Interior Architecture vs. Interior Design: Which Program to Choose?

Interior Architecture vs. Interior Design: Which Program to Choose?

This is the sixth of twelve installments in a column, which will explore her experience of combining both worlds that seem so close, yet so far: Interior Architecture and Business. Read the first installment here, second here, third here, fourth here, and fifth here

In the eye of the general public, there might be a vague understanding between the differences of being an interior architect versus an interior designer. Based on my experience, many are more accustomed to the latter, and there is no such thing as an interior architect. As far as my understanding goes, Indonesia itself has yet to establish a fine line between both, and prefer to address everyone within the realm of interior design. In the United States, however, there is some clear division of what a designer does not necessarily need to know and what an interior architect, on contrary, needs to have a great expertise on. Add sustainable design into the table and things get more complicated. For those of you who are interested in pursuing a degree in Interior Architecture, some questions might rise in response: what is the difference between those two? How is the program structured in overall? What are the pros and cons of each? What are the chances of landing a job with a degree in one?

I will try to humbly approach these questions based on my ongoing experience at an Interior Architecture Graduate Program in the United States. Therefore, my explorations are solely based on how the industry here works, although I believe it is definitely applicable in global scale as well.

Q1: Okay, first things first – how do these two terms differ from each other?

There is no doubt that the world of design & architecture often collides or even inseparable from each other. That being said, I think it is fine to establish an understanding that both are based on the same principles and sensibilities. I would say the difference, perhaps, is the depth in understanding architectural structures and building components as well as other supporting structural technical elements such as electrical, mechanical, plumbing, and even basic core and shell knowledge. I would like to describe the program Interior Architecture as a fine balance between art and science in creating a space that will create positive impact in human habitation, in which technicalities are taken into account in addition to aesthetic qualities interior designers have always been dubbed as experts at. In other words, Interior Architecture puts heavier emphasis in the science, and Interior Designers put more art as a priority upon designing an interior space. That being said, both fields deeply explore on space planning, human anthropometrics & factors, universal design, intelligent use of space, deep knowledge on materials & finishes, as well as having a thorough understanding on basic construction management and bidding process.

Q2: How does each program is structured, and what areas of focus does it put more emphasis on?

It’s hard for me to describe how a typical Interior Design program is like, since I am currently enrolled in an Interior Architecture program. However, I believe both will probably offer exactly identical structures with Architecture putting additional requirements for its students to explore on. Having a non-design related undergraduate degree allows me to have a full experience (or let’s rather call it – a long, long, journey) starting from basic design courses to a highly technical, self-directed thesis design project. Depending on how extensive your portfolio shows upon school application, most students with no architectural/design background will kickstart the program with completing basic art & design classes, ranging from sharpening hand drawing skills, fundamentals of three-dimensional design, introduction to perspective principles, interior design communications, and software-heavy classes such as AutoCAD, SketchUp and Revit. At this stage of the program, a student will not necessarily have as much opportunity to ‘design their own space, as the goal of these classes is to equip as much tools as they can prior to enrolling in actual design courses. As one progresses throughout the program, more challenging and design-oriented classes will dominate the program, in addition to extensive exploration on supporting skills such as interior materials & finishes, furniture detailing studio, codes & constructions, environmental systems (a course on understanding building supporting systems ranging from plumbing, fire protection, mechanical, and electrical), construction contract systems, to advanced lighting and some history of architecture-related courses. Similar to all interior design programs, projects assigned in Interior Architecture also go bigger towards completion of the program. Students start with a simple kitchen and eventually end up designing an entire eight-story commercial space. Along with the increasing level of project complexity, more factors need to be considered upon design process, and here is where everything that one has learned so far come into play. And I think this is the time where Interior Design and Interior Architecture will slightly differ in terms of approach. One thing to note, though, that none of us is simply an ‘Interior Decorator.’ We are architects with a focus on interior spaces. We take into consideration all existing core structures that Architects have established in, and integrate it into how we want our design to convey and function to what we intended.

Q4: As sustainability becomes a more popular subject these days, do both programs offer any courses related to this?

It all depends on the program itself, which makes deep investigation on a particular program you’re interested at worth doing. In the United States, however, I believe this is becoming more of a requirement these days. Sustainability used to be an option; these days it’s more of an expectation for us designers to incorporate green principles into our design. The industry itself is even pushing the entire construction activity to be as environmentally friendly as possible, therefore designers & architects are highly desired by the job market to have a certain knowledge of how we can continuously improve our work. My particular program has an entire class dedicated to advanced exploration on sustainable materials as well as overall sustainable design in terms of space, and each project is expected to comply according to industry expectation on how green should the design be at the minimum. It has been embedded into our perspective since early in the program. In short, I think it’s great to enroll in a program that puts emphasis on these principles. This is where future design & architecture trends are heading towards to.

Q3: What job will a degree in Interior Design or Interior Architecture land you?

I personally think it is good to know that Interior Architecture is simply an academic subject, and not necessarily a job title. Interior Architect, though, is not the same as an Architect, which is someone graduating with a B.Arch and M.Arch degree. We interior designers/architects do not have a license like most  architect does, although we can attempt to get one from NCIDQ after accumulating a minimum of 3,520 hours of work time (for more information, read here.) Once an Interior Design/Interior Architecture students goes off to the job market, they will look after a position called as an Interior Designer (there is  very rare a job listed as ‘Interior Architect.’) In terms of daily tasks, what’s expected to be done might be different among  someone with an Interior Design and Interior Architecture degree. The former might be assigned to dealing with more aesthetic qualities of the project, including selection of color, balancing entire space composition and playing with visual qualities of the space. The latter, in addition to doing all of the similar things above,  might also need to assist with more technical drawings,  participate in structural analysis, and work alongside with project engineers and architects in creating a comprehensive space design. I believe both degrees will provide the necessary skills to survive in the design & architecture industry, and skills can always be learned at any stage of the career. It also depends on what type of design career path one pursues as well – those who prefer working for design company giants might benefit more by taking architectural-related classes, as most projects require great understanding on some building technicalities.

In the end, I think what matters most is for anyone interested to carefully research on each Interior Design/Architecture program they have particularly landed their interest upon. Remember that in order to land a dream job, this is not necessarily the only possible path to walk on – connections, great portfolio, great internship track record, and faculty recommendations matter as well. Have all of these combined with a well-rounded program that enables you access to all the other channels, and you will ensure yourself to be a good designer/architect in the end.

Good luck!


The picture above belongs to the author.

Having interests in the world of design, quality control and sustainable practices all at once, Alicia Kosasih earned her Bachelors degree from Boston University in 2014, majoring in Operations Management and Environmental Science. Throughout her study, she and her team of nine is awarded First Place at the Annual Boston University School of Management New Product Challenge for both product design and operations strategy plan of an innovative pet product, Lock-A-Bowls. Her interest in both quality control and sustainability issues is well reflected on her being a Six Sigma Green Belt Certified and LEED Green Associate. Alicia currently resides at Boston, USA pursuing her Masters degree in Interior Architecture at New England School of Art & Design at Suffolk University. Academics aside, she enjoys her free time baking macarons, room decorating, and watching DIY videos on Youtube.
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