Can I Become An Interior Designer Without a Degree?

Interior designers working in front of a laptop
Interior design can be a fascinating field in which you can combine your creativity with business skills to create beautiful, functional spaces. As the industry continues to grow and the outlook is optimistic, this is an excellent time to begin a career in interior design.

In the United States, the rules and laws governing practicing as an interior designer vary from state to state. In this article, we give you an overview of the educational, licensing and certification requirements, but you will need to do some research on the laws in the state in which you plan to practice.

What You Need to Know About Becoming an Interior Designer

Being an interior designer is more than just designing interior spaces. It is a science as much as it is an art, requiring you to deal with issues such as building plans, codes, regulatory requirements and sustainability. As a result, being an interior designer requires certain skills, knowledge and education in related areas such as architecture and technology.

Interior designers work closely with architects to create designs and space plans that go beyond simply selecting pretty furniture. Unlike architects, who must have a four-year or higher degree from an institution accredited by the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB) and be licensed through the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB), interior designers do not necessarily need specific education or certifications to bill themselves as one. Each state has its own laws, with more than 20 states requiring a state-issued license.

How Long Does It Take to Become an Interior Designer?

It depends on the degree you wish to pursue, but at least two years, which is the amount of time it takes to get an associate degree in interior design. If you decide to become certified by taking the NCIDQ exam, which is discussed below, you will need at least three years of full-time work experience if you have an associate degree. But if you already have a bachelor’s degree, which requires four years’ study, you need only two years of experience to quality for the exam. As a result, the average amount of time it takes to become an interior design is five to six years, when you add together the years of formal studies and on-the-job learning.

What Education Do I Need?

If you want to sit for the NCIDQ Exam, you need to have at least an associate degree in design, and will have to work full-time in the field for three years. If you have a bachelor’s degree from a program approved by the Council for Interior Design Accreditation (CIDA), you will only need two full-time years of work experience.  

There are many interior design programs, ranging from the associate to the doctoral level. Associate degrees include Associate of Applied Science, Associates of Art and Associate of Science. In the first year, students learn basic skills such as drawing and drafting, both hand and digital, and the fundamentals of design. The second year includes specialized topics such as color theory, lighting, furniture history, and introductory business and marketing.

A B.A. program builds on the skills learned on an associate level, adding skills that include the aesthetic, technical and business aspects of interior design. They include drafting, 3D imaging, space planning, project management and business development. Students who earn their B.A. in interior design quality for entry-level positions at design firms.

Once you have completed the education and experience requirements, you can apply to take all three parts of the NCIDQ Exam.

Can I Get an Interior Design Degree Online?

There are different reasons for pursuing an interior design degree online. Especially now, while the COVID-19 virus is still a threat, many people are fearful of being physically present on campus. The good news is that it is possible to earn an associate or bachelor’s degree on line.

Earning your degree in interior design requires a commitment of time. Some schools offer regularly scheduled lectures and student forums, while others allow students to participate in classes and activities on their own schedule. Before you commit to a program, make sure it is accredited by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design, the Council for Interior Design Accreditation or the National Kitchen and Bath Association. It is also important to find out whether the degree you earn will quality you for the NCIDQ certification exam.

Having a degree, regardless of whether you earn it by attending school in person or taking classes online, can help in getting a good job and be appealing to potential clients. It will also enable you to sit for the NCIDQ exam.

But perhaps most important, having a degree will give you the necessary skills and gain the education to excel as an interior designer.

Do I Need a License to Become an Interior Designer?

In general, certification and licensing are not required to work as an interior designer. Each state has its own laws, with some states distinguishing between the type of work an interior designer does. Most states allow interior designers to do residential work without a license. But some states require licensing for work in commercial buildings, which requires proficiency in building codes, construction and local laws. Passing the NCIDQ exam validates those skills.

Do I Need Certification?

While licensing is not necessary, roughly half of the states allow interior designers to become certified or registered. This gives them a way to demonstrate their proficiency, knowledge and education, and can possibly lead to better job opportunities. In some states, certification allows them to sign and seal interior design documents which may be necessary to obtain a building permit.

It is not necessary for you to be certified by the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID). However, many interior designers choose to be certified by passing the exam given by the National Council of Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ), which tests the designer’s knowledge of building systems, safety codes, and construction standards.  If you decide to take this test, you must meet specific requirements in education and experience in addition to what your state may require. The NCIDQ Certificate must be renewed every two years. Renewal requires between 6 and 12 hours of continuing education (CE) annually. 

If you want to become an interior designer, the first thing you should do is research the requirements of the state in which you would like to practice. For example, in California, anyone can call him- or herself and interior designer; “Certified Interior Designer” is the only legal title for interior designers.

In New York State, you can be licensed as an interior design based on a combination of work experience and education, which is at least two but no more than five years of post-secondary education in an approved program of interior design, including an associate degree or its equivalent.

Even if you find there are no specific requirements in your state, you are more likely to land a good interior design job, earn higher wagers, and be more attractive to potential clients if you have at least an associate degree, two to three years of experience and have a current NCIDQ Certificate.

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