ASID Update: Defining Our Profession

July 18, 2006
By Robert Wright, FASID

The time to clearly and definitively identify the interior design profession is now.

Recent advances in legislation to protect interior designers' right to practice reminds us that we still have work to do to firmly establish our practice as a profession. With building projects becoming increasingly complex and requiring teams of various professionals and specialists, some might question whether the idea of an interior design profession has been rendered irrelevant by marketplace demand. I would argue that the proliferation of specialties and subspecialties within the built environment makes the need for clear definitions and distinctions that much more important. While the work undertaken by various specialists may at times overlap, their education, training, experience and skill sets are not equivalent. Clients and the public in general need to understand these differences in order to determine whether they are purchasing the appropriate services and properly safeguarding their health and safety.

Confusion about our profession also is creating uncertainty within design education. Not long ago, while reviewing portfolios during a career day, I had a student ask me whether she should pursue a career in interior design or interior architecture. This was a surprising question coming from an interior design student preparing to graduate and enter the workforce. I explained that while there are and have always been architects who provide various services for the interiors of buildings, there is not, at least within the United States, a distinct profession of interior architecture. One can be an interior designer or one can be an architect, or both, but it is in fact illegal in nearly every state to call oneself an "interior architect" unless the individual is a registered architect in that state. The fact that some schools offer degrees in interior architecture clouds the issue even further. Students need to know how the professions differ and what the laws are in the various states that regulate the professions, to avoid unwittingly violating the law and possibly torpedoing their design career in the process.

The fact that a number of practitioners within our own profession choose to call themselves "interior architects" without being registered architects, again, unfortunately, causes additional confusion. Furthermore, it can have very serious ethical and legal consequences. I am told by the legal counsel for the American Society of Interior Designers that intent—when using the words "interior architect" or "interior architecture"—is usually not a sufficient legal defense in a proceeding brought against you by a state agency accusing you of violating the state's title and practice acts governing the profession of architecture, as these statutes are "public policy statutes," which are strictly enforced, regardless of the user's intention. Once we universally define and establish what we do as a legally recognized profession, the apparent need of a few to borrow terminology from other professions to explain what we do will no longer be necessary.

Also disturbing to me was the subtext of the student's question, which was whether she would have fewer options, particularly for commercial work, if she were "only" an interior designer Having practiced as both a commercial and a residential designer, I am aware that notable differences exist among the various specialties. But all professional interior designers must meet the same minimum standards of competency, and all are trained to provide a range of services that go beyond decoration. They must also address matters of function and space planning, as well as the safety and health of the occupants. The fruit of that knowledge can be seen in dozens of magazines and trade journals every month—drawn from all areas of life and touching millions of people. Somehow that reality has become obscured by a preoccupation with terminology.

These issues are of course not new, nor are they easily resolved. It is no secret that there are those who seek to define us by telling others what they think we are not. That, in part, is what makes The Interior Design Profession's Body of Knowledge, 2005 Edition such an important and timely contribution. Sponsored by the principal interior design organizations in North America—ASID, the Council for Interior Design Accreditation, Interior Designers of Canada, the International Interior Design Association and the National Council for Interior Design Qualification—the Body of Knowledge is an update of the original 2001 study commissioned by the Association of Registered Interior Designers of Ontario (ARIDO) and developed by Caren S. Martin, Ph.D., CID, ASID, IIDA, and Denise Guerin, Ph.D., FIDEC, ASID, IIDA, both of the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. Although practicing interior designers may find the document somewhat arcane and academic, it represents a major advance in our effort to define and establish what we do as a legally recognized profession. If you have not already done so, I encourage you to go to the Careers in Interior Design Web site ( and download a copy. It documents those areas of professional knowledge and practice that set interior design apart from pure decoration, architecture and engineering.

Only those who truly understand and practice interior design can fully and accurately define the profession. The time to do it is now, and the way to do it is with a clear, positive and powerful statement of who we are, what we know and what we do.

  • ASID president Robert Wright, FASID, is an award-winning interior designer, with a focus on office and residential design. He is a principal of Bast/Wright Interiors, Inc. in San Diego, CA. ASID staff can be reached at (202) 546-3480 or [email protected], and on the Web at

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