Is This All Simply a Little Misunderstanding?

May 1, 2004
Donna Vining, FASID

Do architects know what interior designers really do?

FORUM NCIDQA colleague of mine, a director at an interior design school, recently shared the following two stories with me. One of her adjunct faculty members was interviewing for an interior design position in an architectural firm. One of the principals asked her what type of work she enjoyed the most. She commented that she enjoyed the programming aspects:—determining client needs and requirements. The architect responded, "Oh, so you are really just a closet architect." CHART 1PURPOSEINTERIOR DESIGN ORGARCHITECTURE ORGEducationFIDER-Foundation for Interior Design Education ResearchNAAB-National Architectural Accrediting BoardExperienceIDEP-Interior Design Experience Program, as administered by NCIDQ IDP-Intern Development Program as administered by NCARBExaminationNCIDQ-National Council for Interior design QualificationNCARB-National Council for Architectural Registration BoardsProfessional Association

ASID-American Society of Interior Designers
IIDA-International Interior Design Association

AIA-American Institute of ArchitectsI was taken aback when I heard the story, thinking that somewhere there is an architect who thinks programming is not something that we interior designers do. It made me wonder what they think she will contribute to their firm. I have to conclude that architects think interior designers contribute to their projects, since most large architectural firms have interior designers as principals.The second story centers around a discussion that five students (two architecture students and three interior design students) had in a studio class. The following day two of the students approached the director and commented that they wanted to switch majors—to architecture—because the other students told them that, "All interior designers do is select finishes." I relay these stories because they illustrate the perception of our profession among architects and even architecture students. Perhaps the resistance that some in the architecture profession have toward interior design licensing is based on not having a clear understanding of what interior designers do either through education or experience. For instance, interior designers and architects sit side by side in at least 56 semester hours of instruction if they graduate from the University of Texas with a bachelor in architecture or interior design. In the last few years, interior designers and architects have struggled with interior design licensing legislation. Architects believe they are trained to do interior design through their education and should, therefore, be exempted from any interior design legislation. Our profession takes the converse view: we believe that only those in a formal interior design program have been educated to do interior design, and that does not include architecture students who are on an architecture track. It is not uncommon for universities to require that interior design students take architectural courses, but not require architecture students to take interior design courses. Our position remains the same: that while our profession shares some of the same knowledge areas as architecture, interior design and architecture are two distinct professions, each with a different set of educational requirements and distinct skills, knowledge and abilities.Who is an Interior Designer?There are many practicing architects who started in architecture before interior design was recognized as a distinct profession from architecture. These more seasoned professionals may have been trained in all aspects of design—from site to building envelope to interior finishes and furniture selection to even graphic design. However, today's complex buildings and environments often call for a team of trained professionals to work on a project. An interior designer is one of those trained professionals—requiring a minimum amount of education, experience and examination. Currently 24 U.S. jurisdictions and eight Canadian provinces legally recognize interior design—requiring some combination of the above. (NCIDQ's model language for legislation recommends a minimum four-year FIDER-accredited education, two years monitored experience, plus passage of the NCIDQ examination.) These credentialing agencies are similar to ones that exist for architecture. In addition, many states are now requiring continuing education for interior designers. Chart One, below, explains further.What Knowledge, Skills & Abilities Does an Interior Designer Possess?Perhaps the best description of the knowledge an interior designer must have is FIDER's list of standards for accrediting interior design schools. In addition to the expected standards around curriculum structure, faculty, facilities, administration and assessment, FIDER requires interior design programs to meet standards ranging from Professional Values to Building Systems and Regulations. Chart 2 (above) lists the standards, and includes examples of the "indicators" that FIDER reviewers look for when assessing a program.Clearly, the value an interior design professional brings to an architectural project—whether a small house renovation or multi-million-square-foot international project—is deeper than the FIDER list of requirements in Chart 2. NCIDQ's IDEP (Interior Design Experience Program) requires further experience in all areas of practice (a minimum of 3,520 hours working for a qualified professional). Finally, passage of the NCIDQ examination ensures that an interior designer meets minimum competency to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public.Interior designers are not "closet architects," and "selecting finishes" is a very small part of what we do today. Interior designers are educated and trained to do interior design work—work that impacts human behavior and well-being. Interior designers have been working diligently in many states to pass legislation to legally regulate our profession. In many states, the designers have met with resistance from architects. One of their arguments against legislation is that the public will be at risk. Those truly concerned with public health, safety and welfare should embrace licensing legislation. We must work with our architecture colleagues to put public protection above all other things—including egos and the misperception of increased competition. Interior design has matured into a profession that contributes to society's well-being. Successful passage of interior design legislation in all U.S. and Canadian jurisdictions is a natural step toward maturation of the profession.Donna Vining, FASID, is the current NCIDQ past-president and president of Vining Design Associates, Inc., in Houston, TX, specializing in residential project management.
She has been a registered interior designer in Texas since 1993 and is an NCIDQ Certificate holder. For more information about NCIDQ, visit its Web site at For more information about FIDER or for a complete copy of FIDER Professional Standards, contact FIDER at (616) 458-0400 or visitgo to or contact the FIDER office at (616) 458-0400.

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