How to Become an Interior Designer Without a Degree

Here's a step-by-step guide to show you how to become a licensed interior designer without a degree together with the skills you need to get started.

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Key takeaways
  • Aim for the NCIDQ exam as a long-term goal. It will likely boost your earnings potential by at least 25% and does not require a degree. 
  • To make yourself appealing to employers, start learning to use computer-aided design and interior design software as soon as possible.
  • Developing a strong portfolio that you can showcase to potential clients will go a long way in helping you find work as an interior designer without a degree.
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To begin, I’ll be upfront: pursuing interior design without a degree will not be simple.

Currently, more than 64% of open interior designer jobs in the U.S. do require applicants to have a degree. To be specific, only 536 out of a total of 1498 open interior designer positions are open for degreeless applicants. This means that the majority of interior design jobs will not be available to you if you do not have a degree.

However, don’t let that discourage you. With the right amount of drive, a solid portfolio, and the right certifications, it’s entirely possible to make a name for yourself in the interior design industry without having a bachelor’s or master’s degree.

And, there are many benefits to doing so:

  • Respectable salary. While the U.S. median pay for interior designers is just over $60,000 per year, those in more senior roles such as interior design directors can easily rake in a six-figure salary.
  • Opportunity to travel. As an interior designer, you’ll likely be spending as much time traveling as you will be in an office. This is because you’ll often have to visit clients’ homes or businesses in order to get a feel for their specific needs.
  • Flexible work hours. Many interior designers are also project managers, which means they have the freedom to set their own hours.

Now, let’s walk you through all the questions you may have regarding how to become an interior designer without a degree.

In this article, you’ll learn:

What does an interior designer do?

At its simplest, an interior designer is responsible for the interior spaces of a residential, governmental, or commercial building. This can encompass anything from choosing design elements and coming up with design ideas, all the way to project coordination and management.

Many successful designers also take on larger projects such as working with a team of architects to design an entire building from the ground up. Such projects will involve analyzing building codes and construction practices in addition to the design work.

To give you a more concrete idea of what a professional interior designer does on a regular basis, have a look at the very rough breakdown of the process of designing a space:

  • Communication with the client. Whether we are talking about an individual wanting to decorate their new home or a large corporation looking to create office spaces for hundreds of employees, communication is always at the heart of things. The designer needs to be able to understand the client’s vision in order to create a design that meets their specific needs.
  • Creating detailed plans and drawings. Once the goals of the project have been determined, it is time to start putting pen to paper (or more likely, fingers to keyboard). The designer will need to create a detailed plan of the space, including measurements, furnishings, and finishes.
  • Creating a budget and sourcing materials. In order to bring the project to life, the designer will need to create a budget and source all of the necessary materials. This can be anything from flooring and paint to furniture and light fixtures. Nowadays, increasing emphasis is placed on sourcing environmentally sustainable materials.
  • Coordinating with contractors and other workers. Once the plans are finalized and the materials have been sourced, it is time to start construction. The designer will need to coordinate with contractors, electricians, plumbers, and other workers in order to ensure that the project is completed on time and within budget.
  • Inspection of the finished project. After all of the hard work has been completed, the designer will need to inspect the finished project to make sure that everything meets their standards.

Now that we have a better understanding of what an interior designer does, let’s take a look at some of the skills that are necessary for success in this field.

What skills does an interior designer need?

Many people unfamiliar with interior design assume that creativity and space planning are the primary skills associated with interior design. While it is true that these skills are essential in interior design, they are far from being the only skills that are necessary for success in this field.

In order to be a well-rounded interior designer, you will need an array of both practical skills and creative skills:

  • Strong communication. An interior designer must be able to communicate their vision effectively to clients and other professionals in order to achieve the desired results. Without excellent communication skills, misunderstandings are bound to happen, and the end result will not meet the client’s expectations.
  • Project management. During your interior design career, you’ll nearly always be working on multiple projects at the same time. There’s a reason why strong project management skills are highly sought-after by recruiters in this industry.
  • Time management. Equally as important as project management skills, time management skills are a must for any interior designer. With so many deadlines and so much to keep track of, it is essential that you are able to manage your time effectively in order to avoid falling behind or feeling overwhelmed. Missing a deadline is the easiest way of losing future clients.
  • Budgeting. An interior designer must be able to communicate their vision effectively to clients and other professionals in order to achieve the desired results. Whether you’re working in the residential, commercial, or governmental sector, budgets are always a major concern.
  • Color theory. A successful interior designer will have a strong understanding of color theory. This includes an understanding of how different colors can impact the mood of a space, as well as how to use color to enhance or hide certain features. For example, did you know that blue is often used in bedrooms because it has a calming effect? Or that yellow is used in kitchens because it is known to stimulate the appetite?
  • Ability to use interior design software. Interior design software allows you to create 3D models of your designs and it’s an integral part of the job of an interior designer. Computer-aided design has changed the game, and it is now essential that any interior designer knows how to use at least one program such as AutoCAD LT or SketchUp Pro. If you don’t know how to use computer-aided design software and you don’t have a degree, you’ll find it nearly impossible to land a job in a design firm.
  • Sketching. Even though modern interior design software has powerful features like 3D rendering, sketching on paper has still not gone anywhere. Sketching is especially useful during the very first consultations with the client. During this phase, a lot of brainstorming and “blue sky thinking” is usually done in order to come up with the initial concept. Here, there are still no substitutes for the flexibility and the speed of a pencil and a piece of paper.

There are many more skills that will complement professional interior designers, but the ones we previously listed should give you a good idea of what it takes to excel in this field.

Do you need a degree to become an interior designer?

No, you do not need a degree to become an interior designer. In the United States, there are no federal guidelines for the licensing of interior designers and in most states, even getting NCIDQ certified without a diploma is possible.

There are, however, some restrictions that you should be aware of if you’re planning on becoming an interior designer without having a degree:

  • The International Interior Design Association (IIDA) requires its members to have completed a degree program in interior design, architecture, or a related field. Thus, membership within this association will be off limits to you without a degree.
  • In the states of New York and Georgia, you need to have completed a degree to become a licensed interior designer. Interior decorators, however, don’t have these requirements.
  • As mentioned before, around 64% of all interior designer job availabilities in the United States do require a degree. Thus, without a degree, your pool of available jobs will be limited.

Despite these restrictions, though, many of the most celebrated interior designers in the world are entirely self-taught, and it is still possible to have a very successful career without ever setting foot in an interior design school.

Whether you have a degree or not, your success as an interior designer ultimately comes down to the amount of value you can create for your clients. To maximize this value, you’ll need to focus on developing the skills relevant to interior design. And, on-the-job training is very common in this industry, so getting your foot in the door with an entry-level job is what you should aim at.

Places of employment for an interior designer without a degree

Roughly speaking, interior designers can either work as freelancers or find work in an interior design studio. In the following section, let’s quickly review the differences between these two work environments.

Working as a freelance interior designer

Many new interior designers without formal education or a large portfolio of past projects begin their careers by working freelance.

When working as a freelancer, the interior designer is usually hired directly by the client. This means that they will be in charge of all aspects of the design process, from the initial consultation to the final implementation. The main advantage of this work arrangement is that it gives the designer a lot of freedom and flexibility. They can usually take on as many or as few clients as they want, and they can also choose the projects they want to work on.

The downside is that freelancers often have to deal with a lot of paperwork and they don’t have the same level of support that is usually found in a design studio. In addition, you will have to be extra good at self-promotion and marketing when you are starting out. Remember that you are competing against professionals with massive portfolios and years of experience.

If you still think that the freelance route is for you, consider investing in a professional website for your brand. There, you can host your interior design portfolio and qualifications, together with the types of projects you specialize in. High-quality clients generally find it easier to trust designers who have an online presence that goes beyond a simple freelancing platform profile.

Alternatively, you can aim for working within an established interior design studio.

Working at an interior design studio

Interior design studios come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some are large, multi-national firms with hundreds of employees, while others are small boutique studios with only a handful of designers. However, the key advantages of working at a design studio are largely the same regardless of the size of the company.

The main advantage of working at a studio is that you will have access to a lot of resources that would otherwise be unavailable to freelancers. This includes everything from office space and equipment to support staff and marketing budgets. In addition, studios usually have a much larger network of contacts, which can be very useful when trying to find new projects or clients.

Now, when it comes to becoming an interior designer without a degree, there is also another key perk – the possibility of finding entry-level work in the industry. For example, becoming an interior designer assistant can be invaluable for someone just starting out in the design industry. You get first-hand experience in the industry while also working with experienced professionals who can mentor you and help you develop your skills.

Of course, working at a studio also has its downsides. The most obvious one is that you will have to give up some of the freedom and flexibility that comes with freelancing. You may have to sacrifice some creative freedom to match the company’s design style, and you will also have to work within their systems and processes.

So, which of the two main places of employment should you choose?

All things considered, if you can find one, an entry-level job in interior design (even as an assistant) would be my recommendation. You can always go freelance at any point in your career, but working for an established design agency early on will help you immensely. Both freelance clients and other interior design agencies will appreciate seeing a well-known studio on your resume or LinkedIn profile, making obtaining future clients that much easier.

Now, let’s go over the step-by-step process of becoming an interior designer without a degree.

Steps to becoming an interior designer without a degree

1. Consider your state's licensure requirements for interior designers.

Before taking any concrete steps towards any interior design career path, I recommend you first take a look at your state’s licensure requirements for interior designers.

While licensure is not federally required to work as an interior designer, some states do have specific rules and regulations surrounding the licensure of interior designers. For example, states such as New York and Georgia require you to complete a degree in order to get licensed as an interior designer.

While licensing is not compulsory, I would strongly advise you to aim for it unless your state has restrictions surrounding licensure without having a degree. If your state allows it, make passing the NCIDQ exam a primary long-term goal as that will make your job prospects much better – both in terms of the quality and quantity of job offers, but also the earnings potential.

Here are a few helpful online resources to read up on regarding state licensure requirements:

2. Pick an interior design career path to specialize in.

Interior designers usually specialize in a certain area of work, which is something you should try to do as well. You’re unlikely to discover an interior designer that works on residential interior design, commercial interiors, and public sector interiors all at the same time.

By focusing on a specific area, you can make yourself more valuable to potential employers since you will have a more comprehensive understanding of the specific design challenges that come with that particular type of design. And, your portfolio will be much more powerful as it will be laser-focused on your area of expertise.

Here are a few common examples of interior design career paths you can choose from, although there are many more sub-paths:

  1. Residential interior design.
  2. Commercial interior design.
  3. Governmental interior design.
  4. Hospitality interior design.

Also, I also recommend considering the career path of an interior decorator. Working as an interior decorator is much less demanding in terms of licensure and regulations, and it’s generally easier to start working immediately after completing a few interior design courses.

3. Start acquiring the skills needed for interior designers.

Once you know what type of interior design job you want to specialize in, it’s time to start acquiring the skills necessary to be successful in that field.

I already covered the specific skills needed earlier in this article so I won’t go over them again here. However, I do want to mention that online courses can be some of the best ways of acquiring new skills as an interior designer.

Not only are online courses generally much more affordable than a bachelor’s degree in interior design, but they also have the advantage of being self-paced, which means you can take them at your own convenience.

Here are three online programs I recommend taking a look at:

While these types of programs will never be a full substitute for a master’s degree in interior design, they will help you develop a strong foundation of knowledge and skills that will be essential for your success as an interior designer.

Also, if you make passing the NCIDQ exam a long-term goal, you’ll need 60 credit hours in interior design classes, and online courses are some of the best ways to get them. Just make sure that the course is from a CIDA-accredited institution.

4. Learn how to work with different interior design software.

Many aspiring interior designers are all too eager to get their hands dirty immediately after learning a bit about the fundamentals of good design. It is understandable that you want to start putting your new knowledge into practice, but you should resist the urge to do so too early on.

Instead, I recommend that you start experimenting with some of the best interior design software that is available today. This will give you a much better understanding of how a project goes from start to finish. In addition, working with interior design software will give you a chance to try out different design concepts and ideas without having to worry about the cost or practicality of implementing them in real life.

5. Build an interior design portfolio.

For an interior designer, the portfolio is arguably more important than their resume. Your portfolio should go beyond just a collection of your previous work – it should also be a well-curated showcase of your best projects that tells a story about your design philosophy, creative process, and approach to problem-solving.

Now, what if you do not have anything to put in your portfolio and are looking to find your first opportunities for work on online platforms? In that case, create some mockups or super small-scale projects (it can be as small as designing a room in your own living space) that you can use to show off your skills. Here, having the ability to create mockups within software such as AutoCAD will go a long way in helping you build your portfolio.

6. Search for entry-level, no-degree interior designer job openings.

In the end, there’s no substitute for on-the-job training.

Whether it’s working in an entry-level role as a junior interior designer or doing an internship in an interior design business, the best way to learn the ropes and gain practical experience is by working with experienced professionals.

Also, keep in mind that associations such as the International Interior Design Association (IIDA) and the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) both place high importance on sponsors and referrals. 

If you jump straight into freelance work, you’ll lack these referrals and you may find it difficult to find anyone to vouch for you. At the same time, working within a company will give you the chance to build up a network of contacts in the professional world that can be extremely helpful down the line.

7. Pass the NCIDQ exam.

First off, I’ll be blunt: the NCIDQ is a tricky exam, and it is not going to be easy to pass. Not only due to the difficulty of the exam itself, but also due to the prerequisites required for taking the exam. Until you have a few years of working experience, you will not qualify for the NCIDQ, and you will also need to fulfill educational requirements to take the exam. This means that very few people are even allowed to take the exam, and despite that, the exam still has a fail rate of around 50%, so don’t take it lightly.

Without having a degree in interior design, the most difficult eligibility requirement you’ll have to overcome will be passing the educational requirements. CIDQ requires at least 60 credits of interior design coursework, and while completing a degree is not required, it still means that you need a significant amount of coursework under your belt. Online programs are a good solution to this, but they’ll have to be from an accredited institution.

Also, if you don’t have a degree, the amount of real-world working experience you’ll need to take the NCIDQ exam will be higher than for a degree-holding applicant.

For example, if you have a CIDA-accredited bachelor’s or master’s degree, you’ll only need around two years of full-time working experience to take the NCIDQ. But, if you don’t have a degree and apply with just a certificate, you’ll need twice that amount: around four years of full-time working experience.

In the end, though, aiming for the NCIDQ is worth it. Licensed interior designers earn $16,000 more per year than unlicensed designers, and completing the NCIDQ will make you a much more attractive job candidate. Just don’t go into it expecting it’ll be a cakewalk: be prepared for a long and difficult journey.

All in all, becoming an interior designer without a degree is entirely possible. There are certain barriers you’ll have to face as someone trying to break into the field without a degree, but none of them are insurmountable. With a bit of creativity, perseverance, and hard work, you can make your dreams of becoming an interior designer a reality. With or without a degree.

Sander Tamm

Sander Tamm

Founder @ Degreeless. I write about online education, self-teaching, and the job market. Last year, my articles were read by over 1 million people and my writing has been featured by Neil Patel, AOL, HackerNoon, The Baltimore Sun, Independent Australia among others.