Key Differences Between Interior Designers and Decorators

Interior designers have more extensive educational backgrounds, with many holding degrees and professional certifications or licenses. Decorators can learn through informal coursework but do not require a design degree.

While designer or an interior decorator work in related fields, they offer distinct services. Designers focus on technical planning and architectural elements, while decorators provide aesthetic furnishings and styling.

For large-scale construction projects, hire a designer.

For small upgrades and restyling of an existing interior space, hire a decorator. Their complementary skills allow these pros to partner on projects to provide both form and function.

What is Interior Decoration?

Interior decoration involves enhancing the aesthetic appeal of interior spaces through styling, furnishing, and decor elements.

What is Interior Design?

Interior design deals with enhancing interior spaces via space planning, lighting design, construction drawings, and project management for renovations or new builds. The goal is creating functional, aesthetically-pleasing spaces.

How to Choose the Right Interior Pro for Your Project

Should you hire an interior designer for your apartment or a decorator?

Many people use these job titles interchangeably, but they actually refer to distinct roles within the interior design industry.

This post will clarify the key differences between professional interior designer and decorator when it comes to education, services, skills and project types.

Designers take a comprehensive approach, while decorators center on decorative elements
Designers take a comprehensive approach, while decorators center on decorative elements

Client Project Examples

Major Renovation

Sara wants to completely remodel her dated 1990s kitchen and living room. Here are the recommended professionals:

  • Hire interior designers typically to:

    • Create new floor plans and interior architecture layouts
    • Oversee demolition and construction
    • Select finishes like countertops, backsplash, and lighting
    • Review building codes and manage permits
    • Coordinate with contractors and tradespeople
  • Once the major structural renovation is complete, bring in an interior decorator to:

    • Choose paint colors, fabrics, and accessories
    • Style and arrange updated furniture
    • Design custom window treatments
    • Add final decorative touches like artwork

For big structural changes, interior designers handle the technical work while decorators finesse the aesthetics.

Play Video about interior designer vs decorator

Style Refresh

Mike wants to update the look and feel of his existing bedroom without any major layout changes.

  • Interior decorators can help with:

    • Suggest new paint colors and fabrics
    • Arrange and update existing furniture
    • Source new throw pillows, art, mirrors etc.
    • Design a headboard, new bedding, and window treatments
    • Style the space with lamps, plants, baskets etc.

When refreshing a room’s style, an interior decorator can provide furnishings, accessories, and finishing touches.

How much is to hire decorator vs designer

can interior decorator finish the job of interior designer
can interior decorator finish the job of interior designer
  • Interior designers usually charge higher fees given their specialized skills and services. Their fees may range from $50-$500 per hour or 5-20% of the total project cost.
  • Interior decorators typically have lower hourly rates, around $50-$100 per hour. They may also charge flat project fees ranging from $500 for a single room up to $5,000+ for an entire home decorating project.
  • Designers take on more complex, expensive construction projects so their fees tend to be greater. 
  • Decorators charge for work within existing spaces on focused projects with smaller budgets and lower fees.

Education and Qualifications

Interior designers have more formal education and are often licensedcertified, while decorators do not require a design degree
Interior designers have more formal education and are often licensedcertified, while decorators do not require a design degree
  • Interior designers often have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in interior design, interior decoration or architecture. Many are licensed/certified professionals. It is not necessary for interior designers to be licensed to be good at their job.
  • many interior decorators may take some design courses but a  bachelor’s degree is not required. Licensing and certification is less common. It is not necessary for interior decorators to be licensed to be good at their job.

“Interior designers have more formal education and are often licensed/certified, while decorators do not require a design degree.”

Scope of Work and Services

  • Designers interior designer researchescreate interior at small and large-scale, complex projects like major renovations, new builds, and commercial spaces. They take care of technical planning, building codes, lighting design, space planning, layouts, etc.
  • Decorators focus on smaller residential projects that involve furnishing, accessorizing, styling, and finishing touches. They refine the look of an existing space.

Have a project to stage? We know how to do virtual staging effectively >

Designers Offer:

  • Full range of interior design services for projects like:

    • New construction planning and execution
    • Major renovation project management
    • Initial concept and space planning
    • Reviewing building codes
    • Lighting design and lighting fixture selection
    • Material, finish, and furniture selection and sourcing
    • Contractor/trade coordination and oversight
    • Installation and project completion
  • Technical design skills:

    • Floor plans and layouts
    • CAD and 3D rendering
    • Architectural and engineering knowledge
    • Understanding of construction techniques

Interior designers take a comprehensive approach to all stages of a project.”

Decorators Offer:

Interior designers and decorators complement each other - designers handle the technical side while decorators add beauty through furnishings and decor
  • Furniture selection, arrangement, and styling
  • Custom window treatment design and installation
  • Color scheme development through paint, fabric, and finish selection
  • Procurement of fabrics, pillows, rugs, and accessories
  • Artwork and decorative object styling
  • Layering textures and patterns
  • Finishing touches like fluffing pillows
  • Small updates to improve aesthetic

Interior decorators focus on decor elements like furnishings, fabrics, and styling.”

Interior designers and decorators complement each other – designers handle the technical side while decorators add beauty through furnishings and decor.

Interior Stylists

Interior stylists are another type of design professional who focus specifically on styling spaces for visual media like photoshoots, television, film, and websites.

  • Stylists stage and style rooms, selecting furnishings and decor specifically for the camera. Their work is temporary.
  • Decorators also style spaces but their work is designed to be functional for clients to use long-term.
  • Designers do not provide the same specialty styling services for photos/video productions.

While their work has a stylized aesthetic focus, interior stylists serve a different role than permanent interior decorators or designers.

Stylists lend their aesthetic eye to style spaces for visual media while decorators and designers create functional, living environments. Their skills are complementary.

Technical Skills and Budgets

  • Designers possess technical skills needed for major construction and remodeling projects, along with knowledge of building codes, materials, engineering, etc. They work with larger budgets.
  • Decorators do not require the same level of technical expertise. They take on projects with smaller scopes and budgets.

“Designers handle the architectural planning, while decorators provide finishing touches and styling.”

Virtually staged home in traditional style Image by TALLBOX
Virtually staged home in traditional style / Image by TALLBOX

Difference Between Interior Designer and Decorator Budgets and Fees

  • Designers take on large, expensive commercial and residential projects with big budgets. Their fees are higher.
  • Decorators work on more affordable residential projects with smaller budgets and lower fees.
  • Designers may charge hourly consulting fees or percentages of the total project cost.
  • Decorators often charge flat project fees or hourly rates within a smaller budget.

“Project scale and budget is much larger when hiring an interior designer vs. a decorator.”

When to Hire Each Professional

  • For new construction or major renovation, hire an interior designer to handle technical planning and building codes.
  • To refine the look of an existing space with new furniture or styling, hire an interior decorator.
  • If undertaking a major overhaul of layout and finishes, bring in an interior designer.
  • To freshen up your home’s style with updated fabrics, accessories, and furnishings, consult an interior decorator.

Hire an Interior Decorator to Focus On:

Interior decorators primarily focus on the aesthetic, decorative elements of a space:

  • Furniture selection and arrangement
  • Fabrics like upholstery, drapes, and other textiles
  • Accessories and accent pieces like artwork, decorative objects, rugs, etc.

“Decorators specialized in furnishing, accessorizing, and styling spaces.”

Color Schemes and Aesthetics

  • Recommending color schemes for walls, furnishings, etc.
  • Enhancing visual appeal through styling
  • Developing an overall aesthetic and decorative vision for a space

Key Takeaway: Decorators concentrate on the furnishings, color palette, accessories, and overall visual styling of a space.

How Do You Know Your Home Needs a Makeover project? You can find out in Home Makeover Guide.

Finishing Touches

Victorian Terrace Remodeling
Use add-ons with your virtual staging / Image made with midjourney

Decorators add those important final flourishes like:

  • Fluffing pillows
  • Hanging curtains
  • Arranging flowers
  • Styling bookshelves
  • Positioning furniture

“From pillows to plants, decorators excel at those special finishing touches.”

Hiring an interior decorator allows you to leverage their expertise in furnishings, color schemes, aesthetics, and styling to take your space to the next level.

Their core focus is enhancing the look, feel, and functionality of a room through decorative elements and finishing touches.

Hire an Interior Designer to Focus On:

Interior designers handle the more technical, architectural aspects of a space:

  • Space planning and layouts
  • Reviewing building codes
  • Developing lighting plans
  • Overseeing major renovations from start to finish

“Designers focus on the structural side – not just aesthetics.”

Architectural and Technical Elements

  • Floor plans and furniture layouts
  • Architectural features like ceilings, doors, windows
  • Engineering considerations and load-bearing elements
  • Construction planning and project management

Key Takeaway: Interior designers concentrate on the technical, structural side including space planning, building codes, lighting, renovations, and architectural elements.

“Interior designers handle all the architectural planning that serves as the framework for decorating.”

Hiring an interior designer ensures you have the technical expertise to handle major renovations and new construction projects, while also enhancing aesthetics.

Their specialized skills allow them to oversee all structural and architectural aspects.

interior renders from tallbox

Have a project to design? We know how to do interior design effectively >

When to Hire a Decorator vs. Designer

Choose the right interior pro for your project:

  • For new construction or major remodels, hire an interior designer to handle the technical planning and building codes.
  • To refine the layout with furniture arrangements and window treatments, bring in an interior decorator.
  • If making small upgrades like restyling, accessories, or fabrics, consult a decorator.

“Match the interior design skills of the particular professional to your needs.”

Here are two examples of interior design inquiries clients could make when interviewing designers vs. decorators for a renovation project:

Questions for an Interior Designer

Sarah interviewed a few interior designers before selecting one for her whole home renovation.

Here are some of her key questions:

  • What is your background and education in interior design? Are you licensed?

  • How many renovation projects like mine have you completed? Can I see examples?

  • Will you create new floor plans and manage the construction process?

  • How do you approach projects to meet building codes and regulations?

  • What is your process for material selection and working with contractors?

  • What are your fees for full renovation projects including construction management?

If you are into DIY we have entire page how to learn virtual staging software

Questions for an Interior Decorator

Mike needed a decorator after completing a DIY home addition. Here are some of his key questions:

  • What is your specialization and style in interior decorating?

  • Can you share examples of how you’ve decorated spaces similar to mine?

  • What specific services do you provide for decor projects without construction?

  • What is your process for selecting paint colors, furniture, window treatments, etc?

  • How do you work within an existing layout when refreshing a space?

  • What do you typically charge for decor-only projects? What is included?

Asking tailored questions allows clients to assess the expertise and fit of designers vs. decorators for their specific renovation needs.

Completing a Major Renovation (Design process)

Here are two examples of how clients should approach interior design needs for renovations:

When Sarah needed to renovate her home office and guest bedroom, her project involved substantial structural changes. Here is how she approached the interior design:

Work with an Interior Designer

  • Sarah hired a licensed interior designer to handle the technical aspects of the renovation including:

    • Creating new floor plans to improve layout and design plans
    • Render a dozen of interior design renderings of the project with 3D design programs
    • Managing demolition and construction
    • Overseeing installation of new drywall, electrical, plumbing, etc.

Hand Off to a Good Decorators

  • Once the major structural work was completed, the designer handed the project over to experienced decorators to finish the spaces:

    • The decorator selected paint colors, window treatmentsfurniture, and decor
    • Styled and accessorized the spaces with artwork, pillows, lamps etc.
    • Decorators often do not work with architects, since their does not require structural alterations

For renovations involving structural changes, interior designers handle the technical work while decorators refine the aesthetics.

Updating Without Major Renovations

Mike wanted to refresh his living room without any large-scale demo or construction.

Work with a Decorator

  • Mike hired an interior decorator to update the space while keeping the existing layout and footprint.

    • The decorator suggested paint colors, furniture arrangements, window treatments, and accessories to match his style.
    • New throw pillows, artwork, mirrors, plants, and styling elements elevated the look.

For aesthetic updates only, an interior decorator can provide furnishings, fabrics, and finishing touches to refresh the space.

What's next: Complementary Interior Design Roles

While interior designers and interior decorators work in related fields, they offer distinct services and expertise:

    • Designers focus on technical, architectural elements.
    • Decorators provide furnishings, styling, and aesthetic updates.

Interior design and interior decorating play complementary roles in creating beautiful, functional spaces.”

Hire an interior designer for major renovations that require structural changes. Bring in a decorator when refreshing the look and feel of an existing space.

Have a project to design? We know how to do interior design effectively >

Their specialized interior design skills allow these professionals to collaborate, with the designer handling underlying architecture and the decorator layering on furnishings and finishes.

By understanding their complementary roles, you can choose the right pro for your next project!