3 Ways To A Design Career

Three Primary Ways to Become a FL Interior Design Professional Little-Known Facts You Need to Understand

–by Cliff Welles, ASID/NCIDQ

While there are innumerable ways to gain some knowledge and/or experience in the principals and elements of design (attending decorating classes at local colleges, working in a retail location, study at home, etc.), there are really only three main ways to become an interior design professional, discussed below.  We will address Florida practice and rules in particular.

It is important for anyone seeking education, training, or an entry-level position in the field to set a clear goal of what you want to do or BE, before making important decisions on the investment of time and financial resources.   Most states (47 of 50) do not regulate interior design, but the others, including Florida, have restrictions on what ‘non-licensees’ can do, particularly as to work in commercial buildings.  Of course, all states and many municipalities have commercial building codes (i.e. fire, egress, and ADA compliance) to which all practitioners must adhere.

Because everything in this industry happens based upon the selling of ideas, designs, or furnishings, it is critical that you understand that sales, based upon the craft of design, drives all sustainable efforts.   Every sales system requires ancillary systems for marketing, merchandising, order tracking and general business management that must be considered along with personal career goals and decisions.  Are you looking to become employed in the field, or do you aspire to someday have a business of your own?

The three main ways to become a design professional are:

Obtain a 4-year interior design degree from a CIDA (formerly FIDER)-accredited interior design school.

Best for: Those who know their interests are focused on commercial design, with emphasis on the architectural elements, code compliance, eco-friendly specifications, and complicated space plans for large facilities (rather than residential interiors).


  1. A degree from an accredited school is generally recognized nation-wide.
  2. Degrees, licensure, and professional affiliations often imply qualifications to the general client market, and can be beneficial in soliciting design clients at any level or position in the industry.
  3. Some niche job markets in design consider only applicants who have a four year degree from an accredited school, which can open doors for specific micro-markets and specialized skills/interests.
  4. The American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) does require NCIDQ certification for professional members.  Certification requirements for Allied ASID membership are much less.

Things to consider:

  1. Number of years required to complete degree requirements (2-4 yrs)
  2. Cost of tuition & fees (about $15-25,000/yr), plus room/board while in school
  3. Florida’s legal requirements for two years of work to be supervised by a licensee after the degree is complete.  This generally qualifies the graduate to sit for the National Council for Interior Design Qualifications examination which is offered bi-annually in various locations.  NCIDQ certification is required for licensure in Florida  by the Board of Architecture.
  4. Job opportunities in the area in which you plan to live/practice.  What is the job market today?  How many commercial designers are currently being trained in local schools?  How much future commercial work is projected in your area (new and re-modeling)?  Could you be employed today if educated and certified, and for what sort of position?  What are the opportunities for career advancement?
  5. An ID degree generally does not educate the student on how to actually make a design plan come to fruition (supervising contractors, instructing fabricators, coordinating tradesmen and installers, and planning the installation), nor do they prepare the graduate on best business practices, effective marketing, and back office processes necessary for  any profitable business.  In a good design firm, that support is available.  To achieve long-term success, someone has to make it happen because all professional design operations are basically sales organizations.

Purchase/join a support system created for interior decorators and designers, usually a national franchise.

Best for:

  1. Creative entrepreneurs that want to be their own boss but don’t have the time, money, or experience to develop their own marketing, merchandising, or sales and order tracking systems.
  2. People with good business and/or sales experience who have a passion for design, but cannot put their lives ‘on hold’ for four years to go back to school.
  3. Early-retired couples looking to start a business from their home.
  4. Couples or family members desiring a business that can be passed thru estates.
  5. Those who have cash to invest in an operating system and faith that they can turn a better profit running their own business than traditional investments today.



  1. Franchise systems are all about efficiency.  For interior designers and decorators, a samples and catalog library are essential to allow the designer to pull together most design solutions from the office, rather than from extensive shopping at a design center or various local retailers .
  2. A good franchiser has a strong track record, a significant history of development, and extensive support systems (training, marketing, merchandising, sales and ordering, business management) often provided by local or regional support team members.
  3. The franchisee gets the benefit of group buying power (direct accounts with manufacturers often not available to individuals) with better trade discounts on furnishings ; less expensive marketing tools; negotiated outside services (i.e. insurance).
  4. Exchange of ideas and professional best practices among colleagues.  Franchises are usually set up so that the franchisees don’t compete with one another, thereby promoting cooperation for group success.  These exchanges are facilitated by conferences, markets, online webinars and chat rooms available only to the franchisees.
  5. On-line services, such as national and individual websites, ordering and reporting systems, intranet email, libraries of franchise-specific information, and on-demand training add to the efficiency quotient for most franchises.
  6. Franchisors have had years of experience establishing a brand name, enabling the new business owner to start with a recognizable name in most locations.

Things to consider:

  1. Franchise systems typically qualify candidates (experience, suitability, finances, location, and willingness to follow a system) and may have sales minimums required to continue operating under their brand.
  2. Franchisees (the owner/operator) own the business independently, but agree to operate within policies and procedures established by the franchisor.
  3. In addition to the initial franchise fee, franchisers require the payment of on-going royalty fees (usually a percentage of sales) to reimburse the franchiser the expense of support systems, staff for training and new programs, and for their profit.  Ideally, fees are more than offset by the benefits and buying power of the franchise.
  4. Many franchises also charge a small fee for their national marketing fund to pay for electronic and print ads, website development, and national advertising campaigns but at a cost far smaller than what each individual franchisee would incur to develop such tools on their own.
  5. Training is always a critical factor of the franchise system’s experience and an indicator of dedication to make their franchisees successful.  Without formal education, a design professional’s potential will depend first upon personal skills and the quality of the training; then on the ability to utilize the systems provided to maximize success.

Start a business on your own.

Best for those who:

  1. Have innate design talent and have personal experience in executing moderately complex room or window designs, but for whom neither an interior design degree nor the commitment for a franchised business are possible.
  2. Have previous entrepreneurial and administrative business experience.
  3. Seek a part-time position in the field with total flexibility.


  1. No significant investment of time or capital required, other than a presentable vehicle and a professional wardrobe.
  2. Completely flexible timing.

Things to consider:

  1. Without a samples library, this route usually results in a client relationship best described as a ‘professional shopping assistant’.  Independent decorators without samples and direct accounts with industry suppliers usually take clients to retail stores and suggest furnishings to fulfill a pre-determined furniture plan (layout, palette, furnishings, window treatments, area rugs, lighting and accessories).
  2. The seller’s price of furnishings in the retail store is openly displayed; thus the homeowner pays that price to the retailer.  The decorator is therefore only  compensated on an hourly basis, agreed in advance.
  3. The primary benefits to the client are assistance with the plan and efficient use of time required to find the product required for the solution.  Thus, the decorator must be extremely familiar with product lines and retail locations to provide good service to the client, requiring significant investigation prior to the client presentation meeting, usually non-compensated).
  4. Business systems, marketing systems, and bookkeeping are all still required.

The author has been a practicing interior designer, training and supervising dozens of designers and decorators for 25 years with his partner, Judy Underwood, Allied ASID.Together, they own two successful design-related businesses.One has been a top-rated franchise of Decorating Den Interiors, for which they were recently named Business Owner of the Year.

The other was formed to operate as regional manager under a master license, acting as the sub-franchisor for Decorating Den.The regional team they manage in South Florida has been #1 in sales for Decorating Den Interiors for the past 3 of the last 5 years.There are 30 regions and approximately 400 designers and decorators with Decorating Den Interiors throughout the U.S. and Canada.