Architect vs. Architectural Designer

You have probably heard people refer to ‘architectural designers’ – but what exactly are they? Do they do the same work as architects? Do they have the same qualifications?…

Architect vs. architectural designer the old aged debate. You have probably heard people refer to ‘architectural designers’ – but what exactly are they? Do they do the same work as architects? Do they have the same qualifications? Do they work in same places?

In this article, we will explain the similarities and differences between the two jobs, including their roles and responsibilities, their salaries, and their perception within the architectural field.

What is an architect?

Architects are qualified professionals who design residential, commercial or public buildings. They create sketches, plans and technical drawings for clients and other professionals, such as engineers and lighting designers. This work involves advanced skills in CAD (Computer-Aided Design) software, although occasionally hand-drawn sketches may still be required.

Architects need a thorough understanding of how buildings are structured, as well as a strongly-developed sense of the aesthetic. They also need excellent interpersonal skills, as they work in teams and with many other stakeholders throughout the design process.

For more information, you might like to read the following articles:

The Meaning and Definition of an Architect

What Does an Architect Do?

Types of Architect

What is an architectural designer?

Architectural designers do similar work to architects, but they are not fully licensed. In the US, it generally means someone who has not passed the Architect Registration Examination (ARE), and in the UK, this generally means someone who is not registered with the Architects’ Registration Board (ARB);

Architectural designers may be people who have finished their studies and intend to become licensed soon, or they may be people with no desire to achieve licensure.

But why would someone choose not to become licensed?

One good reason is that architects are liable for their work under law, which is a huge responsibility that not everyone wants to take on. (Architectural designers do not have the same liability.) Another reason is that a person enters the architectural field having initially qualified in a similar profession (e.g. interior design, product design), and they don’t want to go back to school.

You will meet architectural designers with many years of experience and others with almost none. Some building projects do not require a licensed architect, and an architectural designer will do just fine – as long as that person doesn’t claim to be an architect, which is a protected term. 

What are the major differences between architecture and architectural design?

The most significant difference is the legal responsibility mentioned above. Plans produced by an architectural designer must be signed off by a fully-qualified architect.

In many American states, it is also prohibited for anyone other than a licensed architect to design commercial buildings or those with more than three stories. But architectural designers are also likely to be paid less on average (see the section ‘Salaries in architecture and architectural design’ below), reflecting the fact that they have not gone through the final stage of qualification.

This is not to say, though, that all architects will earn more than all architectural designers. As in any career, salaries increase with greater experience and ability.

How do I become an architect?

In the UK for example, you will need to take a seven-year qualification consisting of five years’ study and two years as an intern. This always follows the same structure: a three-year Bachelor’s degree; one year of practice; a two-year Master’s degree; another year of practice. In the US, you have a little more flexibility. Students who are certain about their future careers usually opt for a five-year B.Arch, which is a combined Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in architecture that must be supplemented by additional years as an intern before licensure.

Students who study a subject other than architecture at Bachelor’s level can take a Master’s-level conversion course (which is not possible in the UK), but it takes longer than a normal Master’s and must also be supplemented by industry experience.

No matter where you qualify as an architect, unfortunately it is likely to be long and costly. Our article How to Become an Architect contains further information on qualifying. 

How do I become an architectural designer?

There are no fixed qualifications that enable someone to become an architectural designer, since they tend (initially at least) to be entry-level staff within firms.

Often, architectural designers are people who studied architecture and completed their academic work successfully, but decided for whatever reason not to proceed to licensure. They could also be people who are still waiting to qualify – for example, American students who didn’t pass a particular section of the ARE on their first attempt.

However, it is not essential to have studied architecture to work in architectural design. Qualifications in related fields such as product design will allow you to move into an architectural office, where you can gain new knowledge and skills on the job. If this is the route you plan to take, you’ll need to play up transferable skills such as CAD when you apply.  

Salaries in architecture and architectural design

The average salaries for architects in the UK and US are roughly equivalent, at £45,000 and $70,000 respectively (the latter is worth a little more). Nonetheless, salaries vary greatly according to a number of factors including seniority, job title and location.

The following two articles contain more detailed information on architectural salaries in both places:

A Guide to UK Architectural Salaries

A Guide to US Architectural Salaries

But what about architectural designers? Can they command similar rates? In the UK, estimates of average salaries range from £27,645 to £42,500 (the lower figure is from payscale.com and the higher from totaljobs.co.uk). The website glassdoor.co.uk suggests that the average salary for an architectural designer is £33,589, within an overall range of £25k to £48k, while indeed.co.uk goes for £37,505 as its average.

In the US, meanwhile, payscale.com estimates that architectural designers take home an average of $53,398; indeed.com goes for $62,259; and salary.com has the highest estimate, $64,600.

From these numbers, it is quite clear to see that architectural designers get paid less than architects. Many would argue this is only fair, since the former are not required to pass the ARE (in the US; the UK has no equivalent final exam) nor to bear legal responsibility for their work.

Fair or not, it’s worth bearing in mind when choosing your career that being a licensed architect will bring home a bigger pay packet. 

FAQs

Can anyone call themselves an architect?

No. You can call yourself an architect if you’re registered with the ARB (in the UK) or if you have passed the ARE (in the US). Nobody else within the field of architecture should be using the word in their job titles.

Controversially, there is no regulation of the word outside of the field – it’s fine to call yourself a software architect, for instance – but within the profession, you’ll fall foul of the law if you say you’re an architect when you don’t have a license.

Can anyone call themselves an architectural designer?

Yes! This job title is not protected. ‘Architectural designer’ simply refers to a person who works on building design for a living, but who does not have a license. Architectural designers include people who studied architecture and people who trained in other fields of design. 

Honestly, do architects look down on architectural designers?

Clearly, this depends on the individuals concerned. In an ideal world, we would all be judged on our skills alone, but some negative feeling may exist towards those calling themselves architectural designers.

Kate Schwennsen, Associate Dean of the College of Design at Iowa State University, suggests that ‘[g]etting a license is not only learning dry stuff like following building codes, it’s becoming a part of the profession. In becoming professionals, we take an oath.’ The concern seems to be that if fewer graduates choose to get their license, architectural work may be devalued overall.

It is also natural that those who endured the arduous process of licensure should feel proud of their achievement and, perhaps, a little protective. However, high-quality work will always speak for itself, and there is no reason why an architect should produce better work than an architectural designer. 

Are architectural designers at a disadvantage compared to architects?

The disparity in pay between architects and architectural designers has been discussed above, but the latter may also miss out on other benefits that the former enjoy.

Architect Jay Serrao points out that membership of the AIA – the American Institute of Architects, which is open only to those who are fully licensed – has provided him with essential links to others in the profession. But as a counterpoint to this, architect John Randolph suggests that licensure is simply not necessary. Describing himself as a ‘practitioner of architectural experimentation’, Randolph claims he would feel creatively limited by the label ‘architect’.

And there is no denying that the ARE is a grueling, expensive exam that is beyond the means of many young graduates. 

Is a draftsperson the same as an architectural designer? 

No. A draftsperson is someone whose specific role is to draw up architectural designs for construction. Like architectural designers, they work within architectural firms, and they may or may not have an educational background in architecture.

But unlike architectural designers, their sole job is to use CADD (Computer-Aided Design and Drafting) software to translate others’ ideas into readable plans. Drafts people earn less, on average, than architectural designers.

What skills do you need to be an architectural designer?

In short, you need all of the same skills as an architect. The difference between the two roles is that architectural designers don’t need to be on top of legal requirements in quite the same way.

Both architects and architectural designers are creative thinkers with an understanding of how buildings are put together and used. They are competent users of CAD software, they are good communicators and team players, and they can work with complex systems. 

Can I design buildings without being an architect?

Of course, anyone can design a building! The question is really whether you can do so legally.

In most American states, farm buildings and individual family homes can be designed by those without a license; it is only when it comes to commercial buildings that rules become prohibitive (though in some states, for example Texas, small commercial buildings do not have to be designed by licensed architects).

In the UK, there is no legal requirement for buildings to be designed by registered architects, but there are plenty of legal checks and balances to make sure anyone who designs a building knows how to do it properly!

How long does it take to become an architectural designer?

It depends how you get there. If you study architecture at university, it will take you seven years to graduate whether or not you continue to licensure. If you graduate in another subject and then apply to an architectural firm as an entry-level designer, you need only have your three-year Bachelor’s degree behind you.

It is unusual for people to become architectural designers without a degree, although in some cases – for example, having many years of experience in a related industry – it may be possible. 

Summary

Architectural designers do, by and large, the same work as architects, but without the same legal responsibilities. They tend to be paid less because they have not gained licensure; however, there is no reason to suppose that a licensed architect will produce ‘better’ work than an unlicensed one.

Architectural designers may be architecture students who stopped short of licensure, or graduates of other disciplines (such as product design) who then switched to architecture. In both the US and the UK they are permitted to design family homes, and they may be able to design other buildings and structures, too.

In sum, architectural designers are just as creative as architects – more so, according to some – but with fewer bureaucratic burdens. So if you’re prepared to earn a little less, in your early career at least, architectural design could be the ideal career for you.

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