Tips on Choosing an Interior Designer or Decorator ---Is There Any Difference?

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It depends on where you live, who you ask, and what you’re looking for, according to Cliff Welles, ASID of Design Advantage, Inc in Florida. Some use the terms Interior Designer and Interior Decorator interchangeably. However, in general, Designers tend to produce more drawn information and plans, whereas Decorators are more associated with personal presentations to clients on space planning, furnishings, palette, and finishes, often (but not always) in residential settings, sometimes including drawings. Clearly, there is a broad area of overlap.

Residential design professionals often work with clients right in their own homes.

Welles, who has been a NCIDQ-certified residential interior designer and a business coach for dozens of decorators and designers for almost 20 years explains the difference for consumers. ‘Interior design’ is a multi–faceted profession whereby creative and technical solutions are applied within a structure to enhance interior environments. Clients are often corporate committees or executive boards, but can also be homeowners.

‘Interior decoration’ can also be complex, depending upon the size and variety of building interiors to be considered. Many accomplished interior decorators have some form of interior design training, up to and including a degree, but because of state regulation, local habits, or a preference for residential design work, consider themselves to be ‘decorators’.

Interior decorating typically involves space planning, color palette, floor and wall surfaces, window treatments, furniture, accessories, and lighting—particularly for residential applications. It also incorporates elements of functionality and utility, as well as aesthetics.

Thus, residential designers and decorators often are involved with selling appropriate style and home furnishings rather than specifications and drawn plans for commercial spaces. The career focus is largely a matter of preference or interest, as is the nomenclature (unless regulated by the state).

Can a decorator do residential interior design? And vice-versa? Absolutely. With the broad overlap, it happens all the time. The practitioner needs mainly to be conversant with local rules and regulations.

Currently, only three states in the US regulate the practice of ‘interior design’, although several have ‘title acts’ covering who can refer to or advertise themselves as 'registered' or 'certified' interior designers—but those titling laws are completely voluntary and do not limit anyone's ability to work as an interior designer. The most aggressively regulated state, Florida, has been undergoing a pitched battle between ‘registered interior designers’ and everyone else in the design field for years—both in the Courts and in the Legislature—over ‘who can do what’ in commercial design.

Florida’s title act was thrown out on the basis of freedom of speech in 2009. Now, if you practice interior design in non-commercial space in Florida, you are an ‘interior designer’, as in most states.

In a deregulated environment, design practitioners—whether experienced through job training, or formally educated—can seek work expressing their talent and creativity through a small businesses by joining an established firm with upward mobility. Or, they can choose to rise in the field through a franchise training and support system such as Decorating Den Interiors. Or, they may choose to start their own business, building from scratch.

Homeowners are encouraged to seek out experience, competence, and personal compatibility to find the best design practitioner for themselves through webs searches, referrals, portfolio review, and personal interview—regardless of the nomenclature each professional applies to themselves.

Learn about the Three Main Ways to Become a Design Professional here.

Welles and his partner, Judy Underwood, Allied ASID, have been Florida regional directors for Decorating Den Interiors for 20 years. They have been named 2011 Business Owner of the Year for the 400+ franchise system, for which they are both frequent trainers.

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Cliff Welles, ASID/NCIDQ
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