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How an interior designer, interior decorator, architect and building designer are different

Although each have similarities and are often used interchangeably, there is a distinct difference between interior designers, decorators, architects and building designers. Find out which one you might need for your next project.

You’ve got a project 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. Well it all comes down to your own needs as there is no one size fits all for every project as many factors come into play.

To help you in understanding which design professional to engage for what, 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.

When it comes to projects for the interior, whether it’s a restaurant, café or a residential project, there are a range of people you can work with to bring your ideas to reality, they each vary slightly in terms of skillset, knowledge and project management.

Interior decorator

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.

Where the skill of the interior decorator comes to the fore is in styling, staging and general aesthetics. They operate solely within the already built form and look for ways to use soft furnishings – colours, furniture, finishes and fabrics to create a cohesive look.

Interior decorators and stylists often work on installation-type projects – for instance real estate, events and displays. 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

  • Property styling

  • Decorating a new home

  • Venue or event installation

Interior designer

Although often mistaken for decorators, interior designers can tackle a much broader scope of work. This comes back to level of training, as an interior designer will have an undergraduate qualification having studied for 3-4 years in a university degree.

Pipit fine dining restaurant

In addition to understanding aesthetics and how to deploy them in a space by conceptually bringing together materiality, furniture and proportion, an interior designer 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 designers are also not limited to residential design. In fact, many interior designers specialise in a particular sector as they each bring their own unique requirements. Commercial interior design, which I mostly work in, covers hospitality design – cafés, restaurants, hotels and venues – as well as workplace fit-outs, retail mixed-use and multi-residential design.

Interior designers 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 designers 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 (contract administration). Because interior designers 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.

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.

When you would hire an interior designer

  • New commercial fit-out design work – hospitality, retail, workplace, health and beauty, and various mixed-use projects

  • New build residential work – working alongside an architect to help refine and develop the interior spaces

  • Commercial refurbishments – taking existing spaces and reconfiguring them to suit a client’s needs across the core sectors of hospitality, retail, workplace, health and beauty and mixed-use

  • Residential refurbishment – projects that incorporate extensions and structural changes, factoring in existing conditions to make the best outcome

Ballina Insurance Brokers workplace fitout

Interior architect

There has been a trend in recent years for interior designers to call themselves interior architects. This is the result of the role and remit of the interior designer often being misunderstood. An interior architect is the same as an interior designer.

I find it challenging to call myself an ‘interior architect’. Architecture is a highly regulated industry. Studying to be an architect takes 7-8 years, and several more to sit for registration. It’s also illegal to call yourself an architect if you’re not registered. It’s similar in that way to the law industry. I understand why many interior designers have felt the need to assert their skill level but it is something of a contentious issue.

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

Smart Energy II office fit-out


An architect is the most highly qualified having spent 7-8 years at university up to a Master level, followed by several more years logging hours on various projects and sitting for registration. Because of this vast experience they can work on any type of project without restriction.

As mentioned, an architect can only legally be called an architect if they’re registered with the state-based registration board. In order to keep their registration they must keep up with Continuing Professional Development so that their practice is up to date with all the latest standards and industry guidelines.

An architect can work to any scale and they often find specialisations. For instance, some architects prefer to only work on residential projects, while others work in the commercial sector designing the towers and large-scale projects that define our cities.

Given their level of expertise, an architect can charge higher fees for the work that they do, which is why you should consider the needs you have for your project. If it’s a smaller scale project, or only encompasses interior design work, you may not require an architect for the job, especially if budgets are a concern.

Architects and interior designers often team up on projects to ensure the best outcome. With architects meticulously focusing on the visual structural and performance details of a building, an interior designer will carefully resolve the interior spaces to ensure that the project works harmoniously together as a whole. Larger architectural firms will have an in-house interiors department while smaller architectural practices will collaborate with interior design agencies as the project requires.

When you would hire an architect

  • You’re doing a large-scale development project – multi-residential or commercial for example

  • You have a complex site – steep slopes, strict heritage works

  • There are a lot of structural considerations

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've got a potential project in the works, we offer an online package service, which you may find helpful.

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