Architecture vs Interior Design

Architecture and interior design have a lot in common, though a day in the life of the average architect looks very different from that of the average interior designer…

If you’ve always been drawn to the design of spaces, you’ve probably considered both architecture and interior design as career options (amongst others, such as urban planning or creating TV and film sets). Architecture and interior design have a lot in common, though a day in the life of the average architect looks very different from that of the average interior designer.

The two jobs also have very different routes to entry, with one being notably less accessible than the other!

This article looks at ways in which the two careers overlap and differ, as well as some advantages and disadvantages of each. Additionally, it will look at the relationship between architects and interior designers in the real world, as well as at the relatively new job of “interior architect.”

What is an architect?

In short, architects are people who make buildings. They think of ideas, create plans and drawings, and in some cases see through the construction of their buildings, working with other experts. Architects are often said to be both scientists and artists, since they have to create buildings that are safe and functional but also aesthetically pleasing.

Today, architects also need to be experts in CAD software. For more detailed information on the role of an architect, you might like to read the following articles on our website:

The Meaning and Definition of an Architect

What Does an Architect Do?

Types of Architect

What is an interior designer?

Interior designers make sure that the inside of buildings are safe and comfortable for people to use. The job does not, as many people perceive, consist mainly of choosing nice curtains and matching the rugs to the wallpaper!

However, interior designers do need a strong sense of visual harmony, as well as a thorough understanding of what makes an indoor space function well. You can find more information about the role of an interior designer from your national industry supporting organization.

What are the major differences between architecture vs. interior design?

The biggest difference between the two professions is an obvious one: architects are concerned with buildings themselves, and interior designers are concerned with what goes inside them. 

This is, of course, reflected in their training: architects learn how to construct buildings that won’t collapse, while interior designers learn how to maximize the functionality and appearance of indoor spaces. Another, perhaps controversial, way to think about the difference between the two is that architects tend to do the “harder” technical work related to a building’s structure, while interior designers tend to do the “softer” work related to the psychology of user experience.

(This is certainly not to say that architecture is “harder” work in terms of difficulty; both jobs have unique challenges!)

How do I become an architect?

The route to becoming an architect varies from country to country, but a long (and expensive!) training period is unavoidable no matter where you qualify. In the UK, it takes a minimum of seven years: a three-year BA or BSc plus a year’s internship, followed by a two-year MA or MSc topped off with another year’s internship.

In the US, a combined Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in architecture (known as the B.Arch) will take you five years, supplemented by additional years of industry experience before applying for a license to practice; students can also opt for separate Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, which take longer still.

For more detailed information, see our article How Much Does it Cost to Become an Architect?

How do I become an interior designer?

The routes to becoming an interior designer are much more varied. Most interior designers have Bachelor’s- or Master’s-level qualifications in the subject, although this is not an essential requirement as it is in architecture. Other interior designers have lower-level qualifications such as diplomas or certificates but a wealth of practical experience.

In exceptional circumstances, young people may be able to find apprenticeships in interior design that allow them to study and work at the same time. And again depending on what country you live in, your national body if interior designers should be able to provide further information on this.

What is the role of interior design within architecture?

Modernist architects like Le Corburier or Frank Lloyd Wright liked to control every aspect of their buildings including the fittings, furniture and decoration. The majority of contemporary architects tend not to be so deeply involved with their buildings’ interiors, though there is certainly dialogue between architects and interior designers and more so now than in recent history, when the two fields were kept rather separate.

This new emphasis on interdisciplinary working allows expert knowledge and skills to be combined, producing higher-quality and more integrated products. 

It is also worth noting that the boundaries between disciplines are becoming blurred in the twenty-first century. Traditional interior design courses are changing, incorporating information on the structure of buildings that would previously have been confined to an architecture course.

Some people who have completed this kind of training refer to themselves as interior architects, rather than interior designers, and may undertake slightly different types of work. For more information on this, see the FAQs section below.

Salaries in architecture and interior design

Those outside of the profession often think architects are better paid than they are! Some surveys have revealed that architects feel somewhat dissatisfied with their pay, though others paint a more positive picture.

Salaries vary depending on a number of factors including region, seniority and job title, but average pay for a UK architect is between £40,000 and £50,000. In the US, the average salary is comparable at around $70,000, but again this varies considerably (an architect in the state of Utah, for example, makes just 62% of what an architect makes in New York). For more detailed information, see our separate articles on British and American architectural salaries:

A Guide to UK Architectural Salaries

A Guide to US Architectural Salaries

How does this compare to interior designers? In the US, indeed.com calculates the average interior designer’s salary to be $60,975, while payscale.com reckons it’s just under $50,000. In the UK, jakconsultancy.com suggests they are paid between £18,000 (for a graduate at the bottom of the scale) and £80,000 (for a lead designer at the top); recruiter indeed.co.uk puts the average salary at £35,791.

In short, interior designers earn less than architects over their careers – but this is not really surprising, considering the heavy responsibility that falls on architects to make sure their buildings stay standing, and the stricter entry qualifications that are needed to practise.

Given that someone can work as an interior designer without a degree, whereas architects have long and mandatory periods of training, the pay gap is actually quite small.

Can I work as an architect and as an interior designer?

In theory, as long as you’ve qualified as an architect, the answer is yes. This is especially true if you work for yourself.

However, without an additional qualification in interior design, you’d need to produce a solid portfolio to convince clients that you’re as confident working inside a room as you are on a whole building. In practice, combining the two careers is likely to be quite complicated, unless you work for a highly flexible firm that lets you forge your own path. But it’s certainly not impossible.

Unfortunately, if you’re an interior designer hoping to branch out into architecture, your only option is to go back to the beginning and get qualified as an architect – although see our FAQs below, which discuss the hybrid job of interior architect.

Should I study architecture or interior design?

That’s a decision only you can make. On a practical level, architects are likely to earn more overall, but when offset against all those years of study and internships, the difference is not that significant.

If you suspect you might like to do both jobs, it’s sensible to follow the architecture route because adding interior design to your portfolio later is always an option. The reverse is not.

The best way to choose is probably to follow your interests, skills and priorities. If you’ve always hated math’s and physics, it’s possible to be a competent architect but you’re likely to experience a good deal of frustration, too. If you know you’re a born creative, you might save yourself a lot of heartache by training as an interior designer rather than an architect; the unfortunate truth is that architects spend a lot more time hunched over a laptop, perfecting technical drawings, than they do coming up with novel ideas. 

There’s also the issue of status. It would be pointless to deny that architects are held in higher social esteem than interior designers, most likely because interior design has historically been associated with domesticity and “women’s work”. Thankfully this is changing fast, but it’s unrealistic to think the stereotype is dead and buried. 

FAQs

Does interior design fall under the umbrella of “architecture”?

Yes and no. Interior design will be covered on any architecture course, and it’s perfectly feasible for a qualified architect to work as an interior designer without any (or much) additional certification.

The skills required for the two jobs overlap in a number of areas. However, many interior designers would likely suggest that since they graduated in their subject alone, one module of an architecture degree cannot hope to provide a thorough understanding of the field.

Someone who has spent three years studying interior design will naturally have a deeper understanding of it than someone who studied architecture for seven.  

Is it better to be an architect than an interior designer?

There’s no “better” when it comes to jobs. If you want more money, being an academic is usually better than being a care worker. If you want to see how your work helps people in the real world, being a care worker is probably better than being an academic!

As mentioned above, architects tend to have higher status and earn slightly more money, but probably not enough to justify the initial expenditure on training unless you’ve a passion for building, and nothing else.

Most people also consider interior design an excellent, even rather glamorous, career; it’s the comparison with architecture that tends to devalue it. 

What is the difference between an interior designer and interior architect?

Interior architecture is a subject of study that has emerged only recently. Someone who describes themselves as an “interior architect” is unfortunately not an architect; they have not gone through the training required to practice architecture, so are barred from using the name.

But interior architects are not the same as interior designers, either, since they are engaged with the structure of buildings as well as with their aesthetics. We could say an interior architect is a mix between an architect and an interior designer. 

What exactly does an interior architect do?

Interior architects have their fingers in more pies than interior designers. Conceptualizing an interior is of course the main part of the both jobs, but interior architects are usually involved throughout the whole building design (or renovation) process.

Interior designers tend to be called in towards the end. Interior architects need a greater understanding of buildings’ structures and how different materials work. They will probably need to use CAD software. And they will need to stay up to date with building regulations at local and national levels, to make sure the designs they propose will meet them. 

Summary

Both architecture and interior design are well-paid careers with good future prospects, since people will always need safe and comfortable buildings! It takes more work to break into architecture, which is reflected (although not dramatically) in average salaries; it is also much easier for a qualified architect to work as an interior designer then vice versa.

Interior designers, on the other hand, generally have more scope to work creatively and see their visions become reality, even at less senior levels.

Which career you choose will depend largely on the passions that drive you, and how you prefer to spend your days – but both architecture and interior design are respected, and more importantly enjoyable, ways to spend a working life.

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