What’s the difference between interior designers and interior decorators?

A lot of people think the terms ‘interior designer’ and ‘interior decorator’ are interchangeable names for exactly the same profession. This isn’t the case though, and depending on the services you’re expecting, it might be pretty important that you know the difference.

The distinction between these two professions is arguably subtle, and you could definitely be excused for assuming they’re the same. There’s even a little confusion in parts of the industry about who should call themselves what…

Interior designer vs decorator 
As well as aesthetics, interior designers focus on layout, function and flow. Image by Earp Bros.

To set the record straight:

  • An interior designer holds a tertiary qualification in this discipline (typically a degree or advanced diploma in interior design) and is concerned with every aspect of the way in which interior spaces are laid out, allocated and used.
  • An interior decorator typically holds a qualification in interior decoration (normally a diploma), and is concerned with dressing an interior with things like paint, furnishings, floor coverings, and fabrics for aesthetic purposes.


What is an interior designer?

There are a lot of different aspects to building design. It’s not uncommon for an architect or building designer to be tasked with designing every single part of a house, but in many cases specialist designers (interior designers, landscape designers and specialist lighting designers, for example) will be employed to design particular bits of a home.

In the case of interior designers, this work is often done on a standalone basis, usually to improve on existing buildings rather than as a part of the initial design process. Ultimately, an interior designer’s role is to create functional, safe, efficient, comfortable and beautiful interior spaces that are fit for their purpose.

As we've already mentioned, interior designers normally hold a bachelors degree or advanced diploma in interior design. Interior designers study the theory and practice of design in considerable detail - some of the things they learn about include:

  • Lighting design
  • Materials, finishes and colour
  • Design theory and history
  • Building systems and technologies
  • Sustainable design/building practices
  • Design for accessibility and utility
  • Project management
  • Relevant Australian Codes and Standards

As well as designing and decorating building interiors (something they also do), interior designers normally have a good working knowledge of construction practices and documentation requirements, and can work confidently with other designers and tradespeople to ensure that the interior spaces they design are appropriate and properly implemented.

In Victoria, a few qualified interior designers are also registered with the Building Practitioners’ Board as Registered Building Practitioners (RBPs). This allows them to apply for Building Permits directly rather than through a builder, who would otherwise have to accept liability for the designer's drawings.


What is an interior architect?

Just to add to the confusion, many designers also refer to themselves as 'interior architects'. Interior architects are normally either trained architects who choose to specialise exclusively on interior projects, or graduates of an 'interior architecture' degree like that offered by Monash University through its Faculty of Architecture.


What is an interior decorator?

While interior decorators study and work on many of the same things as interior designers, their job typically doesn’t involve moving walls, installing services or planning for things like safety and utility. This is really the main difference - interior decorators are exclusively concerned with decorating what’s already been built.

Interior decorators are aesthetic specialists, and are likely to have diploma-level qualifications in their field.


What is an interior stylist?

It's a little murky, but 'interior stylist' is the generally accepted name for someone who does interior decoration without having any formal qualifications or education in this field. Interior stylists can be as talented, knowledgeable and professional as decorators, of course - but this is something you may need to judge based on their previous work and references.

Interior stylists are specialists at 'styling' interiors, and as such they're often employed by real estate agents to temporary style, furnish and decorate homes in preparation for their sale (this is called 'home staging'). Stylists may also specialise in styling and arranging interiors for magazine shoots.


How to find the right interior designers and decorators

It’s not hard to find interior designers and decorators, but if you’re keen to hire a talented and committed professional it’s worth doing your homework. To find a good designer or decorator, you should:

  1. Look for professionals whose prior work you like
  2. Get at least three comprehensive quotes – itemised quotes will help you to ensure you understand what you’re paying for
  3. Check credentials, qualifications and insurance – ensure you’re employing someone with the right qualifications, and with current professional indemnity insurance.
  4. Find someone who shares your vision – this can’t be stated strongly enough. Good communication with designers and decorators is vital.
  5. Check for membership of the Design Institute of Australia – while association membership isn’t necessary, it does indicate that an interior designer or interior decorator has the necessary qualifications and experience. DIA members also undertake continuing professional development (CPD) to ensure they’re up on the latest technologies and trends.

Looking for an interior designer, decorator or stylist? Use our Get Quotes page to get 3 free quotes from certified design professionals in your area.