Product & Interior Design

Product & Interior Design

Interior Design Specializations

The NCIDQ, National Council for Interior Design Qualification, defines an Interior Designer, as, “The Professional Interior Designer is qualified by education, experience, and examination to enhance the function and quality of interior spaces.”  However, as the industry evolves, designers are redefining what it means to be an interior designer.  Some interior designers say that interior design enhances the function, safety, and quality of inside spaces. Others say that outside spaces, merchandising, and architecture are also disciplines within this field.  Within the scope of Interior Design are specializations such as residential and commercial.  But, before tackling the topic of specializations, an important question to ask yourself is whether you are looking for a career as either a designer or as a decorator. 

That said, there are similarities between the two careers.  A designer must be properly trained, which typically involves earning a certificate, associate degree, or a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution and become credentialed in the state he or she wishes to practice.  An interior designer must also understand the many laws and regulations around building permits and zoning laws as they often work with architects and contractors to help achieve a particular look for the space.  A decorator, on the other hand, can offer consultation on the visual aspects of an area, but typically cannot consult on breaking down the walls.  They are ideal for entering a room and sprucing up the space by helping their clients choose the best paint colors, fabrics, and furniture. They do not need formal training, and they don’t work with contractors or architects. 

But in the end, an interior designer will have more freedom to create a design envisioned by their client. Plus, they are likely to be paid a higher salary when working for an interior design firm, a department store, or as a self-employed designer.  Aspiring interior designers should expect to attend classes such as lighting design, interior design, sustainable design, the psychology of color, computer-aided design (CAD) and so on. Most interior designers choose a specialization while in school.

While is typical to start out as a generalist, and dabble in many different areas throughout the early stages of your career, most designers will choose to focus on one or two specific areas of interior design.  There are many reasons why choosing a specialization is preferred to being a ‘jack of all trades’, including:

Subject-Matter Expertise:  Clients like to know that if they need a kitchen remodel, they are hiring a designer who has designed many kitchens as opposed to an interior designer who focuses on hotel room layout. Working in one or two specific areas allows interior designers to devote themselves and eventually become experts.

Business Advantages:  Clients seeking to hire an interior designer are looking for specific solutions to their design needs.  If your portfolio shows a little bit of everything, then the client may be hesitant to hire you.  However, if your portfolio highlights a particular style or subject matter, it is far more convincing, and your customers will be far more confident in your ability to deliver excellent results. If your customers ask questions, you are more likely to answer them confidently and provide actionable solutions which only increases their confidence level in your ability to provide value!

Passion:  You must love what you do otherwise your work becomes tedious and unsatisfying. Do you enjoy residential real-estate and working one-on-one with clients? Then, a residential specialty may be a good fit. But, if you would rather design the inside of corporate offices, then look instead at corporate interior design. Identifying a specialization that you are passionate about will lead to a more fulfilling, rewarding and fruitful career.

There are many areas of specialization within the field of interior design.  Many aspiring designers may not know of all the interior design specialties. Here are some of the more popular specialties: 

Residential Design:  The most common area of interior design is residential.  In this area, designers will be knowledgeable about all the various areas within a home.  There are even sub-specialities within residential. Some choose to focus on being experts in a niche such as bathrooms. Residential designers work with clients to design or improve the function and form of their living spaces while reflecting the client’s style. 

Kitchen Design:  Another specialization that is becoming more popular is kitchen designer. Kitchen designers help clients create the kitchen of their dreams; from flooring and cabinets to appliances, and paint. 

Bathroom Design:  This is another specialty that is becoming increasingly popular. Designers help clients create a bathroom that is as functional as it is comfortable and tranquil. 

Living Spaces Designers:  Responsible for developing all aspects of living spaces; from choosing paint for the walls, carpet, floorings, light fixtures and picking out furniture. They may work in a residential or corporate environment and be versed in different styles such as traditional or modern. They understand how to maximize the space based on the customer goals. 

Feng-Shui Interior Design:  A Chinese philosophical system that looks to harmonize the environment around us.  In design, it is commonly used as a guide to foster positive energy and balance, by arranging furniture and using color and light to make environments functional and comfortable.  Although an ancient practice, it is wildly popular today throughout the world. 

Commercial Interior Design:  Popular amongst larger corporations and some smaller businesses looking to maximize their spaces. Similar to residential design, individuals choose to learn many types of commercial spaces and make one or two their specialty. For example, healthcare design specializing in this area, imagine the interiors of hospitals, clinics, treatment facilities, nursing homes and other healthcare-related spaces. In hotel design, interior designers help with floor coverings, furniture, wall coverings, color schemes, etc.  You may choose to design hotels which are broad or decide to specialize in bed and breakfast boutique hotels, hostels, or business hotels – all unique opportunities. 

Restaurant Design:  These designers focus on providing the right look and feel, and ultimately the patron's experience which could be impacted by the lighting, tables, paint colors, and so on. They are also responsible for the health and safety regulations of kitchens and staff.  Those who choose this specialty must be knowledgeable with all safety codes and ordinances issued by the city or state. 

Corporate Interior Design:  Incorporates many of the same duties of Commercial Interior Design such as creating attractive and functional spaces in a retail or office building.  For example, they may enter an office space and see nothing but rows and rows of cubicles, and decide instead to create co-working spaces and open concept rooms for the workers. 

Historic Conservation & Restoration Designer:  Many of these designers will travel the world, visiting and restoring ancient buildings.  They will need a thorough knowledge of history as well as design, and carefully plan interventions to prolong a building’s heritage. 

Color Specialist:  Has a strong understanding of how colors interact and work with one another.  In college, they will study the psychology of color (among other related coursework), and usually, work in residential and commercial settings to create the perfect color patterns in the various spaces. 

Green Interior Design:  If your passion lies in creating a sustainable environment, you may want to look at specializing into this specialization.  Designers in this area create amazing designs that are environmentally friendly and use sustainable products, methods, and supplies. For example, they may choose to incorporate a large tree in the entrance of a home, or only use reclaimed materials to construct a kitchen. 

Universal Design:  As society continues to advance and become more empathetic and willing to help those with disabilities, the design specialty of universal interior design will continue to grow.  A Universal Designer will make spaces more accessible to persons with disabilities, such as those who may need a ramp for a stroller or wheelchair. 

Lighting Design:  Some argue that this is not a specialty of interior design. Even so, you may choose to become a lighting designer, which is attainable with a degree in interior design.  Lighting has a substantial impact on how we perceive a space and how we feel in it; lighting designers focus on the effect lighting has on all aspects of our lives.  Lighting designers work on stage productions, in the theater, in galleries, and other places where lighting is a focal point.

There are many other specialties not mentioned above.  Some of the lesser-known include:

  1. Airplane Interior Design
  2. RV’s and Yachts Interior Design
  3. Exhibit Design
  4. Set Design 

Interior designers might also focus on one particular style, such as classic, modern, Zen, Japanese, or Asian. Focusing on one style has both it's advantages and disadvantages.  You will be considered an expert in the one area, but you may find work sporadic or infrequent.  That’s something to consider if choosing to go this direction. 

There’s little doubt that a career as an Interior Designer can be fun and diverse.  You may decide to generalize or specialize, but either way in this field you will impact the lives of many people in many different environments. You will always be learning and improving your knowledge about the field or specialty, and you will work alongside industry partners on a daily basis as you lead clients to their goals and vision. Your career as an interior designer is like no other, so nurture your potential and do what you are destined to do – design. 

For more information about the Interior Design career field, experts in the field of Interior design, and schools to further your education, as well as the 100’s of other art careers, check out The Art Career Project career page

  • Kathryn Pomroy
    Kathryn Pomroy

    Journalist, Artist & Lover of Puppies | Kathryn is a writing junkie and coffee aficionado who attended Arizona State University where she earned a blue belt in Shotokan-ryu Karate, graced the local stage as a ballerina, and graduated with honors with a degree in journalism.