your own home, great, do that, if you can’t, then ask friends if you can help them with their decorating projects. If you love it, you’ll find the time to spend time doing what you love, it shouldn’t feel like a chore. In reality, you can ask to get paid for your time straight away, even an assistant would get paid to swap time for money, so there’s no reason why you can’t earn money on the side right now doing what you love. The reality is that most people don’t feel confident charging people until they feel they are “professional” and so that’s where the complexity starts. If you can get over that hurdle, you can become an interior decorator today as many designers get into the field just with passion and an eagerness to create (in fact I’d say that’s the only prerequisite you need) #starttoday #findaproject my friend :-)

  3. Avatar of Jo Chrobak

    Pleasure Jennifer!!

  4. Avatar of Jennifer L Brimley

    Thank you for clarifying what each job entails. I was so confused.

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