Design Versus Decoration
Reality 17 years ago No Comments


contributed by Charlotte S. Jensen, FASID [Charlotte Jensen & Associates] 

Just what is the difference between interior design and decoration” A couple of years ago I conducted an informal survey asking people what they thought an interior designer did. One stated, “I don’t know what an interior designer does, but I think I know what an interior decorator does.” DesignvsDecoration.jpgAnother said, “[He or she] makes things look nice.” Journalists, and the public, often use the two terms interchangeably – interior designer and interior decorator. No wonder there is so much confusion about the interior design profession. For a while, I admit I even avoided telling people I was an interior designer. A typical conversation would go like this: “What do you do”” a stranger would ask. “I’m an interior designer,” I answered. “Oh, my wife is great with color.”

Many examples illustrate how confused the public is about the design professions. Frank Stasiowski, an author of numerous marketing and management books for architects and interior designers, has stated that the public does not even know what an architect does, let alone an interior designer. He states that the public knows that if they want a safe building, they should hire an engineer. If they want it to look nice, they might hire an architect. Remember, this is public perception, and perception becomes reality when people do not have correct information. If this is what the public thinks about architecture, can you imagine their perception of interior design and decoration” No wonder there is so much confusion – and shows like Designing Women don’t help matters much.

So, what is the difference between interior design and decoration” Webster’s Dictionary defines interior design as “the art or practice of planning and supervising the design and execution of architectural interiors and their furnishings.” However, under interior decoration it states, “See interior design.” Who wouldn’t be confused”

Interior design is not the same as decoration. If architecture is defined as the art and science of designing structures for human interaction (Webster’s), then interior design is the art and science of understanding people’s behavior in order to create functional spaces within the structures that architects design. Decoration is the furnishing or adorning of a space with fashionable or beautiful things. Decoration, although a valuable and important element of an interior, is not solely concerned with human interaction or human behavior. Interior design is all about human behavior and human interaction.

Lisa Whited, past president of the board of directors of the National Council for Interior Design Qualification [NCIDQ], believes that certified / registered / licensed interior designers may provide interior decorating services, but interior decorators are not qualified to provide interior design services (see chart below). One of the primary differences between the two professions is that interior designers are responsible for the elements that affect the public’s health, welfare and safety.

Designer Versus Decorator
The chart below, created by Lisa Whited, IIDA / ASID, illustrates one certified interior designer’s view of the difference between interior design and decoration.


Certified / Registered / Licensed Interior Designer

Interior Decorator

Furniture / casegoods

Evaluates aesthetics, finish durability, structural stability for usage, appropriateness of drawer glides, pulls and hinges used, appropriateness of horizontal surface material and if endangered species are used.

Selects style, finish and proportion based upon usage.

Window covering

Evaluates appropriate type and style based upon sun and light control, privacy, flammability, acoustic properties, and control system.

Selects color and texture. Designs style of window covering.


Selects proper method of securing artwork to wall to ensure that it does not fall off the wall and injure anyone.

Selects and places artwork.

Wall finishes

Evaluates appropriateness of type based upon durability, acoustic properties, cleanability, flame retardancy, allergens, toxicity, and off-gassing properties.

Selects color, style and texture of finishes.


Ensures that the plants selected do not have strong odors or poisonous leaves that could harm people, particularly small children.

Selects and places plants and containers.

Floor plan

Draws plan showing location of furniture to meet not only client requirements, but also the Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA], egress, and fire code requirements.

Draws plan showing location of furniture to meet client requirements.


Selects style, color, and location of signage to meet ADA requirements.


Lighting / electrical

Draws plan showing location of light fixtures, switch / dimmer locations. Prepares fixture and lamp schedule. Indicates electrical locations with consideration for GFI requirements.

Selects decorative lighting fixtures.


Draws elevations showing built-in casework such as counters and cabinetry to meet ADA requirements for commercial spaces and appropriateness for residential spaces.

Selects style and finish of cabinets and millwork.


Ensures that decorative accessories are securely fastened so they cannot fall off a pedestal or wall and injure anyone. The durability and security of accessories is considered in commercial installations.

Selects and places decorative accessories including vases, sculptures, etc.

Public restrooms

Draws plan showing accessible toilets, grab bars, and sinks. Locates mirrors, paper towels, and trash receptacles to meet ADA. Selects finishes that meet fire code requirements and slip-resistance for ADA access.

Selects color and finishes that are aesthetically appropriate.

Upholstered furniture

Evaluates internal construction for usage and hypoallergenic concerns of client. Reviews flammability of internal components, as well as fabric technical data in reference to light fastness, wear and flammability. Further evaluates fabric for cleanability and dimensional stability.

Selects style and size of upholstered piece and fabric to be applied to the piece.

Floor coverings

Evaluates selection based upon appropriateness of type, usage, sound transference, acoustic properties, flammability, use of endangered species, off-gassing properties, and static electricity requirements.

Selects type, color, texture and pattern.

The interior design profession has been working diligently for many years to draw boundaries between decoration and interior design. Some of the first efforts began in the early 1970s with the establishment of NCIDQ. NCIDQ was created to “aid and assist the general public by establishing and administering an examination to determine which practitioners of interior design shall be certified as practitioners competent to practice in the field of interior design.”

As NCIDQ and the professional associations – International Interior Design Association [IIDA], American Society of Interior Designers [ASID], Interior Designers of Canada [IDC], and Interior Design Education Council [IDEC] – have been working to raise the bar for the interior design profession, other associations have been focusing on establishing credentials for the decoration industry. Any industry that decides to create guidelines and raise the professionalism of its industry deserves commendation – and the decoration community deserves no less.

Some people have argued that residential interior design is different from commercial interior design; however, NCIDQ’s Analysis of the Interior Design Profession (1998) determined that there is no discernable difference between residential and contract interior design: both disciplines require essentially the same knowledge and skills. The body of knowledge that both must possess in order to practice include health and safety codes; the principles of design; how interior elements are constructed; and the psychological needs of people (in terms of interiors and interior elements).

Skills that competent interior designers must have include the ability to solve problems; manage contracts, money, data, people, and projects; communicate orally, in writing and visually; design interiors; perform needs assessments; develop space; achieve an aesthetic; create ambiance; and be innovative. In addition, professional interior designers are formally educated in interior design principles, have integrity and professional ethics, are user-oriented, are detailed and technically-oriented, and have experience in the design of interiors.

In light of the ongoing controversy between architects and interior designers, I think that if architects had a better understanding of the difference between interior design and decoration, they might hesitate to judge the regulation of interior designers as a negative movement. Often one will hear the statistic, “There are 200,000 interior designers practicing in the United States, and only 15,000 have passed the NCIDQ exam.” The fact: there are 15,000 qualified interior designers practicing in the United States. There are thousands of additional interior designers that have not yet taken the NCIDQ examination.

However, I believe that the 200,000 number that is bantered about includes wallpaper hangers, painters and drapery workrooms, as well as many people who call themselves designers, yet do not practice full-time nor have any background or schooling for this profession. Most of them would never be qualified to take the NCIDQ examination in the first place nor should they. Some are experts in their fields, and there are certification programs and professional associations in those industries for those folks to join if they so wish.

Interior design and decoration: is there a difference” Yes. Why does it matter to you” Because, if you are a professional interior designer, there are two things you must do: take the NCIDQ exam (if you haven’t already), and continue to educate the public about the differences between design and decoration. I don’t shy away from stating my profession anymore at cocktail parties. I spend the extra five minutes to educate the stranger about my profession – and it is five minutes worth its weight in gold.

Note: This article first appeared in the September 2001 issue of Interiors & Sources magazine and was reprinted with their permission. At the time of its publication, Charlotte Jensen, FASID, was the president of NCIDQ.