An Introduction to Interior Design Schools

by W. Randy Hoffman
An Introduction to Interior Design Schools

A discussion of education and career choices for interior designers.

Do you enjoy TV shows such as "Trading Spaces," "Surprised by Design," or at least half of the HGTV network schedule? When you visit a friend's house for the first time, do you find yourself thinking about how the furnishings could be improved or better positioned? In a cathedral or museum, do the room spaces interest you as much as the art they contain? If so, you might make a good interior designer. You can get a wide variety of interior design training from many institutions; if you do well, the continuing strong demand for professional interior-design services virtually assures you a rewarding career.

For most of the world's history, interior design was reserved for large public buildings and the dwellings (in life and in death) of the extremely wealthy and powerful: palaces, temples, tombs, and the like. "Ordinary people" hardly had the resources to survive, much less beautify the places where they lived. But when a middle class began to emerge during the early Renaissance, interior design spread to the masses; designers have been improving the look, feel, and usefulness of even the smallest of homes and other buildings ever since.

Interior design is about more than ornamentation; it's about creating a total environment inside a building or vehicle that best allows or induces people to do the things that the building is meant for. Sculptures, computers, and drill presses can be designed without being overly concerned about where they'll be placed, what other things will be nearby, or what people will be doing in their vicinity besides using/appreciating them. That's decidedly not the case for interiors. Interiors are inhabited; they are art that people live, work, and play in. Because they involve such complex webs of interaction between space, objects, and human needs and behaviors, designing interiors can require much more consideration and planning than other design types.

You can learn interior design at several types of schools:

Choosing an interior-design program is very much like choosing any other type of educational program. But in addition to considering class sizes and the locations, costs, lengths, and types of programs, as you would in other fields, you should investigate the facilities of any campus-based interior-design program: How good is their design studio, and the computer hardware and software you'll use for design work?

Also, what are the qualifications of their faculty? Does the program have relationships with architectural or interior-design firms that will help you get real-world experience as a student? You'll probably want to attend a program accredited by the Council for Interior Design Accreditation (CIDA), (formerly known as FIDER), which has been holding schools in North America to a single standard for interior design education since 1970.

And perhaps the most important question: What percentage of the program's graduates have historically gone on to successful careers as professional interior designers?

Here are some of the different subjects you might learn if you study interior design:

  • Drawing, drafting, and perspective are vitally important; you'll need to be able to draw what you're designing, and to translate loose architectural drawings into realistic scale representations, in order to make sure that a design will work before you actually try to install it. Computer-aided design (CAD) makes producing and working with 2D and 3D drawings much easier, and is an essential tool in the modern design industry. Learning modeling will help you to turn your drawings into those scale-model site plans that companies love to put under glass in the front lobby.
  • The history of art and the history of interiors will teach you to recognize and selectively use styles and designs that have been used in previous years (and centuries).
  • Form and space might seem basic, but it takes training to perceive some of the ways that they influence how people see their environment and use the things in it.
  • You need to know the properties of materials: not only how they hold weight or hold paint, but also the temperatures at which they burn, the gases they release when they burn, whether they reflect or absorb sound, and more.
  • Learning concept presentation is a good idea, because you'll have to use oral descriptions and written proposals to persuade your clients that your visual ideas are their best options.
  • To actually build or install your designs, you'd better know construction, construction documents, and building codes.
  • You can accessorize nicely if you have a good grasp of textiles (woven goods such as linens, carpeting, and tapestry) and furniture design.
  • If you plan to incorporate living plants into your interiors, you should study gardens or horticulture.
  • Ergonomics, the study of reducing the stress of positioning and moving the human body, will help you to make safer interiors that seem easier and more natural to use.
  • The Oriental design philosophy of feng shui, which tries to balance and harmonize the flow of "life energy" through interiors and their occupants, is currently popular and can often prove useful even in the most Western of settings.
  • Not all projects involve designing new interiors from scratch, so you'll need to know the special requirements of additions, the preservation and restoration of older spaces you want to keep, and the renovation and reuse of older spaces you want to make over.
  • If you hope to be a partner in or proprietor of an interior-design firm, you should take business courses.

Which brings us to what happens after you graduate.

Interior designers have terrific employment opportunities with architectural firms, corporations, industrial concerns, retail stores and chains, government agencies, and many other companies. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics expects employment for designers to grow 19% through 2018, although competition for positions will be keen. However, even if job competition is high, people who have been trained in interior design are better suited than those in many other occupations to create or partner in their own businesses. The BLS notes that "[t]hree out of 10 designers are self-employed—almost 5 times the proportion for all professional and related occupations." Here are some of the career specialties that an education in interior design can prepare you for:

  • Interior decorators concentrate on the aesthetics of an inside space -- how the paint will look under various lighting, how the upholstery will feel, how the chairs will complement the carpeting, and so on. (By contrast, interior designers are concerned not only with aesthetics, but with such things as electrical and fire safety, usability, acoustics, and whether or not design elements meet specifications -- in short, how to make an inside space most fit for use by the people who live, work, or visit there.)
  • Residential interior designers plan and specify what goes into people's homes, focusing not only on finishes and materials, but on patterns of foot traffic, child safety, home security, the cabling and space demands of everything from refrigerators to home theaters and computer systems, and much more. Because a majority of home-construction spending goes toward renovations, and bathrooms and kitchens are the parts of homes that are renovated most frequently, some residential interior designers specialize further as kitchen and bath designers.
  • As opposed to working on private residences, commercial interior designers plan and design the insides of public buildings, including but not limited to hotels, restaurants, theaters, stores, malls, schools, churches, museums, libraries, office buildings, hospitals, and even prisons. Each type of building has specific design needs and limitations, so many commercial interior designers specialize in particular types.
  • Exhibit designers work with curators and preparators to design building installations -- including cases, pedestals, display tables, wall and lighting fixtures, entire galleries, etc. -- with an eye toward the harmonious display, lighting, and preservation of the exhibited items, as well as the flow of visitor traffic past or through the exhibits.
  • Rather than concentrating on the colors and functions of interior objects and surfaces, space planners creatively arrange spaces. Given the people and things and activity that a room or building must contain, a space planner's task is to make sure that those contents are situated so that the room or building remains as space-efficient and comfortable as possible.
  • Set designers work with production directors and art directors to design sets and backgrounds for stage productions, films, and live-action computer games to maximize the experience of the audience while staying within production budgets.
  • Lighting designers use lighting systems to make interior spaces more visually satisfying, keeping in mind their other design elements and the relevant energy, maintenance, and electrical-code issues.

To become officially licensed to practice interior design in many US states and Canadian provinces, you'll need to pass the certification exam offered by the National Council for Interior Design Qualifications (NCIDQ). Passing this exam is also a requirement for full or resistered membership in many professional interior-design organizations, including the International Interior Design Association (IIDA), Interior Designers of Canada (IDC), the Institute of Store Planners (ISP), and the world's largest such association, the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID). If you want to be a kitchen and bath designer, the National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA) offers its own set of certifications.

Interior design might not be a "vital pursuit." A lot of the world's people have managed to live without much of it for millenia, and continue to do so to this day. But it can be shown that people are generally healthier in, and more pleased with, well-designed homes; more productive in well-designed workspaces; more spiritually satisfied in well-designed places of worship; and so forth. By studying to become an interior designer, you'll be learning how to improve quality of life, not only for your clients, but for everyone who uses the interiors you make for them, over the interiors' entire term of service. That kind of impact is afforded to very few professions; why not make designs on it today?

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