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What is Interior Design?

The interior design industry is a complex and competitive industry which includes careers in residential, business and environmental design. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics , there were more than 57,000 interior designers employed in the United States in 2018, making an average annual salary of $59,120. The BLS reports that interior designers are expected to have a bachelor's degree for entry-level jobs, although some employers will accept associate degrees or specific interior design certification.

Interior designers are responsible for designing attractive and functional spaces inside a home or building. They must work within specific guidelines to determine what types of items, lighting and color schemes suit a given space. The role of a typical interior designer may include such tasks as:

  • Reviewing design plans
  • Interpreting client instructions and goals
  • Preparing a projected project timeline
  • Estimating project costs
  • Ordering items to create the commissioned space
  • Working within a specified design budget

Types of Interior Design Schools and Programs

Interior design schools introduce students to the fundamentals of design, architecture and color coordination so they can design and develop functional and attractive spaces. Many of today's successful interior designers work with advanced software programs and CAD to create working designs and blueprints for their designs. Most interior design schools train students in the latest technologies and software programs so that graduates are ready for employment immediately upon graduation.

1. Vocational Schools

Vocational or trade schools offering interior decorating programs introduce students to the fundamentals of space planning, computer aided design and color theory for both residential and commercial settings. According to Certified Interior Decorators International, most vocational schools offer only interior decorating certification rather than the more complex interior design certification or degree plans.

Students learn how to work with contractors, understand complex building codes and design specialized environments for a wide range of industries. Students may complete a CID certification program at a vocational school in preparation for an entry-level career in the field without the need for a college degree. Coursework typically ranges from 24 credit hours to 60 credit hours.

2. Art Schools

Students develop strong artistic abilities and general business management skills at art schools offering interior design programs. Art schools may offer interior design certification or associate degree programs. Many art schools offer design programs with a strong focus on using computer aided design and drafting (CADD) software, traditional art and design theory. Art schools may offer both online and offline programs. Coursework varies between 24 credit hours and 60 hours for interior design certifications and associate degrees, while four-year programs at art schools typically range in credit hours from 120 to 200.

3. Community Colleges

Community colleges offer associate degree programs in interior design to prepare students for entry-level careers in the industry. Classes may include basic design theory, architectural and furniture history, computer aided design (CAD) and color theory and application. Students may also create studio projects where they solve design-related problems using knowledge and skills they have learned in their coursework.

Some community colleges offer an Associate in Applied Science (AAS) degree or a Certificate of Completion (CCL) in interior design or interior merchandising. Associate programs typically take two years to complete with an average of 60 credit hours. Completing an associate program at a community college may help students transfer in to a university offering a bachelor's degree in interior design.

4. Four-Year Schools

Accredited four-year schools offering bachelor's degree programs in interior design strive to prepare students for work as an interior designer. A Bachelor of Arts in interior design or Bachelor of Fine Arts in interior design degree program typically provides training in the principles of design, computer applications, space planning and problem solving. These programs should be accredited by the Council for Interior Design Accreditation (CIDA). A portion of the program may involve hands-on training where students design a room or building according to specific guidelines and use advanced computer software programs. Some schools offer the opportunity to specialize specific areas of interior design, such as digital technology, historic preservation, sustainable design, retail floor design or corporate design. A bachelor's degree in interior design typically requires between 120 and 200 hours of coursework.

5. Special Schools

A few colleges and universities focus specifically on design. These colleges and universities are known for their high-quality interior design programs and specializations. In addition to offering standard coursework in interior design, these schools may host workshops and events with speakers, such as celebrity interior designers or successful interior designers, so that students can learn more about their future careers. Many schools have smaller class sizes so that students have direct access to their professors and can learn from mentors and other professionals. Specialized interior design schools often offer exclusive internships and apprenticeships with some of the top design firms across the nation.

Schools With the Best Interior Design Programs

An interior design school or program will allow students to enhance their creative skills while learning strategies to become an established professional in this field. To ensure that students enroll in a quality program, we have analyzed every on-campus and online interior design school and program in the country based on our methodology and compiled a ranked list of the best options for students. Learn more about the best interior design schools and programs below.

  1. Converse College

    Spartanburg, SC

    The interior design program at Converse College may be a great fit for prospective students who are naturally creative, self-motivating and business-minded individuals. By learning how to create and design spaces for public and private environments, students will be able to influence the experiences other people have in various environments. Students are required to complete a professional internship which will help them network with area professionals and build their resume and portfolio. Upon graduation, students will be awarded with their Bachelor of Fine Arts in Interior Design which may make them eligible to enter a career or continue their education through a graduate program.

  2. Salem College

    Winston-Salem, NC

    Salem College gives students the opportunity to study a career in design with concentrations in interior design, graphic design, and architecture. This program is a good choice for creative and motivated individuals who are interested in learning from trained professionals in the field. The classroom is designed to be a collaborative environment where students share ideas with peers and instructors and then receive feedback. Students are also encouraged to complete area-specific internships, complete specialized projects or study abroad in order to further develop their expertise in interior design.

  3. Marywood University

    Scranton, PA

    At Marywood University, students are able to pursue their Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Interior Architecture/Design. This four-year degree program teaches students the skills needed to create and design enjoyable spaces in various environments. Courses are taught by experienced professionals and are designed to cover basic information including aesthetic awareness along with theoretical and technical strategies. Upon successful program completion, students may be eligible for employment or can continue their education through Marywood University’s Master of Art in Interior Architecture/Design degree program.

  4. Maryville University of Saint Louis

    Saint Louis, MO

    College-bound students seeking to learn the area-specific skills needed to excel as an interior designer can pursue a BFA in Interior Design at Maryville University. This program was created with quality and proficiency in mind, so students receive a comprehensive education that fosters creativity, technical proficiency and aesthetic awareness. Upon graduation, many students become professional interior designers. St. Louis and the surrounding area is home to some of the most established interior design firms which allows for internships, guest speakers, experienced faculty, and networking and employment opportunities after graduation.

  5. Auburn University

    Auburn, AL

    Those interested in designing better spaces for clients may benefit from the interior design degree program at Auburn University. The Bachelor of Science in Interior Design degree program is accredited by the Council for Interior Design, which may ensure that students are receiving the necessary skills and information to become a professional in the field. Students can receive support from program alumni, the Interior Design Advisory Board with opportunities for internships, mentoring programs, sponsorships and hands-on projects with clients. Upon graduation, students may be eligible to work as interior designers for commercial, hospitality, and residential spaces along with other design specialties.

  6. Taylor University

    Upland, IN

  7. New York School of Interior Design

    New York City, NY

  8. Purdue University

    West Lafayette, IN

  9. Samford University

    Birmingham, AL

  10. Mississippi College

    Clinton, MS

Must-Have List: Choosing an Interior Design Program

Scheduling Flexibility

Look for interior design schools that offer flexibility with class schedules or the option to take some or all of your courses online. These programs can help you achieve your educational goals without compromising career or income.


Interior design programs should be accredited by the Council for Interior Design Accreditation (CIDA). Some programs are also accredited by industry organizations such as the National Kitchen and Bath Association and the National Association of Schools of Art and Design.

Apprenticeship Resources

Some employers may prefer to work with interior design school graduates that have completed an apprenticeship program prior to graduation. Look for schools that offer some assistance in finding or recommending apprenticeship programs for new grads.

Internship Opportunities

Some interior design schools have an internship component built into the program so that students can acquire valuable work experience before they graduate. You may be able to secure an internship working at an interior design firm, architectural firm or design company in your local area while attending school.

Studio Time

Many interior design programs include studio hours offering hands-on practice with CAD software programs, design blueprints and project completion in individual or group settings. Studio hours give students a chance to apply a variety of skills while working on specific projects.

Job Placement

Some schools, colleges and universities offer job placement assistance so that students can secure a job before graduation. Job placement can be valuable for new graduates entering the workforce and may open doors to other opportunities. Some schools work closely with local and regional interior design firms, architectural firms, independent designers and other design professionals to match up students with employers for entry-level jobs or specialized positions.

Interior Design Degrees and Certificates

According to the American Society of Interior Designers, at the minimum, most states require an associate degree or bachelor's degree in interior design. The ASID states that 26 states currently have licensing requirements before job seekers are allowed to call themselves an interior designer. Many of these states require interior designers pass the National Council for Interior Design Qualification exam before becoming listed as an interior designer. The ASID recommends that students complete at minimum, a four-year program of study in interior design before entering the field.

Degrees and Certificates
Degree-Level Program Length Credit Hours
Certificate 3 to 18 months (typically completed in addition to a four-year degree program) 24 - 30
Associate 24 to 36 months 60
Bachelor's 48 to 60 months 120 - 200

Interior Design Toolbox/Checklist

According to the American Academy of Interior Designers, one of the best educational career moves an interior design school student can make is to complete an apprenticeship or internship before applying for a full-time career. The AAID states that employers look for students who have completed an accredited program and have a strong portfolio of past projects. Even though schools may offer studio or portfolio development courses, hands-on training with a design firm or other design professionals is usually an invaluable asset to the student. Here are some essentials for any interior design school student:


Students completing an interior design program learn a variety of skills related to design, color theory, planning, communications and business management. Basic training programs usually cover concepts such as design theory, space planning and design software. Students develop strong artistic, technical, interpersonal and creative skills to design different types of spaces.

Essential Interior Design Software

Students will benefit from proficiency in a variety of standard computer and design programs including: Adobe Suite (PhotoShop CS, Illustrator CS, Indesign CS, Acrobat 9 Pro and Premiere Pro CS), Autodesk (AutoCAD 64-bit, Revit and 3D StudioMax), AutoDesSys (bonzai3d SE and form7), Bentley (MicroStation V8i), Google SketchUp Pro, Material Connexion and Microsoft Office. Students will need access to a computer that can run these programs with ease.

Internships and Apprenticeships

Completing an internship or apprenticeship program during school or immediately after graduation can provide students with invaluable work experience for their future careers. Internships can give students a chance to build work history, develop professional contacts and populate their resume with projects and references. Completing an apprenticeship program is proof of work in the field and can also give the apprentice access to industry professionals and mentors.


Students who already have a Bachelor of Arts degree in a related field may consider completing a certificate program to supplement their degree. Certification in interior design can introduce students to basic concepts and applications of interior design principles that they can use throughout their careers. Respected interior design certifications include:

  • LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.
  • Certified Interior Decorator (CID) from Certified Interior Decorators International.
  • NCIDQ (National Council for Interior Design Qualification) certification from the Council for Interior Design Qualification.


Obtaining an interior design licenses is not required but can be an attractive addition to a graduate's resume. Students will need to pass the National Council for Interior Design (NCIDQ) exam on their own time to become a licensed interior designer.

Interior Design Industry Snapshot

Employment of interior designers is expected to grow 4.5% percent through 2026.

The American Society of Interior Designers projected that total industry sales would generate more than $10 billion in 2019. The BLS shows the highest concentration of interior designers are employed at specialized design firms, in small businesses serving a variety of clients or for specific industry segments, including architectural firms, engineering companies and other service industries.

Additional certifications are available for interior designers. To be certified, students must pass a test given by the National Council for Interior Design. Creative workshops can be a valuable addition to any interior design educational track as they give students a chance to exhibit designs and develop a strong design portfolio.

Specializations Within Interior Design

Interior designers work on enhancing the quality, function and aesthetics of a residential or commercial space. Designers often specialize in a specific area of design, such as the specializations listed below:

  • Residential Interior Designers

    The majority of interior designers work in the residential sector where they are responsible for designing and decorating living spaces. Residential designers may work closely with architects, builders and home decor specialists to create the ideal living environment for a client.
  • Corporate Interior Designers

    Corporate interior designers are responsible for creating practical, functional and efficient workspaces for a company or firm. They may work with a team of designers, architects, builders and engineers to create the ideal workspace for a variety of business industries. They may be responsible for choosing a theme and working with office floor layouts to create a productive work environment.
  • Retail Store Designers

    Many retailers work with interior designers to create attractive and inviting retail spaces. Interior designers may work closely with merchandising specialists, store managers, product buyers and other retail specialists to ensure the aesthetics of the space accommodate different store themes, merchandise and decor.
  • Stage and Set Designers

    Interior stage and set designers work on television sets and performance stages in order to create realistic-looking living spaces, rooms or other sets. Interior designers interested in working in the film, television and theatre industries may start as a set designer or decorator.
  • Kitchen and Bath Designers

    Kitchen and bath design specialists are typically responsible for working on kitchen and bath spaces to create attractive environments using the right types of fixtures, appliances, cabinetry, lighting, decor and electrical solutions to create inviting and functional bathrooms and kitchens.

Interview with an Interior Designer

Melissa Coufal

Melissa Coufal is a student at San Diego State University planning to complete her bachelor's degree in interior design in May 2015. She made the switch from real estate to interior design when she discovered her passion for designing interior spaces.

Q. What type of degree program are you completing this year?

I am earning my Bachelor's Degree form the School of Art, Design, and Art History at San Diego State University.

Q. What inspired you to pursue this program?

Prior to starting the program at SDSU, I was working as a real estate agent. What I enjoyed most about that career was being able to see the interiors of many homes and I would often think about the potential of a space or how I would design it differently. I started seeing interiors as a three-dimensional blank canvas that I could do anything with. In my decision to return to college, I knew that interior design was the right path for me.

Q. What do you like most about your program?

The program at SDSU is small, which allows for quality one-on-one time with the professors. It is a very rigorous program and having that accessibility to our instructors is important for success. As far as the content of the program, I love how the practice of interior design requires individuals to equally explore both the creative and analytical sides of the brain. The idea of starting with a concept that later develops into a space that people live and exist in fascinates me. I think of it as functional art.

Q. What has been your biggest challenge with the interior design program?

My biggest challenge has been making sure I stay inspired. Because of the copious amount of work that is required for every project, it was so easy to get caught up in the deadline to finish everything on time. I would get so stressed that I would sometimes lose sight of why I love design in the first place. As I progressed through the program and became more familiar with the process, I made sure to remember that I am designing for people to make their living and working experiences more enjoyable, and that staying inspired is what separates a good design from a bad one.

Q. Do you plan on taking additional courses, certification programs or earning another degree in this field?

I am interested in getting my LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certification through the U.S. Green Building Council. Sustainability and design are closely connected and I feel it's important as a future interior designer to be knowledgeable about environmentally responsible design solutions and to constantly re-evaluate the ways in which we interact with our built environment.

Q. What types of jobs or career paths are you exploring after graduation?

I would love to work in commercial design. I enjoy designing public spaces that bring community together. Working at a small architecture firm would be ideal because I feel I thrive better in an environment where I can have closer interactions and collaborations with co-workers.

After Interior Design School: What's Next

Students who have successfully completed an associate degree, bachelor's degree or advanced degree at an interior design school can explore apprenticeships for hands-on training, or enter the workforce as an interior designer or assistant interior designer.

Those who already have some work experience and an advanced degree may consider teaching positions at an educational institution or leadership positions at a design company. Continuing education courses in a particular field and specialization related to interior design, such as textile design, graphic design and furniture design, can help professionals stay competitive and advance in their careers.

Career Salary Potential
Job Title Annual Mean Salary Hourly Mean No. Employed Growth Minimum education
Interior Designer $59,120 $28.42 57,070 4.5% Postsecondary certification
Commercial and Industrial Designers $71,430 $34.34 33,200 4.3% Postsecondary certification

Interior Designer: Discuss wants and needs of clients, including budget. Prepare and present design ideas to clients. Research and locate specific materials, including furnishings, paint, tile and more for a project. Keep abreast of project and update client. Ensure finished product is acceptable to client.

Commercial and Industrial Designers: Consult with clients and conduct research to develop and design industrial spaces and workspaces to fully optimize space. Consider and work with space limitations and challenges. Research and suggest building materials and analyze costs. Prepare and present designs to client in a way that can be understood.

Advice from an Interior Designer

Know that this program is very demanding! Effective time management will be your best advocate for success. When choosing a program, look at the size of the classes because your professors will be your greatest resource. Architecture is becoming more relevant to the interior design industry; we aren't just simply decorators. Research how prominent architecture is incorporated into the program because even a basic education in that capacity will make you a better candidate when entering the professional field.

Melissa Coufal , Interior Design student at SDSU

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