A degree is only the beginning of the rigorous educational process required in the field of interior design. Similar to the medical or law professions, the interior design field requires strict licensing and testing for its professionals because of increasing demands for more sophisticated skills.
The quickest way to obtain that knowledge is to attend a college or university that meets accreditation standards set by the profession. But even after an undergraduate or graduate degree is finished, professionals should still stay attuned to consumer wants by attending continuing education courses detailing the latest trends.
An interior designer's educational foundation is established at the university level, where the fundamentals are drilled into the minds of students. The knowledge continuing education brings is only an offshoot of the basics, like newly grown branches extending from a tree trunk.
That's why the industry places a strong emphasis on attending a college or university accredited by the Council for Interior Design Accreditation (CIDA, formerly known as FIDER), an organization established in 1970 to create standards for curriculum and quality. According to the most recent numbers, CIDA has accredited over 150 undergraduate programs in interior design.
"Back when we started with accreditation, the objective was to be able to be sure that when a person got a degree in interior design that it actually prepared them for the work of the profession," says Barbara G. Anderson, an assistant professor and coordinator of the Interior Design program in the College of Human Ecology at Kansas State University.
"So the [CIDA] accreditation is the way for a consumer to verify the quality of the education they will get," Anderson says.
Admittance into an interior design program can be difficult, as universities are limited as to the number of students they can accept because of faculty or facility size. While grades carry the most weight in the application, some schools also require a personal essay or a portfolio of work that include drafts, sketches or other artwork. Once admitted to a program, most schools require students to maintain a GPA of 3.0 or higher.
The beginning classes at most universities focus on drawing and drafting, as most students do not enter the interior design program with those skills. For example, at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo., beginning classes include visual communication/sketching and interior design anatomy, a course that teaches how human behavior is impacted by a the space-planning of a room.
In the middle years of interior design schooling, classes typically focus on topics such computer-aided design, lighting and health and safety codes. The final courses at CSU have students apply their skills by requiring that they research, develop and program a proposal for a large-scale interior design project.
The difference between undergraduate and graduate programs is similar to many other majors: Undergrad studies prepares students for the workforce, while graduate studies focuses more on research and training for those who want to teach interior design. At many universities, students will earn either a Bachelor of Science, a Bachelor of Arts or a Fine Arts degree. Some schools offer a choice between a B.S. and a B.A., while a select few offer a Bachelor of Interior Design degree.
An even smaller number of schools offer masters programs. According to the CIDA website, only eight U.S. schools and one in Canada offer a masters program in interior design. The reason for the dearth is CIDA's decision to withhold accreditation from programs that are not four or five years in length, which make it difficult if not impossible for community colleges and masters programs to qualify.
Still, a degree from a CIDA-accredited school, which may take up to five years to attain, has perks including increased job opportunities. "I won't hire anyone who has not gone to a [CIDA]-accredited school. I won't even interview them," says Barbara Schlattman, a Houston-based interior designer who opened shop in 1975 and has received national awards for her work.
The true validation to the professional world of interior design, however, comes with the National Council for Interior Design Qualification test. It is the licensing equivalent to the bar exam or a medical license.
The NCIDQ test covers six topics pertinent to the industry and takes two days to complete. For interior designers, finding work can be difficult without the license, because some states require it to practice interior design, professionals say. Many states require interior designers to pass the test; the profession is regulated at the state level as the job involves the construction of buildings, which may endanger the safety of the general public.
The NCIDQ test is administered twice a year (in April and October). It requires about six years of both college and full-time professional experience to qualify to take the NCIDQ test. Qualifiers include: two years of college and four years of full-time experience, three years of college and full-time experience, or four or five years of college with two years professional experience.
Interior designer working to obtain the NCIDQ license are of interest to potential employers. One example of a firm that supports such efforts is Omaha, Neb.-based interior design firm Leo A Daly, which has 1,000 employees internationally. Leo A Daly, annually ranked as one of interior design's 10 largest companies, does not place a high premium on attending a FIDER-accredited school, a spokesman says.
"It's not something that we ask them to prove or go back to university and ask," says Michael Riordan, corporate director of marketing and communications of Leo A Daly.
Even with a college degree, work experience and NCIDQ-approval, an interior designer's schooling is likely to be a life-long enterprise. Consumer demand and interior design trends are anything but static. For instance, one recent trend is to design rooms with materials that are environmentally-friendly.
To help keep designers up to date, the American Society of Interior Designers, an organization with more than 35,000 members nationwide, hosts continuing education courses ranging from professional ethics to working with older adult customers.
In short, the education of an interior designer is never quite complete.
"When you get your degree, that's just the beginning," says Rosalyn Cama, president of Cama Inc., a New Haven, Conn.-based interior design business. "You keep going; you're always a student."