Designer? (or not really)

About 10 days ago, an architect asked me the difference between a Decorator and a Designer.

A week before I was told by a contractor that one of the best known local “designers” has to take an assistant to every meeting because he can’t read blueprints.  It’s so aggravating, I won’t even go there.  That’s like a dentist who needs an assistant to diagnose the patient. 

**If he can do window coverings and pick furniture and pretty colors, he’s a decorator until he knows how a building goes together and can read a set of Construction Documents (not the same as a floor plan)  — and ideally draw up what he needs to show his own clients.**

Here’s some quick and direct info –MY answer, but I am positive that I would find LOTS of agreement within the REAL Design community including related professionals. Here’s a good “Short Version”:

How can you tell?  ASK!!  I have all sorts of minutiae on my business card that says I am IL Registered, NCIDQ Certified.  “Interior Planning”, “Decorating”, “Consulting”, etc. on a biz card are NOT the same. 

Until sometime in 2009, from about 1993, 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 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 it!)   

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 reg.).  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.  We don’t in IL.

Pretty much anyone with a “flair” who has put together a pretty space can practice without licensing.   The Merchandise Mart and other wholesale venues require evidence of a business and a Resale Number to sell their products.  Believe me — I have talked to MANY showrooms that would prefer selling only to QUALIFIED designers.  There’s TONS more to ordering custom furnishings than a nod and a deposit.

Professional 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.

**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.   More questions about this?  I’m ready!!**


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  • Claire thanks for trying to explain the difference. It is a difficult task in such a limited space. I trust you are aware of the effort to de-professionalize the profession of Interior Design by the Institute for Justice. Unfortunately what little progress the profession has made in validating itself via government title and practice legislation is being slowly chipped away. In fact we cannot legally use the abbreviation CID (Certified Interior Designer) as it is already trademarked by the Certified Interior Decorators International. The battle for possession of the terms Interior Design and Interior Designer is quite amazing and we (the NCIDQ certified professionals) need all of the help we can get. Thanks for the post.

  • And yet I wonder where our design world would be right now without the talents of Kelly Wearstler, Juan Montoya, Charlotte Moss or Nate Berkus? Their names, among others that are unlicensed, have fueled the interior design craze that we are all certainly experiencing the benefits of.

  • In reply to joidesign:

    Professional Registration is to demonstrate that certain qualifications are met to protect the consumer. It's unlikely that an ugly oversized sofa will cause problems, but the wrong tile on the floor, too many fixtures on the wrong dimmer or adjusting the wrong doorway can. It's awful to watch clients re-doing because they have been given uneducated advice. The ugly part is subjective, the rest isn' way or another someone with proper know-how needs to be involved. Again...why license a hairdresser and not a Designer?

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