The differences between an architect, interior designer, and decorator

To pick between the three, first decide how much you care about the functionality of your space versus how it looks.

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_ It can be tricky deciding between an architect vs. interior designer vs. decorator.
_ Each professional focuses on different elements of a space’s design.
_To decide, start by figuring out how much you care about the function of a space.

So you’ve got a blank space in front of you—maybe it’s a classroom you’re renovating, or a brand-new school—and you’re wondering, What do I do with this space? How do I make it work for students and teachers?

If you’re wary of handling the design yourself, you might also be wondering, Who should I hire for this job?

It’s a reasonable question. By last count, there were more than 110,000 architects and 170,000 interior designers working in the US alone. Hiring the wrong kind of professional can cost you precious money, time, and energy. And ultimately, it can leave you unhappy with the final product.

Before making any buying decision, it’s crucial to know what you should expect between an architect vs. interior designer vs. simply a decorator.

What to expect from an architect

Architects aren’t just in charge of designs related to the building itself, like where the front door should go. 

They think about every aspect of physical space, including how those aspects work together and how human beings will interact with the space. For example, it’s the architect’s job to consider how:

  • Lighting can support the kind of work you’ll be doing
  • A space’s color can put you in the right headspace
  • The layout encourages people to move in the way you want
Acton Academy East Bay, in California, combines multiple design details to serve students and staff.

These decisions all relate to the function of the space. That’s why a door handle that’s hard to squeeze may not be the best choice in, say, a nursing home. Architects design around how a space will be used, and by whom. Great architects design spaces so that people can do their jobs well, feel comfortable, and live to their fullest.

What to expect from an interior designer

Interior design relates to a combination of form and function: how the space looks and how it works.

Many times, an interior designer will make choices based on the client’s sense of taste and style. They may design the space based on the person’s behavior flow or movement patterns, but typically these don’t inform the design as a whole. 

white wooden modular kitchen
Interior designers think about flow and function, but not always as the first priorities.

For example, when an interior designer chooses light fixtures, they’ll often be concerned with how the fixture looks versus how it works. That means focusing less than an architect on how the light supports people and more on the material, color, or size.

If architecture is focused on finding form through function, interior design is often focused on the reverse. It starts with aesthetics and tries to weave in function later.

What to expect from a decorator

Unlike architecture or interior design, decorating isn’t at all concerned with function. It’s essentially a practice of making a space match a person’s visual taste. 

In decorating for a client, a decorator will usually ask questions that pertain solely to ornamentation.

For example, a decorator will happily paint a child’s bedroom within the parent’s preferred color palette, even if color theory research suggests that color could hamper the child’s development.

centerpiece on coffee table beside sofa with three pillows
Decorating caters to people’s tastes, without considering functionality.

Sometimes people make the mistake of hiring a decorator when they really need an interior designer or architect. What ends up happening is the space looks nice, but actually becomes a pain to use. This is because the decorator didn’t consider function in their design process.

If you want a space that serves you well—whether it’s the space where you want to learn, or socialize, or get work done—you need more than a decorator. 

Case study: Makerspace

To better understand how each group differs, let’s see how an architect, interior designer, and decorator would approach the same project. We’ll use a school makerspace as our example.

A makerspace is a place where people can create and build things, because it has the right setup, tools, and equipment for hands-on projects.

To start, the decorator would likely approach the makerspace by asking about the school’s colors, the desired “feel” or “vibe” of the space, and if there are any special touches to include. The space’s design would be based around these choices. It wouldn’t necessarily include the technology, tools, or experience of using the space.

The interior designer would likely take a bit more time to ask about how students will use the space. They’ll still probably ask about the school’s colors and preferred vibe. But they’ll also introduce storage elements for tools and parts, some labels for signage, and lay out the space based on various maker zones, such as woodworking or 3D printing.

Great learning environments support the activities and goals of the people who use that space.

The architect, meanwhile, starts with the function of the space—in this case, making. They ask the educator, and the students themselves, how they’d like to use the space. They’ll ask what goals they have, and what problems they’ve run into in the past. 

If the architect is really worth their salt, they’ll make sure there are plenty of accessible outlets, acoustics for noise reduction (machines are loud!), the right lighting for focusing on projects, comfortable seating for longer periods of work, a ceiling height that promotes creativity, places to safely store in-progress work, and they’ll pick paint colors based on the research into creativity and focus. 

The list goes on.

Picking the right professional for you

Going with an architect vs. interior designer vs. decorator is up to you. It’s based on your budget and desire for a holistic, outcomes-focused design. 

For people who want to beautify their home, school, or office, a decorator or interior designer might suffice. But the only true way to put that money to work—meaning your space doesn’t just look stylish, but is guaranteed to support you in other ways—is to hire an architect.

However, not even all architects will deliver the same experience (which is why we wrote a whole guide just on the subject). 

Be sure to ask any architect you’re considering questions about the functionality of your space, not just how it’ll look—because the reality is, a good-looking space only gets you so far. It may look nice to look at, but spaces are meant to be lived in. If you want to live well, hire an architect that will put your needs first. 

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