One of the most common questions I am asked is to explain the difference between a Decorator and a Designer.
Here's My answer, which I am positive that I would find much agreement within the REAL Design community including related professionals like contractors, architects, manufacturers, showrooms, "and more":
How can you tell? First, ASK!! Along with my name, web site, e-mail, etc., I have info on my business card that says I am IL Registered, NCIDQ Certified. In the State of Illinois, "Interior Planning", "Decorating", "Consulting", etc. on a biz card are NOT the same as being a Registered Designer. Period.
Until sometime in 2009, from about 1993, in Illinois, a person who chose products for finishing interiors, no matter what their experience or training was a "Decorator" and a design professional who had professional schooling, taken a national exam and passed it - or someone who had been practicing for many years as a design professional and could be "grandfathered" in, was called a "Designer". That was loosened up in 2009. Now others can say "Designer".
The exam to pass is given by NCIDQ: The National Council for Interior Design Qualification. It requires passing a written test covering technical understanding of plumbing, construction, electrical, Historical Interiors (yes, it matters) and design theory, PLUS there is a practical exam that includes putting together a presentation reflecting knowledge of style, scale, construction and the ability to do that presentation in only a few hours. NCIDQ IS the national exam recognized everywhere. (Yay Me, I passed it a while ago and I DO remember both the studying and the exam.)
Passing this test and fulfilling other educational requirements qualifies you to be a Certified/Registered as an Interior Designer in Illinois (there is also a Residential Design registration). You get a 5 x 7 Certificate in light blue and black with the wavy gold border for your office - like a hairdresser, manicurist, doctor, CPA. There's a number including a profession code (161). States differ one to the other with titles and qualifications.
Some states use CID (Certified Int. Designer) after their names, but not in IL. California has its own laws.
If someone can do window coverings and pick furniture and pretty colors, I'd say "Decorator" unless he/she knows how a building goes together and can read a set of Construction Documents, which is not the same as a floor plan. Construction Documents are the architectural plans which include lighting and electrical, plumbing and various other technical items beyond the layout of where rooms, doors and windows are located. I think a Designer should be able to draw up their own plans for clients to approve--whether they actually draw them or hire someone to draft to save time or be able to include some "extras".
A kitchen designer (NKBA –Nat. Kitchen and Bath Assn.-Certified), told me that one of the highly regarded local "designers" has to take an assistant to every meeting because he can't read blueprints. It's so aggravating that I won't even go there. That's like a dentist who needs an assistant to diagnose the patient. And the lucky clients may very well be paying hourly for both the principal of the firm and his assistant. Yikes.
Professional Design organizations like IIDA and ASID have Professional Members (who are NCIDQ Certified) and other members (like Allied or Associated) who pay reduced dues and have NOT passed the exam. It used to be that you had to pass the test in about 2-3 years or you were OUT. No more. But you can't use "Professional" if you're NOT.
Nowadays, pretty much anyone with a "flair" who has put together a pretty space can practice without licensing or registration. The Merchandise Mart and other wholesale venues require evidence of a business and a Resale Number to sell their products, which can include almost anyone. Believe me -- I have talked to so many showrooms that prefer selling only to QUALIFIED designers. There's TONS more to ordering custom furnishings than a deposit. The client should never be asked to or allowed to contact the factories or showroom personnel. That is unacceptable – it's (simply) the Designer's responsibility; and if they don't realize that they should be more equipped to ask the right questions, they are not Designers!
& a MAJOR "However": This doesn't mean that all unlicensed design professionals are bad, they just have not taken their talent or knowledge to a world recognized testing organization to certify their professionalism, but maybe you should be careful. Being a star of HGTV makes you visible, but it doesn't make you a pro. I promise. Nate Berkus is Chicago's own celebrity Decorator. Talented, charming and honest about his background, he has a highly professional staff to fill in the blanks. YESssss! Rightly done.