How to Become an Interior Designer Without a Degree

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Brad Smith
Written By Brad Smith

As founder and lead designer at Omni Home Ideas, I’ve carved an interior design niche by transforming mundane spaces into spectacular sanctuaries. Whether it’s a cozy cottage or a sprawling mansion, the magic lies in the details. And yes, while my journey included formal education, many of the most innovative minds in our field have paved their path without one. So, if you’re aspiring to make your mark in interior design without the backing of a degree, you’re in good company.

In this comprehensive guide, I’ll unveil the secrets to thriving in interior design through alternative routes. We’ll explore essential skills, legal nuances, and tactical steps to build a portfolio that not only showcases your creativity but also speaks volumes of your expertise. Let’s demystify the traditional routes and navigate through a blueprint that empowers your passion for design to flourish unrestricted by academic degrees.

Alternative Paths to Become Interior Designer Without a Degree

  • No Degree, No Problem: You can become an interior designer without a formal degree by leveraging alternative education paths like online courses, workshops, and internships.
  • Essential Skills: Mastery of CAD, SketchUp, and Photoshop is crucial, alongside soft skills such as project management and effective communication.
  • Build a Strong Portfolio: A diverse and professional portfolio is essential to demonstrate your capabilities and attract clients.
  • Understand Legalities: Familiarize yourself with state-specific licensure requirements and consider obtaining voluntary certifications like NCIDQ to enhance credibility.

how to become an interior designer without a degree

Understanding Interior Design

At its core, interior design is the art—and science—of enhancing the interior of a building to achieve a healthier and more aesthetically pleasing environment for the people using the space. It’s a profession that blends art with architecture, psychology with design principles. But don’t confuse it with interior decorating! While decorators focus primarily on aesthetics—think choosing color schemes and furniture—designers engage at a much deeper level. We are involved from the space planning stage, adhering to building codes, and integrating environmental sustainability.

Interior Design vs. Interior Decorating

Interior design is an expansive field that transcends mere decoration. It involves detailed layout plans, cross-disciplinary coordination, and a nuanced understanding of both technical and creative skills. You could be choosing fabrics one day and drawing up technical blueprints the next. Meanwhile, interior decorating is about beautifying a space with surface finishes, furniture, and decorative pieces—it’s important, but it’s just one part of what designers do.

Key Responsibilities and Skills of an Interior Designer

As interior designers, our responsibilities can range from the very technical, such as reading blueprints and understanding fire and safety regulations, to the very personal, like choosing a palette that suits a homeowner’s style and needs. Key skills include:

  • Technical Proficiency: Knowledge of design software like CAD, SketchUp, and Photoshop is essential.
  • Project Management: Ability to manage time, budgets, and client expectations smoothly.
  • Communication: Articulating design concepts and plans to clients and stakeholders clearly.

Pros and Cons of Having a Formal Degree

A formal degree in interior design undeniably offers comprehensive training, covering everything from technical drawing to color theory and architectural history. It provides a structured learning environment, internships, and networking opportunities crucial for a fledgling designer. However, it’s not without its drawbacks. The cost can be prohibitive, and the time commitment substantial—factors that can deter many talented individuals.

How a Degree Can Benefit Your Career

Holding a degree can streamline the path to licensure in states where it’s required and can be a significant advantage in competitive job markets. It signals a baseline of proficiency and dedication to the profession, potentially opening doors to higher-profile projects and clients earlier in one’s career.

Cost Comparison of Traditional vs. Self-Taught Interior Design Education

Understanding the financial investment in different educational paths can help aspiring designers make informed decisions. The following table compares the typical costs associated with traditional and self-taught routes in interior design.

Education TypeTypical CostsComponents Included
Traditional Degree$20,000 – $50,000 per yearTuition, textbooks, university fees
Self-Taught Route$500 – $5,000 totalOnline courses, software subscriptions, workshops
Certification$200 – $1,000 per examExam fees, study materials
Workshops/Seminars$100 – $500 per sessionRegistration fees, materials

1. Gaining the Necessary Interior Design Skills Without a Degree

gaining the necessary interior design skills without a degree

To thrive as an interior designer, mastering certain technical skills is imperative. These include:

  • Computer-Aided Design (CAD): Essential for creating precise drawings and plans.
  • SketchUp: Allows for 3D modeling of design spaces, providing a clear visual representation to clients.
  • Adobe Photoshop: A critical tool for creating realistic and compelling visual concepts and presentations.

These tools are the backbone of modern interior design and are essential for anyone looking to make a professional impact.

Beyond technical prowess, several soft skills are crucial:

  • Communication: Effective communication is critical, as it helps in understanding client visions and delivering presentations.
  • Project Management: Skills in managing timelines, budgets, and resources efficiently ensure that projects are completed on time and within cost constraints.

Traditional education isn’t the only pathway to acquire these skills. Here are practical alternatives:

  • Online Courses and Workshops: Platforms like Coursera, Udemy, and Lynda offer comprehensive courses in CAD, SketchUp, Photoshop, and more. These are often developed by industry professionals and provide a solid foundation at a fraction of the cost of traditional education.
  • Internships and Apprenticeships: Hands-on experience is invaluable. Interning at a design firm or apprenticing with an established designer can provide real-world experience that no classroom can match. These opportunities also allow for networking, which is essential for career growth.

2. Building Your Portfolio

building your portfolio

A compelling portfolio is crucial in the design world. It serves two primary purposes:

  • Securing Work: It’s often the first thing potential clients or employers want to see.
  • Demonstrating Your Skill Set: It showcases your style, skill range, and ability to execute diverse projects.

Your portfolio is your most powerful marketing tool. It provides a tangible way to showcase your capabilities and imagination, making it easier for clients to trust your vision.

Your portfolio should be a carefully curated collection of your work. Include:

  • Diverse Projects: Show a range of skills from technical drawings to complete room designs.
  • Process Documentation: Highlight your workflow from concept to completion.
  • Client Testimonials: If available, include client feedback to add credibility.

Keep a detailed log of your projects from start to finish. Include sketches, mood boards, changes, and final outcomes. This not only showcases your final work but also your problem-solving process.

High-quality images make a significant difference. Invest in professional photography to capture the details and quality of your work effectively.

While a digital portfolio is essential for accessibility, having a beautifully bound physical copy can be impressive in face-to-face meetings.

3. Legal Requirements and Certifications for Interior Designers

Navigating the legal landscape of interior design is crucial. In the United States, licensure requirements vary significantly by state. Some states, like Florida and California, require interior designers to pass specific exams and register with a state board if they wish to call themselves “certified interior designers.” Other states may have no such requirements, allowing designers to practice without formal credentials.

The following table provides an overview of licensure requirements for interior designers in various states. This will help you navigate the regulatory landscape, ensuring compliance and enhancing professional credibility. Remember, it’s crucial to verify the details with local state boards or official government websites for the most current information.

StateLicensure RequiredExamination RequiredAdditional Notes
AlabamaYesNCIDQ ExamLicense required to use the title “Registered Interior Designer”
AlaskaNoNoneVoluntary certification available
ArizonaNoNoneTitle “Registered Interior Designer” available with credentials
ArkansasYesNCIDQ ExamMandatory for residential and commercial design
CaliforniaYesIDEX CaliforniaMandatory for commercial projects
ColoradoNoNoneTitle act state, voluntary registration
ConnecticutNoNoneNo state regulation, voluntary registration
DelawareYesNCIDQ ExamMandatory for use of “Interior Designer” title
FloridaYesNCIDQ ExamMandatory for commercial and residential projects
GeorgiaYesNCIDQ ExamDegree required for licensure
HawaiiNoNoneVoluntary certification available
IdahoNoNoneVoluntary certification available
IllinoisYesNCIDQ ExamUse of “Interior Designer” title regulated
IndianaNoNoneVoluntary certification available
IowaYesNCIDQ ExamMandatory for commercial projects
KansasNoNoneNo state regulation
KentuckyYesNCIDQ ExamMandatory for use of “Interior Designer” title
LouisianaYesNCIDQ ExamMandatory for residential and commercial design
MaineNoNoneVoluntary certification available
MarylandNoNoneTitle “Certified Interior Designer” available
MassachusettsNoNoneVoluntary certification available
MichiganNoNoneNo state regulation
MinnesotaNoNoneTitle “Certified Interior Designer” available
MississippiYesNCIDQ ExamMandatory for commercial projects
MissouriNoNoneVoluntary certification available
MontanaNoNoneNo state regulation
NebraskaYesNCIDQ ExamMandatory for use of “Registered Interior Designer” title
NevadaYesNCIDQ ExamMandatory for residential and commercial design
New HampshireNoNoneVoluntary certification available
New JerseyNoNoneVoluntary certification available
New MexicoNoNoneTitle “Registered Interior Designer” available with credentials
New YorkNoNoneTitle “Certified Interior Designer” available
North CarolinaYesNCIDQ ExamMandatory for use of “Licensed Interior Designer” title
North DakotaYesNCIDQ ExamMandatory for commercial projects
OhioNoNoneTitle “Registered Interior Designer” available with credentials
OklahomaYesNCIDQ ExamMandatory for use of “Registered Interior Designer” title
OregonYesNCIDQ ExamMandatory for residential and commercial design
PennsylvaniaNoNoneTitle “Registered Interior Designer” available with credentials
Rhode IslandNoNoneVoluntary certification available
South CarolinaYesNCIDQ ExamMandatory for use of “Registered Interior Designer” title
South DakotaNoNoneNo state regulation
TennesseeYesNCIDQ ExamMandatory for commercial projects
TexasNoNoneVoluntary registration offers title “Registered Interior Designer”
UtahYesNCIDQ ExamMandatory for residential and commercial design
VermontNoNoneNo state regulation
VirginiaYesNCIDQ ExamMandatory for use of”Interior Designer” title
WashingtonNoNoneTitle “Registered Interior Designer” available
West VirginiaNoNoneVoluntary certification available
WisconsinYesNCIDQ ExamMandatory for commercial design work
WyomingNoNoneVoluntary certification available
Comprehensive Table of State-Specific Licensure Requirements for Interior Designers

Voluntary Certifications (e.g., NCIDQ)

While not always mandatory, obtaining voluntary certifications can be a significant advantage. The National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) certification is highly respected and recognized across North America. It validates your competency in meeting industry standards for interior design and can be particularly beneficial when moving between states with varying regulations.

Certifications like the NCIDQ serve to demonstrate your commitment and proficiency to potential clients and employers. They can often substitute for the lack of a formal degree by providing proof of your skills and knowledge in interior design.

List of Certifications Beneficial for Interior Designers:

CertificationOrganizing BodyPrimary Benefit
NCIDQ CertificationCIDQRecognized across North America, enhances credibility
LEED AccreditationU.S. Green Building CouncilSpecializes in sustainable building practices
Well APInternational WELL Building InstituteFocuses on health and wellness in building designs
CCIDC CertificationCalifornia Council for Interior Design CertificationSpecific to California, required for legal title usage

4. Entering the Interior Designer Job Market

entering the interior designer job market

Working within an interior design studio can offer a structured environment with access to a broad network and established client base. It’s ideal for those who appreciate collaboration and regularity. On the other hand, freelancing provides flexibility and the freedom to choose projects that align with your creative vision, though it requires a strong personal brand and marketing skills.

Starting as an interior design assistant or a junior designer can provide invaluable experience. These roles allow you to learn the ropes under the guidance of experienced professionals while building a network within the industry.

Marketing Yourself as a Designer

A well-designed website acts as your digital portfolio showcasing your best work, client testimonials, and a bio that reflects your unique style and qualifications. Ensure it is visually appealing, easy to navigate, and updated regularly with new projects and professional achievements.

Platforms like Instagram and Pinterest are particularly useful for interior designers. Regular posts of your work can attract a following and engage potential clients. Additionally, attending industry networking events and joining professional organizations can lead to partnerships and job opportunities.

Continuing Professional Development

In the fast-evolving field of interior design, continuous learning is not just beneficial; it is essential. Keeping abreast of the latest trends, technologies, and industry standards ensures that your designs remain fresh, innovative, and competitive. This commitment to lifelong learning reflects not only in the quality of your work but also in the satisfaction of your clients and the reputation you build in the industry.

Resources for Professional Growth:

  • Conferences and Seminars: Events like the NeoCon and the International Contemporary Furniture Fair provide invaluable opportunities to learn from leading experts and to see new products and technologies first-hand.
  • Online Resources: Websites like ArchDaily, Dezeen, and the American Society of Interior Designers offer webinars, tutorials, and articles that cover the latest in design trends and professional practices.
  • Formal Education: Enrolling in advanced courses or obtaining specialized certifications in areas like green building or lighting design can provide a competitive edge.

Expanding Your Services

Specializing in a niche can differentiate you from the competition and allow you to command higher fees. Popular niches include:

  • Sustainable Design: Focusing on eco-friendly materials and energy-efficient designs.
  • Commercial Interiors: Specializing in office spaces, hotels, or restaurants which require understanding of brand identity and functional design.
  • Healthcare Design: Involves creating safe and accessible environments for health and wellness facilities.

Offering Additional Services:

  • Home Staging: Preparing homes for sale, which can be a lucrative sideline.
  • Virtual Design: Providing design consultations and services remotely, using digital tools to visualize spaces.


What are the financial costs associated with becoming a self-taught interior designer?

The financial costs for a self-taught interior designer can vary widely but typically include expenses for online courses, software subscriptions (such as CAD and Photoshop), and potentially costs for attending workshops or seminars. These costs are generally lower than traditional degree programs which can run into tens of thousands of dollars.

Can I join professional interior design organizations without a degree?

Yes, you can join certain professional interior design organizations without a degree, but membership criteria can vary. Organizations like the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) offer allied memberships for those without a degree but with substantial work experience and/or other credentials such as passing the NCIDQ exam.

What are the key legal considerations I should be aware of when working as a freelance interior designer?

Freelance interior designers should be aware of contract law basics to protect their business interests, understand local zoning laws that impact design projects, and ensure compliance with any specific state regulations regarding home improvements or commercial design work. Keeping informed on these topics helps mitigate legal risks.


To carve a niche in interior design without formal schooling, focus on developing a strong foundation through self-education, practical experience, and continuous learning. Building a robust and varied portfolio, understanding legal requirements, and effectively marketing yourself are also crucial steps.

Getting on a career in interior design without a degree is not merely a journey of creativity but also one of courage and resilience. Every space you design is a testament to your passion and commitment to this art form. Remember, the walls you adorn and the environments you create bear your unique signature, transcending the conventional pathway of degrees.

Forge ahead with confidence, knowing that your dedication to personal and professional growth is the real blueprint to success in interior design. Let your work not just fill spaces but also speak volumes of your journey in crafting beautiful, functional environments. Shine on, aspiring designer, your canvas awaits!

Join the discussion and share your thoughts on this topic over at our Reddit thread.

Further Reading

  • For a deeper dive into the nuances of launching your career in interior design without traditional academic credentials, explore our detailed guide on Medium. This comprehensive article offers additional insights and strategies tailored for aspiring designers.
  • Planning your next home makeover and wondering about the budget? Don’t miss our comprehensive guide on the costs associated with hiring interior designers, available here: How Much Do Interior Designers Charge?
  • Explore further insights into the expansive roles of interior designers and the impact they have on spaces in my detailed article on LinkedIn.
smith brad omni

Written by Brad Smith

CEO & Lead Interior Designer

Brad Smith is an experienced interior designer and the founder of With a Master's degree in Interior Design from Pratt Institute and a passion for creating safe and healthy living spaces, Brad shares his expert insights and innovative design ideas with our readers. His work is driven by the belief that home is where every story begins.