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Interior Design Programs
How to Choose the Right One

modern interior designed office meeting roomCongratulations on your decision to earn an interior design degree.  However, choosing the right college might seem like a daunting process.  Yes, if you have an artistic flair for decorating and room arrangement and design, then a career as an interior designer is a rewarding way to put your talents to work.  But before you can start soliciting clients, you must receive the proper education, and in many states licensing as well.  In order to achieve that goal, you must research and evaluate each school that you are considering thoroughly so that you can make an informed decision before making your selection.  Choosing a school solely based on its proximity to your home, or the cost of tuition, is not the best way to pick the right school.  Although these are important factors in the evaluation process, they are not the only ones and there are others that you must take into consideration as well.  So before we discuss just what those factors are, let’s take a look at what interior design actually is, and what degree and study options are available.

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What is Interior Design?

interior designed living room with pianoFirst of all, there is a difference between interior design and interior decoration.  The biggest difference is in the education.  Anyone who has a flare for decorating can become an interior decorator with no degree or formal training.  An interior designer, on the other hand, must have an accredited degree, either an Associate’s or a Bachelor’s, and in many states must be licensed.   They are trained to create living or working environments that are both functional and aesthetically appealing.  They can collaborate with architects, engineers and even building contractors.  Interior designers can specialize in one or both of the following areas:

Residential Interior Design.  Designers work with homeowners on existing or new homes.  They design living spaces such as kitchens, family rooms, or even closets.  Some may even specialize in a certain area of the home, for instance bathrooms.

Commercial Interior Design.  Designers work in public spaces, such as for businesses or government buildings.  Offices, reception areas, and meeting rooms are some of the potential areas for design.  Functionality is a prime consideration when working with such businesses as hospitals, restaurants or banks.

Interior designers need the education to work with many facets of residential and commercial design, such as architecture, furniture, lighting, and materials.  From creating their vision using graphic design to choosing paint colors and window treatments, interior designers have a broad spectrum of skills that contribute to the final design of their projects.

Interior Designer Degree Options

interior designed kitchen with hanging lightsObtaining a degree in interior design is an important first step towards your new career.  There are several options available depending on the amount of time and investment that you are willing to make.  But regardless of the degree program selected, you must choose one that is accredited in order to be eligible to take the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) examination required in some states.  There are some additional benefits to enrolling in an accredited program which we will cover later.  Following are some brief descriptions of the degree programs available for interior designers.

  • Associate Degrees. Associate degree programs generally take 2 years to complete and provide the minimum level of education necessary to enter the field.  Students who have earned an associate degree in interior design may be qualified for a position as a design assistant for some private studios, building contractors or architectural firms.
  • Bachelor’s Degrees. A bachelor’s degree is really the minimum credential a graduating student must have in order to qualify for an entry level interior designer position.  It is a four year program that is more in depth than the associate degree program, covering the technical, creative and business facets needed to become a designer.
  • Master’s Degrees. Master’s degree programs provide advanced training in design and offer options for specialization, such as bath or kitchen design.  These 2 year programs are for those who want to expand their skills or add a specialty to their resume.
  • Doctoral Degrees. Doctorate degree programs are primarily for those who wish to teach interior design at a college or university.  The length of the program varies, but generally can take anywhere from 3 to 5 years to complete.

As we mentioned previously, many states require licensing before a graduate can use the title of interior designer.  And depending on their certification requirements, two or more years of professional experience may have to be attained before a graduate can sit for the licensing exam.

Interior Design Online Programs

woman taking interior design classes onlineThere are many accredited interior design degree programs available online that provide alternatives to attending school on campus.  Classes can instead be attended on your computer from the comfort of your own home.  The online courses make it more convenient to attend school while still fulfilling your work and family obligations.  Distance learning, as online learning is also called, may help reduce the total cost of your education by lowering tuition and other ancillary expenses, such as for commuting.  And the Council for Interior Design Accreditation (CIDA), as well as other accrediting organizations, accredits many online programs that meet their rigorous standards.   So if you have the discipline and the motivation to apply yourself and learn from home, an online interior design school may be the right choice for you.

Interior Design Program Checklist

Once you have decided which interior design degree to pursue, and if you want to enroll in an online school or attend classes on campus, you can use the following checklist to further evaluate your options.  There are a large number of interior designer schools and colleges throughout the United States, so it’s important that you narrow down your choices so that you can make your final selection.  As we mentioned in the opening paragraph, the cost of tuition and location are important considerations when reviewing available schools.  However, choosing a school just because it is the cheapest or the closest to your home is not the best way to make your decision.  There are additional factors that must be taken into consideration to ensure that you enroll in the right college.  After all, your ultimate goal is become a highly skilled and professional interior designer, not to be a graduate of any old school.  So use the following checklist to refine your options and choose a school that offers the best opportunity to help you succeed.

Is the Interior Design School and Program Accredited?  Most interior designer colleges and programs have earned either a regional or a national accreditation, or both.  One of the most highly regarded accrediting agencies in this field is the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD).  Colleges receiving accreditation from the NASAD have gone through a comprehensive screening of their curriculum and instructors.  Online schools may also receive accreditation from the Distance Education and Training Council, which focuses on distance or online learning.  Make sure that the degree program as well as the school is accredited by a U.S. Department of Education recognized accrediting organization.  In addition to helping ensure that you receive a quality education, it may assist in securing financial aid or student loans, which are often not available for non-accredited schools.

Does the Design School Prepare you for Licensing?  Licensing requirements for interior designers vary from state to state.  In many states, a passing score is required on the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) exam as well as degree from an accredited school.  Some states also require a certain number of years of professional experience as well.  It’s important that the school you will be attending not only provide an excellent education, but also helps you to meet the minimum licensing standards for the state where you will be working and to pass the NCIDQ exam.

What are the Graduation and Job Placement Rates?  It’s important that you find out from the design schools you are considering what their graduation and job placement rates are.  Also, find out how long on average it takes students to complete their programs.  A low graduation rate may mean that students dropped out due to dissatisfaction with the program.  It may also mean that the instructors were incapable of teaching the curriculum.  It’s also important that the schools’ job assistance programs have high placement rates.   A high rate will not only confirm that the school has a good reputation within the field, but that it also has the network of contacts to help students obtain internships or employment upon graduation.

Is Financial Assistance Offered?  Many interior design colleges offer financial aid or assistance to their students.  Be sure to contact the financial aid department of the schools you are considering to find out what options are available.  Some schools offer scholarships, while others will provide help in obtaining federal student loans or grants.  So if a school that you are interested in has a tuition that is higher than your budget limit, check to find out what financial resources are available first before making a final decision.

What are the Class Sizes?  It’s important that you receive as much personal attention from the instructors as possible.  If the classes are large, you may receive little, or no, one-on-one instruction.  Find out if you can sit-in on some classes so that you can see first-hand the interaction between teachers and students.  Talk to some of the students and find out what their experience has been.  Finally, meet with some of the instructors and find out what their levels of expertise and experience are and what degrees they hold.

Does the Design College provide Flexible Scheduling?  Our last item on the checklist is to find out if the interior design schools offer flexible class scheduling.  If you can only attend classes on weekends or in the evenings, then only consider schools that offer night and weekend classes.  If a school requires a full-time schedule and you can only attend part-time, then cross that school off your list.  Finally, find out if you can make up classes that you may miss due to work, illness or family emergencies.

Learn More About How to Become an Interior Designer

Enroll in the Right Interior Design College

Enrolling in the right interior design program is an important first step to starting your career in this rewarding and growing field.   As we discussed in this article, it’s important that you choose a design school and a degree program that are both accredited and that have excellent reputations.  By asking the questions provided in our checklist, you will be able to narrow down your school options so that you can make your final choice.  And with the right education, combined with your discipline and dedication, you can achieve your goal to become a licensed interior designer.