I'm No Decorator

I began writing this post with the intention of explaining why and when someone should hire an interior designer (and so help me God, I will write it!).  It struck me, however, that most people in the general populace really don’t understand what interior design is or what exactly interior designers do.  We are perpetually downgraded with the moniker of decorator, and some people (even some in this field!) think that’s A-okay.  I do not.  There are many misconceptions and bad information flying around out there.

Here are some of the things I have heard after telling people I’m an interior designer, as well as statements I’ve heard made about interior designers:

“That’s cool.  Do you get to, like, draw a lot?”

“I always wanted to do that!”

“You mean, you’re a decorator?”

“Oh, an inferior desecrator!”  (contractors are particularly fond of that one)

“Oh!  You need to watch HGTV!”

“Interior design?  That’s for faggots and cheerleaders.” (seriously, someone actually said that to me)

“What’s your signature style?  Do you like shabby chic?”

“I just LOVE interior design!  It’s a hobby of mine.”

“Don’t you just love shopping all day?!”

“Oh, so you mean you pick out colors for people?”

“You tell people what kind of furniture to buy?”

“So let me ask you a question.  Is it still in style to use carpeted toilet seat lid covers?  Do people still do that?”

“Why do you have to do drawings for that?”

“Wow, you know how to measure a room?  And you have your own tape measure too?”

“You should see my house.  I built all the cabinets myself.”

“I’m going to buy all my own fabric from (insert fabric retailer here) myself, but I’ll show them to you and you just let me know if they’re okay.”

“I studied that in school, but when I realized how much paperwork was involved I decided to become a personal trainer instead.”

“With the existence of Pottery Barn, there is no excuse for anyone to live in an ugly house anymore.”

Allow me a moment to muster up my dignity. (Takes deep breath, smoothes shirt, has a glass of water…)

You can see I have my work cut out for me. 

When I discovered the field of interior design in college, there were many aspects of design that appealed to me and ultimately lead to my decision to make it my life’s pursuit.

Interior design combines the technical, analytical, and scientific skills and knowledge of architecture with creativity, art, and the pursuit of beauty.  It’s a practical and useful art form, and it’s also a science.  It works in tandem with the grand “macro” scale of architecture by focusing on the “micro” details of human scale and how actual human beings relate to and function within their built environment.  Every project, every space, every person using a space is different, so every project is a unique three-dimensional puzzle with many right answers and very few absolutes.  Good design makes people’s lives better, whether it’s furniture design, product design, architecture, landscape design, urban planning and design, or interior design which draws from all of these disciplines to create unified, holistic environments that inspire, comfort, nurture, heal, uplift and delight people.  It is beyond simply decorating.

First of all, I learned the science of interior design in college.  Space planning, architectural drafting, the history of furniture and art and architectural design movements, color theory, lighting, how things are built and made, the elements and principles of design that are universal to all things that human beings create, and textiles.  The Americans with Disabilities Act (which celebrates its 20th anniversary today) had just been passed while I was in design school, so we learned how to incorporate universal design and accessibility for all into every space we designed, and how the structure of the human body dictates how buildings get built, furniture designed, and tools made.  We learned that there is power in the built environment: the power to improve and enhance peoples’ lives as well as the power to make it difficult, unsympathetic, and a misery for people if spaces are not designed well. 

Beyond school, I worked for experienced licensed professionals until I was eligible to take the qualifying exam (called the NCIDQ) and apply for my own license.  It was a grueling, difficult, and extremely rewarding mark of achievement when I finally passed that exam, and as a regulated professional I take continuing education classes on an ongoing basis to stay current with this ever-changing industry.  I take the professional part of my profession very seriously, and consumers of design services should care whether the designers they hire have the education and credentialing to go along with their style-sense.  It can be the difference between a snake-oil salesman and a doctor.

So, in a very practical, boots-on-the-ground kind of way, what does this all mean?

Diagnose and analyze, examine and research, think critically and act creatively, and execute, all the while making the process for the client smooth, as hassle-free as possible, and thrilled with the results.

Diagnose and Analyze

In a nutshell: listening.  I listen to the needs and desires of my clients.  Reading between the lines and hearing the things that get left unsaid are important components of listening too.  Designers have to “condense fact from the vapor of nuance.” (Thank you, Neal Stephenson, author of Snow Crash)

Examine and Research

Searching for products that fit the needs of the people that will use them, reviewing case studies, code compliance, watching, learning, sourcing, and investigating.  The industry has (finally!) evolved to incorporate sustainability into this process as well. 

Thinking Critically and Acting Creatively

This is a big one.  This is where hands and pencils meet paper, and drawing things with precision and technical skill will reveal whether an idea in my head will actually work in real life.  It’s about looking for new ways to solve problems, and being open to new ideas.  It’s about critically thinking about how to solve a problem and projecting out the possible consequences of every design choice I make to make sure that potential hiccups are headed off at the pass.


Yes, there is a lot of paperwork involved in what I do.  I take copious notes.  Specifying products requires writing down every single detail that goes into a completed item and how it integrates with the whole design, noting every person I speak to in the supply chain, and following up regularly to make sure critical steps aren’t missed and that everyone responsible for their portion of the puzzle does what they’re supposed to do when they’re supposed to do it.  Execution is the leadership position that coordinates all the players on a project to work together as a team, and solves problems when things go wrong.  Organizational skills are imperative, and people in the building trades appreciate it.

Does any of this process involve decorating?  Yes, of course it does, and if I’ve done my job as a designer well, beauty is a natural result.  Decorating is certainly fun.  It’s the icing on the cake, but it’s not the cake itself, and if the cake itself is no good, then the best looking icing in the world isn’t going to make it good.  Do I sometimes get asked to select paint colors and provide decorating services only?  Yes, occasionally, and that’s okay- I like the decorating aspect of design too, just don’t call me a decorator.

5 comments on “I'm No Decorator

  1. Love it! I am not an interior designer but a designer of area rugs. As you know, I work w/ interior designers. I can not tell you the comments I get when carrying samples around. Thank you for highlighting the training and complete thought process we all go thru for projects large and small!

  2. You are my hero for the day, this is an incredible post. I not even done with school and I’ve gotten most of those comments and more… I explain sometimes we are trained to code just like an architect would be. And being a little dramatic, we can even safe lives by applying safety procedures… but they always see you as the decorator.. help me choose the color… LOL Thank you this was inspirational…

  3. Hear hear. In a nutshell the general public needs to understand that “decoration” is a part of Interior Design, not an equal to it. Very nice post.

  4. You are incredibly gifted and a designer of the highest caliber. Thank you for saving me from making some costly mistakes. No one should ever spend thousands of dollars renovating without using the expertise of a qualified, licensed designer.

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