Is it possible to have a prolific career as an interior designer without attending design school? Or do formally educated interior designers have an advantage over those who are self-taught? Sometimes college students are unsure of their career path, and it’s only after working in the real world that they identify their true passion. In fact, more than half of adults in the U.S. would change at least one aspect of their higher education experience, and 36% would choose a different major if they had it to do over again, according to a study by Strada Center for Education Consumer Insights. So perhaps it is not detrimental for aspiring interior designers to study something related or complementary to design in college, or to begin their careers in another industry before joining the A&D community.

Studio Designer consulted five design pros to find out their stance on self-taught versus formally educated interior designers. Plus, we got the perspective of a representative from one of the best interior design schools in the country. Here’s what they said.

Pro Formal Education…

Living room with blue accents
Gail Davis renovated her historic New Jersey home to be her sanctuary, complete with bold color, texture, and natural light. | Photography by Alison Gootee

Only accredited interior designers may call themselves “certified interior designers”—however, anyone can call themselves an interior decorator. This is a critical distinction. In order to become accredited, one must first complete an associate, bachelor’s, or master’s degree—at an interior design school or a college or university—plus some work experience, then pass the three-part National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) exam.

Just over half of U.S. states require licensure for interior design, but that’s changing. “The continued move toward regulation of professions makes formal education increasingly important for individuals interested in a career in interior design,” notes Daniel Harper, associate dean at New York School of Interior Design (NYSID), who explains that many states either already have or are working toward a title act—which defines who can use the title “certified interior designer”—and practice acts, defining the practices and services of an interior designer. So, with more strict legislation trending across the country, attending interior design school is becoming more of a requirement than an option.

Interior design schools and programs that are accredited by the Council for Interior Design Accreditation (CIDA) “adhere to strict standards that help to ensure the quality of education,” explains Harper. “Just as you would not want to take medical advice from someone who has no formal medical training, the design of interiors should be viewed as equally important to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of occupants.”

…Plus Practical Lessons

Bedroom with wallpaper featuring green leafy pattern
Design by Kendall Wilkinson

San Francisco interior designer and Studio Designer client Kendall Wilkinson believes, “Studying interior design and being formally trained is essential.” She says that interior design school “helps you become more relevant in the industry” because it teaches the basics of CAD and the inner workings of the interior design business. And she notes that the interior design industry today toggles the line of interior architecture too, “and that can only be learned in design school—it cannot be self-taught.”

According to Harper, the benefits of attending interior design school are threefold: “It guides a student through a logical sequence of learning about the profession and skill acquisition [and] exposes students to a broad range of realities about professional practice … things that would not be easily or efficiently learnable outside of a formal curriculum,” he explains. “Also, courses are taught by individuals who have been design practitioners themselves; they’re passing along firsthand experience to help prepare students for the reality of interior design practice. Likewise, going to design school is an opportunity to start a professional network of peers and resources … personal and professional connections for a lifetime.”

Reflecting on her own experience in design school, Kathy Bloodworth, chief design officer at Kendall Wilkinson Design, says, “I learned a lot about the history of architecture and furnishing, and without that knowledge, it would be very hard to connect what is happening now in design. … Studying interior design also gives you necessary lessons to draft and render. … The ability to sketch something out for a client so they better understand your vision is really important.” Bloodworth adds that one thing that design schools lack is a foundation in business that she thinks should be incorporated into every interior design school curriculum.

Pro Self-Taught

Living room with white walls and curtains, and dark accents
A Pacific Heights living room, designed by Scot Meacham Wood | Photography by Nicolas Smith

Prolific San Francisco-based interior designer and product designer Scot Meacham Wood actually embarked on his design career with a degree in business, after he initially attended college on a piano scholarship, then considered pre-law before majoring in accounting. Upon graduation, he accepted a sales position at Ralph Lauren, where he transitioned into the creative services department, where he worked for 13 years. “Polo University,” as he fondly calls it, provided Meacham Wood with a substantial design foundation and poised him to launch his own design business.

“A great deal of running a design firm and designing products is ‘boots on the ground’ experience,” says Meacham Wood, who founded Scot Meacham Wood Design in 2002 before launching the product design and development arm of the business, Scot Meacham Wood Home, in 2014. “Can I use CAD? No. Can I hire someone who can? Yes! Can I paint beautiful watercolor bouquets? No. But I can find the best people who can. The most important part is understanding your strengths, and hiring others to help with your weaknesses.”

This real-life experience coupled with his refined eye for design enabled Meacham Wood to thrive in the design industry. “Having good taste and being able to create an appealing aesthetic is something that one is born with. Some people just have natural talent,” notes Wilkinson. Similarly, Bloodworth stresses, “There are designers who are naturally gifted or who learn best by doing versus being schooled formally.”

Interior Design School + IRL Experiences

Kitchen witch wooden kitchen cabinets
A new-build project with a modern-traditional aesthetic, designed by DuVäl Reynolds | Photography by Markus Wilborn

Studio Designer client DuVäl Reynolds concurs that interior designers do not necessarily need to complete interior design school to be successful—but it helps. After originally going to school for neurology, Reynolds changed his major to interior design. While working at California Closets as a design and sales manager, he realized his flair for interior design and completed his interior design degree before striking out on his own to launch DuVäl Design in Fairfax, Virginia.

“While I am a firm believer that not all great designers must be formally trained, attending design school definitely offers a more holistic view of our industry and the craft. This is a more concentrated approach to learning technique, schematics, and compositions,” he explains. “Formal training also forces you to study topics that a layperson may not consider like art history, color theory, or specific computer programs. It also offers a sense of confidence that can benefit any person in the trade.”

Studio Designer client Gail Davis says she loved interior design school and especially appreciated learning about the history of design. After beginning her career as a fashion buyer for Saks Fifth Avenue, she found her true calling was interior design. Davis attended NYSID and cut her teeth at the highly esteemed design firms Bunny Williams Inc. and David Kleinberg Design Associates, before launching her own company. However, she acknowledges that interior design school is not a requisite for all. “I have friends who never attended design school but are gifted and heavily sought after,” she recognizes. “You can absolutely be successful without any formal training. You can also attend school and still not understand scale or styles. I believe that talent is in you.”

And Meacham Wood is a testament to that logic. “I find that so many designers like myself stumbled into the design trade—with design degrees, art degrees, music degrees, or business degrees,” he offers. “The most important part is a passion to create—and a skill for helping clients to understand your creations.”

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Studio Designer is the leading digital platform for Interior Designers managing and growing their design businesses. Featuring fully integrated project management, time billing, product sourcing, and accounting solutions for the interior design industry.

Featured image: Design by Kendall Wilkinson