Interior Designers – More than Decor

by Emily Starbuck

January 2, 2019

While most people recognize interior designers from home renovation shows, the occupation encompasses much more than choosing paint colors or buying furniture for homes. Interior designers plan, design, and furnish interiors of not just residential buildings, but commercial and industrial buildings as well. Nationally, most interior designers work for firms in the specialized design services industry, but may also work for furniture stores, or for construction and contracting companies.

In 2017, 822 interior designers worked in Oregon, with 80 percent of them employed in the Portland tri-county area (Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas counties). Outside of Oregon, high population states like California, Florida, Texas, and New York employ the most interior designers. However, interior designers in Oregon earn higher than average wages. The median hourly wage for interior designers in Oregon was $25.94 in 2018, almost $7 higher than the median for all occupations ($19.09). Workers in the Portland tri-county area made slightly more, at $26.55 per hour. Designers who are self-employed may charge clients based on the hours of work required, the square footage of the space, or a flat fee for an individual project.

Types of Interior Designers

While interior designers can work on many different kinds of projects, many fall into two broad categories – residential or commercial design. Residential designers primarily work in homes or condos, and focus on creating a livable and aesthetically pleasing design based on the customer’s wants and needs. These designers may be involved from the ground up with initial construction, or design renovations of existing spaces.

Commercial designers are responsible for non-residential spaces. Some specialize in a specific kind of commercial design, like office buildings, hotels, restaurants, or retail stores. Commercial designers are also concerned with the aesthetics of their spaces, but the larger scale means these designers must think of functionality and infrastructure needs first and foremost, and may work more closely with the building contractor or architect.

Designers in both residential and commercial spaces may focus on certain areas of the home, like bathrooms or kitchens; specific industries, like education or health care; or special interest fields, like environmentally sustainable design.

Day-to-Day Work & Skills

Much of an interior designer’s work varies based on their specialty and stage of their projects. Commercial designers may spend a day coordinating with their building contractor to go over blueprints for a new construction. Residential designers have to pitch their designs to clients and incorporate their feedback into design revisions. All designers should have the skills to estimate project costs and timelines, select and order materials and building fixtures, and create both technical and illustrative drawings of their designs. The Occupational Information Network (O*NET) identifies more knowledge, skills, and abilities needed for success in this occupation, as seen in the table below.
Though certain skills have not changed over the years, new technologies have changed the way interior designers work. The majority of designers now utilize various computer programs to assist in their work. Computer-aided design and drafting (CAD) programs allow designers to easily create and change sketches and floorplans rather than using traditional pencil and paper drafting. Interior designers also use building information modeling (BIM) software to create 3D models of their designs.

Education & Training

Typical entry level education for this occupation is an associate’s degree, but those with a bachelor’s degree have a competitive advantage in this labor market. In Oregon, three schools offer bachelor’s degrees in interior design or interior architecture: The Art Institute of Portland, Oregon State University, and University of Oregon. University of Oregon also offers a master’s degree in interior architecture. Portland Community College offers an associate’s degree in interior design with a focus on residential design, as well as one-year certificate programs in kitchen and bath design, sustainable design, interior furnishings, and design for accessibility and aging in place. Students often supplement their education with internships to gain experience in the field before graduation.

With the growing emphasis on sustainability in construction, interior designers may choose to pursue certification in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) from the U.S. Green Building Council. This certification ensures that a designer can create projects with sustainable practices, like increased energy and water efficiency.

Employment Outlook

While historical employment data for individual occupations is not available, employment in the largest industry sector for interior designers – interior design services – declined during the Great Recession. Post-recovery, employment opportunities in the interior design services industry have increased. As of December 2018, there were 43 unique job ads for interior designers in Oregon, based off of data from Help Wanted Online (HWOL). Of those 43 jobs, nine were posted in the last month. The average number of total job ads has increased over the past year, while the number of new ads has remained steady, suggesting that employers are finding it more difficult to fill these positions. Nearly half of the total ads and two-thirds of the new ads are for jobs in Multnomah County.
According to the Oregon Employment Department's occupational employment projections, the number of interior designers is projected to grow by 19 percent from 2017 to 2027, with 99 projected annual openings. This occupation is expected to grow faster than the 12 percent average for all occupations statewide. The majority (84%) of these openings are replacement openings to fill existing positions rather than new growth openings. This is slightly lower than the ratio for all occupations, where 91 percent of openings are replacements. Most of the projected openings will be located in the Portland tri-county area.

Whether they are renovating a kitchen or drafting plans for a new hospital, interior designers apply their artistic talents to create real-world solutions. Beginning with postsecondary training, aspiring designers can start on their path to a middle-wage job. The overall outlook for interior designers is positive, since there will always be demand for functional, sustainable, and attractive spaces to live, work, and play.

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