There is plenty of confusion in the public sphere about the differences between interior designers and interior decorators. What are the differences?

With beauty very much in the eye of the beholder, design is an industry that everyone seems to deliver a comment about – regardless of qualifications achieved or practical experience gained.

The advent in recent years of DIY/home improvement reality TV shows, as well as a huge increase in DIY home renovations, has led to the creation of a completely skewed and false view of what it means to be a professional working in the interior design/decorator industry.

The stereotype would suggest that interior design is all about playing with fabrics and furnishings, while making everything pretty and attractive to the eye. In other words, all style and no substance.

There are a number of distinct and defined differences between an interior designer and an interior decorator which the uninitiated often fail to recognise. Having a clear system of industry registration and regulation, as currently exists in Victoria, is the first step to educating Australian consumers on whether they will need input from an interior designer or decorator for that new pet project.

What is an interior designer?

An interior designer usually holds an advanced diploma or a bachelor’s degree and has studied the theory and practice of construction in detail. The areas of design they will consider and incorporate into a project will include:

  • Lighting design
  • Materials, finishes and colour
  • Design theory and history
  • Building systems and technologies
  • Sustainable design/building practices
  • Design for accessibility and utility
  • Egress in the event of an emergency
  • Project management

As well as designing and decorating the interior of buildings, interior designers have also studied and have a sound understanding of construction techniques, the National Construction Code and relevant Australian standards. Registered interior designers practicing within Victoria can apply for building permits as they have the required insurance, accreditation and knowledge of the building regulations and documentation requirements to do so.

In Victoria, to provide the services of an interior designer (or draftspersons [interior]), professionals are required to hold a minimum qualification and have experience to achieve registration through the Building Practitioners Board (BPB). The registration requires the relevant professional indemnity insurance, and in-depth knowledge of construction techniques.

There are only just over 200 interior designers registered with the BPB in Victoria, of which at least one third are interstate firms. However, a quick glance at Melbourne’s Yellow Pages reveals that more than 1,000 firms are currently advertising their services as interior designers. This anomaly is alarming and is creating confusion throughout the industry.

What is an interior decorator?

An interior decorator may carry out some similar duties to that of an interior designer, however a decorator does not have the required skills to execute the design and construction of a building. Generally, a decorator’s role is to improve the comfort and beautify an existing space or room, as opposed to getting involved in structural planning, access and egress issues, or health and safety planning for occupants.

Interior decorators providing full services as an interior designer in Victoria without the required registration and insurance requirements are in breach of the state’s building regulations.

An unregistered profession

Registration requirements differ from state to state across Australia, with the majority of states currently having no registration process in place for interior design professionals.

Interior design is not alone as an unregistered profession. In most states, professions such as building designers, draftspersons and even commercial builders are unregistered which is creating ongoing issues within the design and construction industries.

Education is key to creating an understanding of the different roles played by interior designers and decorators. In this respect, authorities and practitioners have a crucial role to play in ensuring more practitioners across both professions become qualified and certified in order to secure a better outcome for Australian consumers and the built environment.


Enacting a registration scheme for interior designers and decorators is a massive undertaking, but it is one we believe is now necessary. Victoria has led the way with its existing model of registration and it’s one that can be easily and quickly replicated by other states.

Once industry registration is introduced across the nation, public awareness of the nuances between the interior design and interior decorator professions will increase. As a result, consumers will be more informed and in a better position to decide what skills they require from their building professional.

  • Hi , good article. It is difficult for some people to understand the difference. An interior designer would use home decor products, such as cushions and an interior designer would be looking at structure architecture more.

  • Well outlined definition of the two separate but unified fields of Interiors. To sully the waters even more is the term Interior Architect which has no credible standing in North America but continues to be a subject in some university settings which is misleading to a field already confused by architects, interior designers and interior decorators all claiming to do Interiors in part or whole. In Canada anyone calling themselves an Interior Designer must have passed the NCIDQ exam and have registered to their Province. In the USA 60% of the states have a titles or practice act that restricts the title of Interior Designer following the same guidelines as Canada. It would be wonderful to make the public aware it is not just about titles and names that an Interior Designer through education, apprenticeship, examination AND registration is not only credible but a high functioning professional. The role of a decorator may or may not be fulfilled by an Interior Designer. Where as, the role of Interior Designer is rarely filled by the Interior Decorator, in particular for fields demanding high expertise and extensive knowledge, such a hospitality, medical, educational, offices or transportation structures. Residential Design is the line of conflict and since it is but a small slice of the multi billion dollar field of Interior Design I think the argument is feeble. When high dollars are at risk the owners know the difference between an Interior Designer and a Decorator- or they have a fool for a client.

    • Lynn,

      Your points are very relevant especially about the muddied waters of Interior Architect and now Stylist is added into the mix to further confuse the Interior Decoration profession.
      In Australia the State variations in legislation make registration difficult. In Victoria Interior Designers are required to be registered if undertaking any works that requires a Building Permit. Unfortunately government does little to legislate this and the education providers know little about the government guidelines. Therefore we have a flood of Interior Designers/Decorators coming into the world with no understanding of where they fit in.

  • I cannot thank you enough for posting this.
    I am s DESIGNER, and am frustrated by Decorators and Space Organizers, that call themselves Designers. We went to school for our Degrees, PAID for it, worked hard, and are paid for our expertise. Decorators do not. Do not be fooled by the difference when you pay the bill. Decorators do not get paid anywhere near what a Designer ultimately receive. Don't get ripped off!

  • I am an Interior Architect which i believe some where else in the world is called Interior Designer which in Finland is more or less the same than Interior Decorator which in Finland is more or less Stylist or Visualist…