Interior design certification: What's it all about?

When I would tell people I was studying for an interior design certification exam, the common response always seemed to be, “What are you taking that for?” In Michigan, there are no laws granting special privileges to certificate-holding designers. In fact, most people don’t know that a proficiency exam like The National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) even exists. So what was the reason I was taking this exam?

Contrary to what some people believe, a qualified interior designer does much more than pick colors and fabrics. The NCIDQ is an exam to identify designers competent in the practice of interior design, especially concerning the public’s health, life safety, and welfare. The exam is a total of 15 hours, and covers a wide breadth of topics including space planning, lighting, sustainability, and project management, among other topics.

Organizations such as the American Society of Interior Designers aim to help individuals who successfully pass the NCIDQ gain licensure. While you don’t currently need to be licensed to practice interior design in Michigan, these groups hope to protect designers who have proven their skills and knowledge by passing the exam from being “pushed out” of the industry. With licensure, the label of “interior designer” would be reserved for those who are certified, while the non-certified designers would be referred to as “interior decorator.” However, most designers primarily care about gaining rights and privileges – like sealing drawings, which is only allowed by licensed architects.

Unfortunately, the idea of licensure has been discussed for decades with little progress, mainly because people outside the design industry do not understand the skill involved. Many of these people naively lump the importance of interior designers’ work with that of barbers and manicurists [Wall Street Journal]. This type of career association undermines the importance of interior designers and creates a hurdle for establishing credibility.

Despite the sometimes skewed perception of the public, it’s important that a designer thinks through the many issues that directly relate to the public’s wellbeing. Concerns we face involve a whole host of issues, including how high something needs to be mounted so people don’t whack their head, how to increase the daylighting of a space that has small or no windows, or even the slippage coefficient of tile flooring so an area doesn’t turn into a Slip‘N Slide when wet. Addressing these potential issues makes for good, smart design that often goes unnoticed until you are in a space that is poorly designed.

So getting back to the original question, why was I taking this exam? Too often the perception of an interior designer is someone who only chooses furniture and finishes. While this is one aspect, the knowledge of how to plan the space correctly and safely is the biggest responsibility. Although the NCIDQ doesn’t legally certify us in Michigan (yet!), when you see all there is to know to pass the exam, you realize just how important the designer’s role is – whether the law says so or not.


Header image via

DesignSarah Brooks