You may hear the terms interior designer and interior decorator used interchangeably, however, there are some major differences — including the registration and licensing of professional interior designers. So, how do you become a licensed interior designer?
Similar to the process of becoming a licensed architect, interior designers must pass a series of professional exams administered by the Council of Interior Design Qualification (CIDQ) titled The National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ). For nearly 50 years, the strenuous requirements of the NCIDQ Examination have enabled clients and employers to have confidence in the caliber of work from certified designers.
Education and Experience
Qualification for the NCIDQ exam requires a combination of education and work experience, although specific requirements can vary across jurisdictions (Iowa, for example, has three methods of combined education and work experience defined by their Interior Design Examining Board in addition to CIDQ’s requirements).
Education: NCIDQ applications require at least 60 semester or 90 quarter credit hours of post-secondary interior design coursework and submission of a transcript from an accredited institution. There are a few different routes one can take to qualify for the NCIDQ exam, but overall, each requires credit hours of either interior design or architecture coursework combined with work experience.
Experience: The work hours required for NCIDQ eligibility depends on the route one took for education. For example, a bachelor's or master's degree from a CIDA (Council for Interior Design Accreditation) or Non-CIDA institution requires a minimum of 3,520 work hours (two years full-time). Effective February 2024, applicants must fulfill and document hours in the following six categories: Programming/Pre-Design, Design Development, Schematic Design, Construction Documents, Contract Administration, and Professional Practice. Once education and work experience qualifications are met, one can apply for NCIDQ examination.
NCIDQ Licensing Examination
After completing the required number of hours of working experience, prospective licensed interior designers are ready to begin taking their NCIDQ exams. The NCIDQ is broken down into three exams:
1. IDFX – Interior Design Fundamentals Exam: This computerized, multiple-choice exam includes 100 scored questions and 25 unscored pilot questions. The IDFX addresses the content areas of Building Systems and Construction, Programming and Site Analysis, Human Behavior and the Designed Environment, Construction Drawing and Specifications, among others. Candidates have three hours to complete the IDFX.
2. IDPX – Interior Design Professional Exam: The IDPX is also a computerized multiple-choice exam consisting of 150 scored questions and 25 unscored pilot questions. The IDPX addresses the content areas of Codes and Standards, Building Systems and Integration, Project Coordination, Professional and Business Practices, among others. Candidates are given four hours to complete the IDPX.
3. PRAC – Interior Design Practicum Exam: PRAC utilizes three CIDQ case studies: large commercial, small commercial, and multi-family residential, to assess a candidate’s ability to synthesize information related to the design process and make a judgment using the resources provided. Every PRAC question is attached to a case study which includes various resources surrounding the design scenario. CIDQ case studies include: a project scenario, universal codes, a plan, and other resources that might be needed to answer a question correctly. As with the multiple-choice exams, all PRAC questions are worth one point and the question must be answered in its entirety; no partial credit is given. Candidates are given four hours to complete the PRAC Exam.
These exams are proctored during the months of April and October every year. Test-takers can elect to take one exam, or up to all three, depending on their comfort level with the material. To remain active, an individual must renew their certificate annually by paying annual dues, completing 0.6 Continuing Education Units (CEUs) every two years, and completing five hours of Health, Safety, Welfare focused CEUs every year if they are a certificate holder living in a state or province that is unregulated.
Interior Design Advocacy
One of the ways that the interior design licensure process differs from that of an architect is legislation, licensure, and regulation in local jurisdictions. Individuals who have passed the Architectural Registration Examination (ARE) have the ability to apply for an architectural license in jurisdictions across the United States (there are some states with more rigorous licensure processes). However, the interior design profession does not have the same legislative opportunities in many states.
Twenty-eight states, DC and Puerto Rico, and all Canadian provinces have some level of legislation in place related to the regulation of the interior design profession. In the United States and Canada, interior design is regulated through two different types of law: Practice Acts and Title Acts.
Practice Acts: required certification and registration in order to practice in that jurisdiction.
Title Acts: registration with the jurisdiction is optional and comes with a protected title. In some Title Act jurisdictions, additional practice rights, such as permitting privileges, are offered to registrants.
In 2023, the governor of Iowa signed Senate File SF 135 into law. This bill defines Registered interior design as the design of interior spaces as a part of an interior alteration or construction project including the preparation of interior technical submissions relating to space planning, finish materials, furnishings, fixtures, and equipment, and the preparation of documents relating to interior construction that does not affect the engineered systems of a building. Registration is completely voluntary and does not prevent interior designers from performing their job function if they are not registered.