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Updated: Apr 13, 2023

By: Doris Hager, Principal of Hager Design International Inc.

“Interior designers may decorate, but Decorators do not design.”

There is great confusion about what the term interior designer really means and what our design professionals really do. Albeit numerous articles have been written, not only by our professional organizations such as ASID, ARIDO, or IDEC, our qualifying bodies such as CIDQ (Council of Interior Design Qualification) as well as numerous magazine explaining the difference, yet there is still confusion in the public and also in Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJ). What really is the difference?


“Decoration is the furnishing or adorning of a space with fashionable or beautiful things”. – CIDQ

Anyone with an artistic flair and an eye for color can be called a Decorator and can creatively select wall coverings, pillows and furniture. Some are very skilled and can decorate spaces and all its details, not just the eye pleasing touches. These talented people are however not educated in the interior design profession; they have not received a degree or diploma and often cannot space plan or fully detail the spaces they are working in. It's been my experience that decorators do not have the training nor interest in describing the construction of complicated buildings or millwork details needed in commercial or specialized interiors or up to date building code knowledge. In short, they have no formal training nor are they licensed as professionals.

"Interior decorating, on the other hand, focuses on surface treatment and selection and placement of fixtures and furnishings". - ARIDO

Virgin Hotel, San Francisco, CA


"Interior Designers work in corporate, healthcare, hospitality, retail, residential, public and institutional spaces". - ARIDO

In some countries the interior design profession is called an interior architect. Perhaps it's easier to think of Interior Designers as "Interior Architects", as this change in words gives more credence to the complexity of today’s design profession.

A professional Interior Designer has 4 years of formal education from an accredited school or university, or at minimum a 2 year diploma (depending on the program) and several years of practice before embarking on passing the NCIDQ (the industry's recognized certified indicator of knowledge and proficiency in interior design principles; a designer's commitment to the profession) a rigorous 3 part test that when passed allows the designer to be called a registered, licensed or certified Interior Designer.

In my 30+ years as a practicing Interior Designer, the profession has become much more technical and the design world has become much more complicated. We must abide by local and federal/municipal building codes, flammability codes, know performance tests, slip resistance etc. We must also keep up our Certified Learning Credits every year to maintain our professional status.

"Interior design is the art and science of understanding people's behavior to create functional spaces within a building". -CIDQ


‘We’ve come a long way baby’ was a famous Virginia Slim cigarette commercial and that slogan applies to our profession as well. Indeed, we’ve come a long way but there is still more to do as there is still confusion about what we really do.

Since I became a professional Interior Designer, our professional organizations have fought to differentiate and legitimize our industry by trying to legislate us to be recognized as true professionals worthy of having our interior drawings submitted for building permits without an architectural stamp. As many of us truly understand building codes and respect life safety requirements for all our projects submissions within our realm of expertise, it would be useful to allow the professional and licensed Interior Designers to submit for building permits as is allowed in Ontario through BCIN. BCIN (Building Code Identification Number) requires a rigorous test for not only the legal parts of the Building Code but also for each segment that the professional is specialized in such as Large and Complex as an example.

We encounter daily AHJ’s that require an architectural stamp when in other jurisdiction our drawings, interpretation of the building code and qualifications are fully accepted for small retail or food locals, limited to either building or suite square footage or, seating or occupant counts. We as professionals, when acting as the coordinating professional do take responsibility for the spaces we design with our MEP and structural consultants. For the larger more complex spaces such as hotels, we team up with Architects and the other consultants as these spaces do require an Architect and we gladly work within our realm of interiors and let the Architect handle the building and coordinate the consultants. However for the smaller spaces, I hope that one day we will be allowed as professionals who have studied and embraced the building code, to apply for building permits throughout North America.

Hopefully this sheds a little light on the difference between a Decorator and Interior Designer. It would be wonderful if the complexity to our profession would be recognized by the general public, and one day if we had authority through licensing and acceptance of drawings for areas in our expertise as Interior Designers.


Doris Hager is the founder of Hager Design International Inc. an international interior design firm with hospitality projects throughout North America. Doris can be reached at



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