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What's the difference between an architect, interior architect, interior designer and decorator?

Although each has similarities and you'll find the names often being used interchangeably, there is a distinct difference between architects, interior architects, interior designers, decorators, stylists and building designers. Find out which one you might need for your next project.

Dunes building Lennox Head NSW

You’ve got a project and you’re ready to start – maybe you’ve signed a lease on a commercial space, or are ready to go ahead with that extension you’ve been planning for a while – now you need to appoint a professional. It can be overwhelming to know exactly who to work with. Ultimately it all comes down to your own needs as there is no one-size-fits-all for every project, as there are many factors that come into play.

To help you understand which design professionals to engage, I wanted to breakdown what the main differences are so that you can choose the right team for the job. At the end of the day, it’s all about getting the best result and it will always come back to what you need and the extent of the project.

While each of these professions is unique in what they can deliver, there is a certain level of cross-over in the services offered, which can make it tricky to know who best to speak to. Plus, add into the mix that often architects and designers will have a speciality in certain sectors such as residential or commercial, while others can easily work across projects from either sector.

It's also worth mentioning that quite often these professionals will collaborate with each other. On one project you may have an architect, interior architect and decorator all working together to create a truly considered and well-designed place.

When it comes to projects for the interior, whether it’s a restaurant, café or a residence, there is a range of people you can work with to bring your ideas to reality.


An architect is the most qualified when it comes to designing buildings. Legally an architect can only call themselves an architect once they've successfully sat registration, and this can only be done after working in practice as a graduate of architecture for many years and maintaining a logbook. Architects are also required to maintain their registration by doing ongoing professional development, which means their knowledge remains relevant. Because of this vast experience they can work on any type of project without restriction.

Being one of the most qualified in the building industry – generally 10+ years of study and work towards registration – architects can ask for higher fees.

Although don't be deterred by that as working with an architect may not be as expensive as you might think. That being said though, not every project requires an architect. It really depends on what you're creating as there are different skills and options available.

For larger commercial work, like a multi-storey apartment building, for example, will likely require an architect, but they can also work across smaller-scale projects too.

When you would hire an architect

  • New buildings, particularly larger civic and commercial buildings

  • Major structural renovations and extensions

  • While architects focus on the external and structural aspects of a building they often go through into the interior spaces working through spatial layouts, wet area fitouts and built-in cabinetry

  • Architects will generally manage the full construction process by working with external consultants and the full approvals process with councils and certifiers.

Interior architect

It's becoming more common to see the title of an interior architect come up, while it is very similar to that of an interior designer, and technically speaking it's not a regulated industry like that of architecture, it's good to understand how the roles are different.

An interior architect will usually have completed a Bachelor level degree, sometimes with additional study to Honours or Masters. Because of this extra training, they are highly qualified to undertake building work, with a particular focus on internal space planning and reconfigurations. For instance, in the context of residential design, they will firstly look at reconfigurations of the interior room layouts, window and door positions, roof heights and aspects to the exterior. In addition, an interior architect will work through all aspects of the interiors from paint colours, wall and floor finishes, cabinetry designs and finishes to plumbing fixtures and fittings, door hardware, lighting and electrical fittings. Basically everything that goes into the construction of a home will be carefully considered and selected as a holistic scheme.

An interior architect will understand aesthetics and how to deploy them in a space by conceptually bringing together materiality, furniture and proportion. An interior architect also works extensively with the built form while keeping functionality front and centre. Through their training and levels of insurance they can also work with you on larger scale construction work. This can include spatial planning and layouts, room reconstructions, for instance tearing down walls and adding new floors, custom and bespoke joinery, shop fronts and signage, the list is quite comprehensive.

Interior architects also often take on the role of project manager, effectively collaborating and managing the timeline with the raft of builders, contractors, shop fitters and various suppliers, ensuring that everything is realised to a set deadline. Although broken down into different stages in a project, interior architects will create a scheme, then produce a full construction drawing package for the builder and other contractors, and manage the ordering of all the furniture and materials (design management). Because interior architects are so embedded in the building process, they also work with local councils and private certifiers to get the right permits for a job.

Personally, I love considering how the interiors and the outdoors work together, whether it’s public spaces or planting schemes, the influence of the outside can change how you feel when inside a space.

When you would hire an interior architect

  • Large and small-scale renovations

  • Minor extensions – often working in collaboration with a building designer or structural engineer

  • If you have a specialist sector job, like hospitality venues, retail stores, workplaces, an interior architect will do everything from designing the flow of the spaces and all the built in items to all the finishes, fixtures and furnishings

  • Like architects who undertake interior work, interior architects will often work through the furnishing and decor of the spaces and even sometimes working on ideas for exterior landscaping

  • If required, an interior architect can manage the full construction process by working with external consultants and the full approvals process with Councils and Certifiers.

Interior designer

The term interior designer has become a little confusing. Traditionally what is now called an interior architect was previously called an interior designer. Over the years, though, the title has been used a lot by decorators and this has caused some confusion as to the services these professionals provide.

Although often mistaken for decorators, university-qualified interior designers can tackle a much broader scope of work. But some interior designers have only done a diploma so make sure to ask about the extent that they're skilled in and if your project is more involved with its scope, it would be prudent to work with an interior architect or architect.

We now see the services of an interior designer more focused on interior finishings including wet areas, kitchens and often room reconfigurations.

Although often mistaken as decorators, an interior designer brings together a wealth of knowledge and works collaboratively alongside other design professionals – engineers, architects, landscape architects and furniture makers.

Interior decorators and stylists

An interior decorator will usually have done some formal training, but not to the extent of an interior designer or architect. Generally, they will have completed a TAFE diploma, or something similar.

The skill of the interior decorator comes to the fore with a focus on soft furnishings and general aesthetics. They operate solely within the already-built form and look for ways to use elements like colours, furniture, finishes and fabrics to create a cohesive look.

An interior stylist has a similar skill set to that of a decorator but is even more focused on temporary installation-type projects – for instance, real estate, events and displays. Stylists have a focus on soft furnishings, objects, decoration and art; and can provide staging services for photoshoots or the sale of a property.

Although not always the case, most interior decorators work within residential sector as this lends itself well to their area of expertise.

When you would hire an interior decorator

  • To help with cosmetic updates and changes

  • Sourcing new furniture or art

  • To create a colour and finishes scheme

When you would hire a stylist

  • Property styling when selling a home

  • To style a space for a photoshoot

  • Sourcing props and loan pieces of furniture

  • Venue or event installation

Building designer

A building designer is part of the construction and engineering industry and is capable of designing and signing off on mid-scale structural design work, but only to a certain point. They would have completed a university level degree, often across a range of design related disciplines, but cannot be called an architect without being registered.

A building designer is also often called a draftsperson. Similarly to an interior designer they can design and document projects for construction and get all the permits and certifications and in many states in Australia are required to have insurance. Unlike an interior designer, a building designer would typically work on the external built structure – the exterior and the building shell. A building designer is often not as attentive to the interior aesthetic and function. A good pairing with a building designer would be either an interior decorator or interior designer.

There are some limitations however, for instance a building designer can only work on projects under 3 storeys, after that point an architect would need to check and sign-off the design.

When you would hire a building designer

  • You are planning a large extension to your house or a new detached structure on your property such as a studio or pool house.

  • You are planning to build a new home

  • You have a clear design in mind and need some plans drafted to give a builder for construction – residential or commercial

Questions to consider when deciding who to work with

  • What is the scale of my project – is it purely aesthetic or do I need structural changes or custom-designed joinery?

  • Is it a commercial project ie. Not my home?

  • Will my project require building permits?

  • Do I need guidance in appointing a builder and other tradespeople?

  • Am I building a new premises or home?

  • Is it over 3 storeys? Building designers can’t work on buildings over 3 storeys

  • Am I needing just furniture and soft furnishings to complete my space

  • Do I need design for a commercial kitchen as well front of house design and furniture layouts?

If you're looking to do some work to your home or have a new business to get up and running, get in touch for a free zoom consultation to discuss your upcoming project.


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