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What’s The Difference Between An Interior Architect And An Interior Designer?

I’ve meant to write this post about the difference between an interior architect and an interior designer for a long time. However, I was afraid to write it …

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What’s The Difference Between An Interior Architect And An Interior Designer?

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Table Of Contents

I've meant to write this post about the difference between an interior architect and an interior designer for a long time. However, I was afraid to write it (and still am) because it meant having a different opinion from the big voices in the industry, like the wealthy universities, the bureaucratic governments and the misguided regulatory bodies.

But this information needs to be made clear to aspiring interior designers, architects and the general public who regularly recruit the work of these excellent construction professionals to ensure everyone has a choice based on accurate information.

What Is An Interior Architect?

Let's start with the difference between an interior architect and an interior designer with the definition of an interior architect. What is it? You may be surprised to know that as a qualification, an "interior architect" doesn't necessarily exist. For this reason, the only definition we can currently give, as the title architect is used in the name, is; "a registered/qualified architect that specialises in interior spaces".

This is the only definition you should use because it is an offence to call yourself an architect* in any capacity unless you're licensed or registered with the required regulatory board in your location.

* In most locations around the world, there are laws prohibiting you from calling yourself an architect or undertaking the work of an architect when the work relates to the built environment. (I have written a little more about title acts regarding interior designers in this post Quiz | How To Become An Interior Designer. This is why you'll see "software architects" able to use the title architect because they're not in the construction industry. They're designing software systems, not buildings. The same goes for naval architects, golf course architects and landscape architects.

Difference Between An Interior Architect And An Interior Designer Errors

Ahh, the internet. It gives everyone a voice, and we all know this is equally as fantastic as it is wild. I've read blog posts and supposedly reputable articles and seen YouTube videos of people calling themselves interior architects and attempting to explain the difference between an interior architect and an interior designer, but in almost all cases, they're gravely mistaken and making outrageous claims.

Claims Of What Is The Difference Between An Interior Architect And An Interior Designer From Erroneous Sources:

  • Software knowledge, e.g. hand drawing vs CAD drawing
  • BIM software
  • Refurbishing interiors over spatial planning
  • Using architectural knowledge vs the principles of design
  • Structural design vs creating interior atmospheres
  • Adaptive reuse vs finishes, furniture and colour palettes
  • Knowledge of building codes
  • Registration vs anyone doing the job

Please note that the above list does NOT explain the difference between an interior architect and an interior designer. It is absolute nonsense.

The main difference between an interior architect and an interior designer is that one is an architect, and the other is not. As anyone can call themselves an interior designer in most places worldwide, this is the most crucial difference. Both architects and interior designers can use software, so software and communication are not the difference between an interior architect and an interior designer. Both architects and interior designers specify finishes and can work on adaptive reuse projects, so that's nonsense, too.

However, I appreciate that this isn't particularly helpful for those of you considering whether you want a career in interior architecture, interior design or architecture or for those of you wondering whether you need to hire an architect, interior designer, or decorator, so if you want to know the specific differences, I go into great detail on the topic in this post: Interior Designer, Interior Stylist, Interior Decorator, Interior Architect. What’s the difference?

The next most important difference between an interior architect and an interior designer is the scope of work and responsibility/liability of the work taken on. Architects (or interior architects) are building experts who specialise in interiors, so they should be able to do anything from spatial planning to all types of design, from the specification of the beams to the hinges on the kitchen cupboard doors. An interior designer will likely provide services that hover around a set of talents ranging in scope from full-service design (which might also include hiring an architect and separate project manager) or be as simple as one-room E-Designs. And in my eyes, that's what is so wonderful about being an interior designer. We're all very different!

Search "What's the difference between an interior architect and an interior designer" online. You'll get many results from universities describing their interpretation relating to their specific courses, which is not necessarily correct!

This is confusing and frustrating for everyone because, firstly, we trust them, and secondly, universities describe what their degrees and courses provide, but not the job role of an interior architect (because you can't call yourself one by taking their degree). So if you're thinking about becoming an interior architect, you're being sold an important-sounding interior design course (which is also not required in order to become an interior designer!**)

** If you'd like to read more about the best course to do to become an interior designer, check out this post: What’s The Best Course To Do To Become An Interior Designer?

The Difference Between An Interior Architect's And An Interior Designer's Degrees

Neither interior design nor interior architecture degrees are a requirement for becoming a professional interior designer (in most places around the world*), but getting a degree can be helpful, especially if you're straight out of school or are at the beginning of your career. I loved doing my architecture degrees because I was straight out of school, had energy, and was willing to work late nights and learn everything I could, but would I have the same opinion now? No. I'd absolutely resent every part of it because with a child and mortgage, I'm limited for time, I can't study all night like I used to, and I have so many more responsibilities and limited freedom.

Dedicating all that time and money to a university degree would be a luxury for most people, especially if they’re transition into interiors later in life (which is the majority of practising interior designers***). Although institutions will make you believe they're the only solution, they're not the only path into interior design. You can read more about your options in this post: Becoming An Interior Designer – Should I Get A Job Or Work For Myself?

The Problem With Interior Architecture And Interior Design Degrees

In most cases, there is no difference between an interior architect and an interior designer degree; they're simply the same degree with a different name. Universities and regulatory bodies make you believe that your only choice is to take their degree even though it doesn't result in a qualification or a potential job.

In 2023, the UK government published a press release called "Crackdown on rip-off university degrees" aimed at courses like these that didn't provide a qualification. You can read about it here: Crackdown On Rip-Off University Degrees. Of course, interior architecture degrees are useful, but not for architects, only for interior designers who want to focus on the more technical aspects of interior design.

Why Interior Design And Architecture Should Stay Separate

The difference between an interior architect and an interior designer is that an interior designer is not an architect. This is a good thing. The architect designs the main elements of the building, including the overall mass, fenestrations, functionality and services. They complete the building in that it must function for the intended purpose after the works. They can if they want to go further to design the interior spaces, but it's unlikely! An interior designer is an additional service. Whether it's necessary or not is arguable, but demand is growing for interior designers every day, so it's definitely a desirable service that many see value in.

The scope of an interior designer can be as broad as dealing with every part of the interior (including the services and rearrangement of space if they have that skill) but predominantly focuses on the furniture, fittings, equipment and finishes. It can be more or less technical depending on the specific designer's abilities and skills, or it can be decorative depending on the situation. All are possible; none are lesser "quality", and everything has its place.

There are crossovers between the two professions, but they are separate professions. Institutions offering interior architecture degrees are riding off the back of this confusion and making money off of unknowing interior designers who will be the ones who will become upset when they can't call themselves architects or, worse, actually believe that they are qualified interior architects by simply doing an interior architecture degree. It's dangerous. If you were hoping to hire an architect but hired an interior designer thinking that they have the skills of an architect, then we can see how this can become a serious problem.

No interior designer requires a four-year degree. Of course, they can get one if they want a broader education on the topic. Still, assuming anyone can legally design their own home, we all know it's ludicrous to require a four-year degree for something that anyone can legally do themselves. We also know that many of the big names in interiors neither have a formal training or education in the field. I teach the ins and outs of the job role within four months of my mentorship (including building regulations, drawing in CAD, FF&E schedules and running projects and work experience).

I've completed over seven years of university study and worked in the industry on all types of projects, from commercial, industrial, luxury residential and retail, so I can tell you that no one needs four years of university to become an interior designer. As much as I loved doing my design degrees, I know they aren’t for everyone and definitely shouldn’t be forced on all.

Architecture is a well-defined industry. It's been a profession for thousands of years. Interior design, in comparison, is relatively new, having only really been around as a profession since the turn of the last century. Interior designers are trying to separate themselves from this "pillow plumper" vision, but interior designers should embrace it! Everyone always says, "Yes, we do that too", so why not just get the chip off the shoulder and accept that part of our job as an interior designer is explaining what we do? It's a new profession, and we're paving the way for it; each one of us is different, some of us pillow plump, embrace it.

There is no need to start referring yourself to architects to help "clarify" what you do. Help educate the world about interior design (without harassing the interior decorators because you think you’re better than they are). There is a BIG difference between an interior architect and an interior designer. Interior designers are not "like architects". They're interior designers. Let's help clarify what that is and know that the broader term that encompasses interior decorating and styling is better!

Why I'm Against Regulating The Interior Industry

So many bodies say that interior design needs to be regulated to protect the public from rogue interior designers. I have also written a post bout this here: These Types Of Interior Designers Are Dangerous. We all know that we don’t need four year degrees and a regulated industry to work as interior designers because we’re proving this already, but if you start to “blur the lines between interior design and architecture”, well then yes, four years starts to make sense, but you’re still either an over qualified interior designer or an underqualified architect.

Regulation of interior design requires defining an interior designer's specific role and scope. The wonderful thing about interior design is that it is broad. This is the beauty but also why designers feel frustrated, some people want that specificity. Those who want a specific role where regulatory sign-off is part of their job then become an architect. Your profession already exists; no need to create a new one!

Architecture is a technical art; it's specific, easily definable and easy to know if it's done right or wrong. Interior design, on the other hand, is more of an art. It's open, personal and flexible, and every interior designer can choose the services they want to provide depending on their knowledge and skill set. Yes, this can be both frustrating and exhilarating; either way, we must embrace this part of the profession rather than try making it something it isn't, such as "more like architecture than decorating" (which it isn't).

By limiting the definition of interior design, we limit the industry in multiple ways, further dividing interior decoration and styling (which are inherently part of interior design) and further alienating those who can and should be fantastic interior designers but are prohibited from entering the profession because they can't afford or cannot undertake a four-year degree in architecture (when all they want to do is design some living rooms!) If you want to design building services, go get the master of architecture degree and get registered as an architect. If you want to work in a large interior design firm working on commercial projects as part of a multidisciplinary design team alongside architects, get the interior design degree, but don't force it on the whole industry.

The Problems With The Title Interior Architect Vs Interior Designer

I want to end this post about the difference between an interior architect and an interior designer by explaining why I've written it. I feel it is necessary to expose this information to clarify things that people find confusing, especially as there is a lot of incorrect information regarding this topic. Also, the negative effect this misinformation has on the lives of the people who get tricked (and bullied) into doing expensive, unnecessary, four-year interior architecture degrees, feeling there was no other option when in reality, all they wanted to do was become an interior designer! Plus, some never follow their dream because they were made to believe that a four-year degree was their only option.

This is wrong, and it needs to be exposed. Not everyone needs to or should go to university to become an interior designer. The way I teach interiors is by using a hybrid online apprenticeship style of teaching. This means what I teach is practical and hands-on rather than exploratory, theoretical and academic. I provide you with skills, not just knowledge and get you drawing, sourcing, and working on projects as quickly as possible. Together, we use your past education, skills and knowledge to enhance and speed up the process of becoming an interior designer because you're not straight out of school needing to learn a broad range of skills to become a competent designer.

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Do you agree or disagree on my take on the difference between an interior architect and an interior designer? Do you think interior design needs a four year degree? Should we be creating a new profession called interior architecture that blurs the lines between architecture and interior design? Let me know in the comments.

*** In the United States, the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) reported in their 2020 Interior Design Salaries and Benefits Report that 57% of interior designers worked as sole proprietors or independent contractors. Furthermore, a study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that approximately 67% of interior designers were women as of 2020, indicating a significant presence of female professionals in the field. Similarly, in the United Kingdom, a study conducted by the Design Council found that 52% of all design businesses were sole practitioners, with interior design being one of the most common sectors for independent practice. Additionally, research by the Women in Architecture campaign highlighted that women over the age of 45 made up a substantial portion of self-employed architects and designers.

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 in London UK.
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