Fitting In At the Best Interior Design Schools

by Tim Martin
Fitting In At the Best Interior Design Schools

Students interested in an interior design college should brace themselves for a strongly selective application process, while understanding the job is more scientific than re-arranging furniture or color schemes.

More than 130 schools and universities in the United States and Canada are members of the Foundation for Interior Design Education Research, the accrediting organization for interior design schools that sets standards for curriculum and quality. California, with twelve FIDER-accredited schools, has the most of any state.

Wherever you are looking, however, choosing the right school for interior design should be based on factors that are universal to most majors, according to professors and working professionals. Those factors include picking a comfortable, creative campus and attending a school that emphasizes a range of classes.

What potential students must ask of themselves when choosing a school is simple, says Barbara G. Anderson, an assistant professor and coordinator of the Interior Design program in the College of Human Ecology at Kansas State University: Where do I want to fit in?

Anderson explains that each state has its own regulations regarding the level of certification needed to work there. Students should keep this in mind when choosing a college and, later, a job.

As with all schools, the curriculum for interior design schools starts by establishing the fundamentals, from beginning classes stressing drawing and drafting, to focusing more toward the specifics of the field, such as business ethics and commercial design.

This program can sometimes come as a surprise to incoming students who expect interior design to be something else, says Anderson.

"Lots of students come to us with the idea that they're going to deal with objects in a space -- the finishes and surfaces within a space," Anderson says. "What they learn is about shaping space."

In other words, interior design is not to be confused with interior decorating. Interior designers develop the blueprints of a room, choosing, for example, where to put the walls, the shape and height of the ceiling, and where the stairs go.

"It isn't just painting the walls whatever color you want, or putting in furniture or cabinetry," says Linda Nelson-Johnson, the associate director of the School of Design, and co-coordinator of Interior Design preference at Arizona State University. "It's what kind of tasks you need to go on in this phase of your life and how you can facilitate that through design."

But before you can even think about classes, you've got to get accepted into an interior design program.

At most schools, the number of students allowed into the program is limited for two reasons: the lack of adequate facilities and staff.

Like other art or architecture programs, the upper-level interior design classes must be taught in a studio where students work on the large desks that are needed for large-scale drawings or drafting. A studio typically can hold 20 students. And because most programs are relatively small - usually less than a few hundred students - there are rarely more than ten interior design faculty members on staff.

At Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, all students are allowed to take interior design classes for two years before having to apply to the program. Classes revolve around drafting and principles of design, requiring students to complete various projects. Before junior year, however, students must submit a letter of intent stating why they want to enter interior design, along with a work portfolio. Grades and previous experience are also factored in.

The school, part of the College of Architecture, receives between 40 and 45 applicants annually and accepts between 15 and 22.

Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn, New York, also accepts students to its design program after they have been accepted to the university. Students spend their first year in a freshman foundation class, and design classes start sophomore year. A portfolio is required for the design program application.

Kansas State University accepts about 50 of the 175 applicants, mainly from transfer or high school students, in early spring every year. The selection is mainly based on academic performance. The program targets new students, as opposed to current KSU students, because of its duration: eight semesters.

According to numerous industry leaders, attending a FIDER-accredited school (Foundation for Interior Design Education Research) is the easiest way to land a job. Because interior design includes the construction of buildings, it falls under the jurisdiction of the individual state governments, some of who require specific certification. Some states require attendance to a FIDER-accredited school and National Council for Interior Design Qualification certification. Others only require the NCIDQ certification.

For potential students who don't think attending a FIDER-accredited program matters, Mark Karlen, the chair of interior design department at Pratt University, has a ready reply: "I'd say they are not thinking wisely."


  • Interior Design Magazine - includes industry trends and updated news. The Web site also includes an organized (but incomplete) list of interior design schools, posting school Web sites and phone numbers.
  • The American Society of Interior Design - ASID has more than 36,000 members, with students representing the largest membership growth in recent years. ASID has student chapters across the country, and this Web site includes news from those student chapters while also providing good information on what to expect from the interior design profession.
  • - An expert answers one high school student's question: What interior design school would be best for me?

Related Articles