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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

Looking inside interior design

By Jack Kazmierski
Special to The Toronto Sun

We've all seen them on TV -- masters of colour, texture, shape and light, able to transform pale, uninviting rooms into welcoming, cosy spaces that dazzle the eye and beckon the senses.

Who are they, and how can you join their ranks? Some are interior designers, but most are interior decorators. What's the difference? Plenty! Anyone with a flair for colour can call himself or herself an interior decorator -- there's no set standard for education. For interior design, there is.
Innovation in design: Furniture store Roche Bobois in Toronto was designed by design firm Figure 3 Network, and won an Award of Excellence for Restoration and Adaptive Reuse at the 2003 ARIDO Awards of Excellence.

To call yourself an interior designer in Ontario, you have to be a member of ARIDO (the Association of Registered Interior Designers of Ontario). "The substantial difference between an interior decorator and an interior designer is education and application of knowledge," explains Joe Pettipas, v-p of H.O.K. Canada, an interior design and architectural firm, and president of ARIDO ( "An interior decorator is fundamentally concerned with the aesthetic appearance of an environment and tends to relate more to residential design.

"An interior designer is not only concerned with the aesthetic environment, but also with the safety, productivity, functionality and usefulness within an interior envelope. Most of our members work in non-residential formats -- shopping centres, restaurants, hotels, office towers, hospitals as well as residences."

In other words, an interior designer is part architect, part decorator, part marketing guru, part psychiatrist and part foreperson. No wonder they have to study their art for years and apprentice for an equally lengthy period of time.

Getting started

The long road to becoming a registered interior designer starts with a post-secondary education. There are several approved programs at post-secondary institutions in the community college system as well as the university system (see sidebar). These are three or four-year interior design programs -- some lead to certificates, some lead to degrees.

After completing their education, graduates must work as interns for another three or four years, depending on the program they choose. Finally, after passing a final exam they earn the right to call themselves registered interior designers.

"So the outside is 10 years from the time you start school to the time you're a registered interior designer," Pettipas says. "The shortest term is probably seven to eight years."

This might be the ideal career for you if you're a "people person," since you'll be working with the public and with clients most or your time.

"To get into the design programs you also need to have certain math requirements," Pettipas says. "Especially (for) the baccalaureate (programs), because there's a fair amount of building science in what we do."

The real world

The starting salary is about $30,000 per year, and it can escalate reasonably quickly depending upon a person's personal skills, abilities, the type of work they do and where they work.

"The majority of interior designers make between $60,000 and $80,000 a year, although I'm sure most of my colleagues will disagree with me," Pettipas says. "As a principal in a firm, or if you have a lot of experience and some reasonable recognition in a market, you might make $100,000 or $150,000 a year, but that really is more the exception than the rule."

And don't expect to work a regular 9-to-5 day. Because there's a lot to learn once you get out of school, and because the industry is ever-changing, graduates end up working a reasonably heavy workload -- "45 or 50 hours a week, for sure," Pettipas says.

"Keeping on top of things is extremely important, and at ARIDO, we have instituted a mandatory continuing education program that all members must go through and prove that they are updating their knowledge."

Most interior designers start their careers working for a firm, and some go out on their own after a period of time.

Here's a typical scenario where an interior designer would be needed on a job: A client plans on building a shopping mall. He hires an architect to design the building. The interior designer is the person who will most often come on board to help the client theme the building, brand it, and develop the interior environment to enhance the client's ability to lease the space to prospective tenants.

The interior designer will also figure out how best to enhance the shopping experience for the end consumer, how building codes apply to the project, and what fire, health and safety issues affect the interior design. He or she will also look at lighting, colour and flooring materials to make sure they're safe. For example, when consumers enter the building out of the rain or snow, what floor materials would be best to make sure no one slips and falls?

In essence, the practice of interior design requires an understanding of the technology of construction, the legality of building codes, the perspective of business: what is the client going to do with the space, who is he selling to, and so forth.

But if you're attracted to the profession because of what you see on TV, beware.

According to Pettipas, what we see on Home & Garden Television, to a degree, glamourized.

"I wouldn't suggest one way or another that what they show on TV is what all residential designers are like and live like," he says. "But decidedly, it's not what the majority of non-residential interior designers are like or live like."

(Jack Kazmierski ( is a Toronto-based freelance writer and editor.)

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