What Do Interior Designers Learn in School?


I was at a friend’s house recently sitting on the floor, staring at her rug trying to remember what type of weave it was (cut pile?) and what that particular type of binding was on the edge, and it got me thinking–do people have any idea the width and breadth of the stuff interior designer are taught in school? I know I had no idea going in about the vast array of things I would be taught, and certainly had I known the amount of math and science I would be required to learn, I would have been like “oh hay-ell no. Buh bye.”

My very first design professor in my Introduction to Interior Design class told us on the first day “if you think you are going to be learning how to plump pillows and pick wall colors, you are in the wrong place and you should leave now.” I had another professor a few semesters later (who was an architect) tell us that she thought interior designers are some of the smartest people around. Now that I’m on the other end of the degree, I can see why. Not only do we need to be an artist, a creative and a maker, we have to understand the science and technology behind the furniture and lighting and materials we are using and specifying in interiors. So, what do we learn? Here are some lists that I am spitballing, as all my notes and books are in storage in my parents’ basement on the other end of the country:

  • Codes codes codes: building codes, fire codes, ADA codes, local zoning ordinances… how many people are legally allowed in a space, how much distance you can have between exits, how many exits you need to have
  • Building systems: plumbing, HVAC, electrical, etc…
  • Building construction: timber frame and steel construction, all the other various methods of building construction… the anatomy of a building from the floor to the ceiling
  • History! My favorite. The development of architecture and interiors from the Egyptians to the present day. East, west, north, south… how and why people build buildings and how that has changed based on culture and time and technology and a whole host of other factors
  • Art… how to draw/paint/sketch with watercolor and marker, pens and pencils. Not only do you have to know how to functionally and aesthetically design a room, but you have to know how to render it in a way that communicates the feel of the space to a prospective client
  • CAD/BIM (Computer Aided Drafting/Building Information Modeling)… now that you know what materials and furniture you want to use, their chemical content, flammability and construction, time to draw it in 2D and 3D. And as I’ve found in my post-grad school job search, it is not enough to only know the drafting program your school taught (in my case Revit), firms are looking for someone who knows the other biggies (Sketchup and AutoCAD)
  • Business procedures! This class has been very handy in the first few months post-graduation. How to write a business plan, contract, RFP, some other acronym that I am forgetting, national licensing laws: where it is legal to practice design without having passed the NCIDQ
  • Hand drafting: drawing 2D and 3D floor plans, furniture, spaces, etc by hand. I’m still a little too traumatized by this class several years later (and still suffering from carpal tunnel), so if you want to learn more about hand drafting, check out Ching’s book.  Here’s an interesting comment thread on the hand drafting vs CAD debate.
  • The various weaves of carpet and fabric, what all the various synthetic and natural fabrics are, their construction and flammability
  • Materials… tile, wood, paint, etc… all the different materials for residential and commercial applications; when and where you should use each material
  • The different areas of design practice: residential, commercial, healthcare, education…
  • How to work with architects, engineers, contractors, sales reps and other vendors you will meet along the way
  • Green design! Sustainability, what in the heck is LEED, how and why you should pass the LEED Green Associate exam. How many gallons of water a toilet uses per flush, how and way water and light are absorbed in different materials, all the other gazillion ways to design “green” that doesn’t involve just recycling
  • Lighting. Oh geez, this was a doozy. Incandescent vs. fluorescent vs LED vs halogen vs all other various light sources. The difference between a bulb and a lamp. Here’s my notes from class if you’d like to take gander and the absurd amount of science and technology we have to learn
  • A gazillion other things I am forgetting

This is of course varies from school to school, but programs that are CIDA accredited have guidelines they have to follow, so you can expect similarities in U.S. accredited schools. Have I missed anything? Let me know in the comments.






PS… Here’s an awesome video on why interior designers matter:

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