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Should YOU Hire a Design Professional?
by Vanessa Gardner Nagel, APLD

Design professionals are a diverse bunch of people.  Some design interior spaces, some design gardens and architecture, while others design graphics, automobiles, fabrics, toasters and the next hot-looking sofa you just can’t live without.  There is probably a designer for nearly everything in your home, right down to your toothbrush.  In essence, you ‘hire’ a designer when you purchase something they have designed because it suits your taste or function.  But when do you seek out and hire a design professional to do something uniquely for you?

Imagine that you want to upgrade and expand your small, outdated kitchen.  You’ve been drooling your way through magazines and have photos of your dream kitchen.  The problem is that’s as far as you’ve gotten and you are still struggling to find enough space and electrical outlets for all the new appliances and gadgets that you’ve accumulated or would like to accumulate.  You have no time for the kitchen because there is too much overtime at work and too little time to attend your child’s soccer games.  Your burgeoning list of priorities take precedence over remodeling a kitchen, so what’s next? 

Or what if you have the time, but lack specific skills, such as installing tile, plumbing, or drywall?  Perhaps you have the time and the skill, but don’t have the ability to envision possibilities.  Even if you have a photograph of the perfect kitchen that provides your “vision” – you may lack the training or knowledge to apply that vision to your own circumstances.   So time, skill, imagination and knowledge are typically the reasons why you hire a design professional.

Having luscious kitchen photos that represent your goal is a great first step.  How do you decide if you hire a design professional or a contractor?  If you need a design professional how do you decide what type of professional to hire? If what you want to do is simply change the finishes or perhaps a few appliances and if you are comfortable with selecting finishes and appliances yourself, then hiring a contractor to install them may be the way to go.  Be ready to spend a fair amount of time in evaluating various finishes and equipment before you make a decision.  The contractor may or may not want to start your project until all decisions are final.  If you find you need help with selections, hiring an interior decorator (perhaps one that specializes in kitchens and may be associated with the NKBA - National Kitchen and Bath Association - might be the most efficient method.  You might discover that some professionals differentiate themselves as designers, rather than decorators.  How do you decide if you need an interior decorator or an interior designer?  Designers typically have a college degree in interior design.  They may have also taken the NCIDQ (National Council of Interior Design Qualification) examination.  The NCIDQ exam is a rigorous exam that designers must take if they want to become professional members of organizations such as ASID (American Society of Interior Design) or IIDA (International Interior Design Association).  The exam sets a standard of excellence in the field of interior design.  It provides the public with an expected level of competence and professionalism from these designers.  Professional members belonging to these organizations often use the organization’s acronym following their name.  Designers decorate, but they also know how to design.  Selecting finishes, furniture and accessories is generally considered decoration.  

Decoration can occur in either a residential or commercial setting.  If it takes place in a commercial setting, then a designer may have more experience in meeting code-required finishes or in specifying commercial furnishings that must meet more rigorous demands than in a residential setting.  Decoration usually occurs after architectural conditions are suitable. 

If architectural changes need to occur, then you will need to decide if you need an interior designer, a building designer or an architect.  Do non-bearing walls need to be relocated?  Does lighting need to be changed?  Interior designers are trained to select and specify lighting, specify and locate new non-bearing walls and communicate this information in drawings for a contractor.  Neither decorators nor designers are licensed in Washington or Oregon.  There is nothing required by law currently, so there is no way to differentiate between these two professions.  It is up to the public to discover whether a person that calls him/herself a designer is actually trained as a designer.  Approximately ½ of the United States requires some form of registration or certification of interior designers, recognizing that their work can affect the health, safety, and welfare of the public.  A decorator’s or designer’s work is limited because they are not licensed. 

Where the work required exceeds a legal limit, a licensed architect might perform the work.  Another possibility would be a building designer, usually trained as an architect, but not licensed as one.  A building designer might work with a licensed engineer to meet legal regulations.  Building designers may belong to the AIBD (American Institute of Building Designers) which recognizes the National Council of Building Designer Certification (NCBDC) for certification.  State laws regulate the practice of architecture. These laws vary somewhat from state to state.  Residential and some light commercial design are mostly exempted from these laws and do not require the services of a licensed architect.

To become licensed, architects must meet rigorous examination and standards set by NCARB (National Council of Architectural Registration Boards).  Architects can use the appellation “NCARB” after their name to indicate they are NCARB certified.  An architect must be a registered architect, to call him/herself an architect.  Many architects join the AIA (American Institute of Architects).  They use the appellation “AIA” after their name in the same fashion as interior designers do with their organizations.  Engineers are required to be licensed and also must meet rigorous legal examination and standards.  They have many specialties.  Those that typically affect the interior of a building would be structural, mechanical or electrical.

Then there is the design of the surrounding landscape. Should you hire a landscape designer or a landscape architect? The differentiation between the two is somewhat similar to that between architect and interior designer. A landscape architect is usually licensed and typically designs public or large-scale corporate or private projects. A landscape designer (also known as a garden designer) will typically design residential gardens and generally has a greater knowledge of plants. Designers are also more likely to address garden art and outdoor furnishings.

It is not unusual for any of the above professions to jointly work together, as noted with the building designer and engineer.  Often interior designers and architects work together.  There are many firms that employ both.  They are often assembled into project teams, especially for commercial projects.  The client reaps the benefits of that combined expertise in several ways: A) architects and designers usually have different hourly rates and B) architects have different training than designers, although there are some areas they each have in common, and C) architects are licensed.

The old saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” applies here.  With your photos, the professional will have the ability to better translate your dream into reality.  Now you can begin the selection process of the design professional most suited to your project. 

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