Interior Design vs. Interior Decorating: What’s The Difference?

Learn the difference between these two interdependent, often confused, but very different disciplines

The work of interior designers and interior decorators is often confused: most people use the terms interchangeably. However, these two roles differ far more than you probably think.

Interior designers are responsible for designing the functional spaces and frameworking within which the interior decorator can play, adding the personality and style of their clients.

The skills required for the jobs can overlap as their projects will all require: a lot of research and development; creativity to turn that work into a plan; communication between clients, contractors, and whoever else might be involved; an ability to visualize the final product and predict the challenges or benefits it could throw up and; of course, a fundamental knowledge of the history of art, architecture, and design.

Sofía Saraví O'Keefe
Sofía Saraví O'Keefe
Sofía Saraví O'Keefe
Sofía Saraví O'Keefe

Interior decorating

Sofía Saraví O'Keefe (@decolookbook), who teaches the Domestika course Decorating Your Home on a Budget: Basic Concepts, says interior decorating is about “surrounding yourself with the things you like and working out the story you want to tell.”

It has been a part of humanity before brick and mortar were even invented. Whether it’s cave paintings or hieroglyphs, we’ve always sought ways to express who we are, explore our vision of the world, and add a touch of class to our homes with a splash of paint or a well-placed adornment.

However, it wasn’t until entrepreneurs like Dorothy Draper and Elsie de Wolfe came along in 1920s New York that interior decorating was properly recognized. Draper established a set of guidelines that turned the work that mostly women had been doing for centuries into a profession.

Dorothy Draper

Here are the five guiding principles she lives by as an interior decorator:


To work out how to balance a room visually, you must establish the weight of the objects you put in it. Now, that’s not to say you should put them on a scale. Weight, in this instance, is determined by the shape, color, size, and texture of a piece. If they are in accordance, it will bring about calmness, if they are not, imbalance can also bring an energetic feeling to a room.



What is the room’s focal point? This doesn’t have to be the largest item or whatever’s in the center of it. It can be structural–a fireplace or a window, for example–or it can be something you add–art or a large pendant lamp. It doesn’t have to do anything but stand out. In the words of the great Dorothy Draper herself: “I always put in one controversial item. It makes people talk.”


Now this is another word that shifts meaning in the context of interior decoration. It refers to the path the eye takes from one object to another. Repetition of lines, shapes, and textures or patterns that alternate, repeat, contrast, increase in size or decrease in intensity will all affect our optical journey.



Ironically, people rarely appreciate the principle of scale: the relation of the size of one object to the space or another object in the space. The basic rule is, in a big room, go big, in a small room, go small. However, you can also direct attention by playing with scale too.


Harmony doesn’t mean everything needs to be boring, nor does it have to be the same. Rather, whether it’s through a building or just one room, it needs to give a feeling of unity, while the variety within that unity gives the decoration personality. Everything from color palettes to abstract themes, from flooring to textures, can make or break the harmony of a project.

They will put together a proposal involving almost everything the user, be it a homeowner or office worker, will see: the colors of the floors, walls, and ceilings; the flooring; the fabrics, materials, and textures of the furniture, curtains, and accessories; the furniture itself; lighting and light fixtures; accessories like ornaments, art, and plants; and branding if they are working on a commercial project.

Sofía Saraví O'Keefe
Sofía Saraví O'Keefe

Interior design

These five principles are all applicable to interior design in their own way too, as they do to design and architecture in general. While the interior decorator is in charge of what goes inside a room, from lamps to carpets, art to appliances, interior designers are responsible for the creation of the room itself, designing the canvas, the structure, and the walls and floors of the building to be decorated.

An interior designer has to understand people’s behaviors and assesses the functionality of a space, its shape, floors, entrances, etc. They are usually hired by an architect or developer to work with the architect on the design of the inside of a building, getting an understanding of how the space will be used from their employers, the property owners, and other parties. Their main responsibilities will be to answer practical questions of fire safety, local building codes, accessibility, efficiency, acoustics, and functionality.

Sofía Saraví O'Keefe

Interior decorators will often be called when a building is already finished, to add the final touches and stamp their own mark on it. Unlike a designer, who may have to work from the plans of an unfinished or even unstarted building, they will be able to access the finished building they are about to decorate to take measurements and photos and get a feel for the space. The decorator must work within what the designer has done to create a beautiful place for people to live, work, or play in.

You may also like:

- Interior Design from Start to Finish, a course by Nook Architects
- Introduction to Interior Design, a course by Masquespacio
- Color applied to Interior Design, a course by Miriam Alía


Log in or sign up to comment

Get Domestika's news delivered to your inbox