Architecture Vs. Design: What's The Difference?

One way of thinking about architecture vs. design is outside vs. inside, but that's a little too simple. Are architects designers? Are designers architects?

Architecture is about building and all the details that creating a structure implies. It's not only the profile, the silhouette, or the façade that could be brick or vinyl, stone or wood. Architecture also includes the size and shape of the various rooms, the placement of electrical panels and air vents in the walls, the plumbing and pipes hidden by the floors, the angle of the windows, and the set of the front door. It includes how the building is sited. Architecture is about an aesthetically pleasing process and incorporating mechanical systems seamlessly into the living spaces.

Design, on the other hand, is more a matter of interpretation. Many refer to the look of a building or house as "well-designed," meaning the architecture of the structure. But as the information and technology site Simplicable indicates, design most often refers to the presentation of color, shape, pattern, texture, and overall setting. Much of this is to add a visual aesthetic or feel to a room. Rooms are neutral — floor, walls, windows, and ceiling. It's in the design that the room takes on a characterization — a way to define its use or a way for the owner to create an environment.

Professional architect

From MasterClass, we learn that buildings have been ultra-important to the human race for centuries. Since moving from caves for shelter, humanity has lived and worked inside buildings for thousands of years. Architect actually means "chief builder" in Ancient Greek. By the 16th century, architects were gaining proficiency at drawing designs on paper, and by the 19th century, professional organizations were created to establish standards within the industry.

One of the most important distinctions between these two professions — architect and designer — is that an architect has a very specific, extensive education, most often from an accredited school. Architects are usually licensed in the country/state in which they work. They have college degrees after studying for five or six years, then pass a qualifying test and continue their education with courses every year to maintain their license (per NewSchool of Architecture & Design). 

Also, there are other kinds of architects, including a technical architect, responsible for the details and functionality of a building, a project manager, who is all about the day-to-day work being done on a site, and a landscape architect, who works on large-scale outdoor parks or gardens. Landscape architects usually work on projects regarding city planning and sustainability.

Professional interior designer

It probably doesn't help that the formal phrase for an architect, the way most of us think about the profession in the U.S., is actually called a "design architect," because they are responsible for thinking up a project's overall design, per MasterClass.

But let's not dis designers, who are also professionals and come from different disciplines as well. Here we're talking about interior designers, as opposed to graphic designers or packaged-goods designers. Interior designers are people who help choose the colors, textures, and finishes of walls, cabinets, rugs, windows, floors, and more, for houses or apartments, hotels, offices, or professional buildings or communal living, such as senior living communities.

There can be a lack of distinction between interior designers and interior decorators. As the NewSchool of Architecture & Design in San Diego, CA indicates, interior designers develop comprehensive plans for homes and businesses. The job requires an associate degree or, more often, a bachelor's degree. Interior designers do not usually require a license, but in some U.S. states, they do. Interior designers may also need to pass a standardized test as well, so it's best to look into state requirements.

Designer vs. decorator

An additional bit of confusion when it comes to an interior designer as opposed to an interior decorator. While both enhance interiors and both bring expertise, there is a difference.

US News has an insightful description of both interior designers and decorators. The biggest difference is that an interior designer usually has a bachelor's or an associate degree in Design, Engineering, or Graphic Arts. Many learn CAD (Computer Aided Design) programs as well.

A decorator, on the other hand, needs no degree at all, no schooling, and no accreditation, although many decorators do have a college or associate degree and have also attended training courses. The profession is open to anyone with a keen eye and the business savvy to obtain and satisfy clients. Most often, it's a designer who works with architects because they are addressing various built-in factors within a space — a wall, counter, soffits, or molding. A decorator tends to work more with the client, to work out color, texture, fabrics, and accessories.

Hand in hand

It's counter-productive to think about architecture and design as individual silos. It's also impractical to think about architects and designers as some sort of rivals. A better way to go is to consider that these two professional disciplines most often work together to create an ideal environment for any building — from commercial office space to a college campus, apartment complex, or single-family home. Many architectural firms have an interior designer or a team of them on staff or work closely with an independent design firm.

MyMove points out that for someone undertaking a building or home renovation, depending on the complexity of the job, it's best to get both an architect and an interior designer involved from the very first step. While sometimes the two professions overlap, architects tend to think more about the structure — moving a wall or rebuilding a staircase. The designer tends to think about furniture, finishes, and window treatments. Communication and a good working relationship are key to making a collaboration like this successful.

A final consideration

One more thing to consider when deciding who to work with is cost. Again, if the renovation or update you're considering includes structural issues like removing walls or relocating building systems like plumbing or electrical, you probably need an architect. If the changes are structural but more modest, a professional interior designer, especially one that works with CAD, might be able to design and oversee the project.

If the job is more cosmetic such as updating finishes, flooring, lighting, or furniture (not to mention redoing the color scheme), the most typical choice is between an interior designer and interior decorator. One method of choosing is related to creating a budget as the very first step to see how many professional hours you can afford.

ZipRecruiter, an aggregator that compiles salary data, indicates that an architect earns about $39 per hour in the US on average, though the rate ranges from $64 to $17 per hour, depending on the expertise and the discipline. On the national average, interior designers earn $26 per hour, sometimes as high as $40 per hour (via ZipRecruiter). Interior decorators, by comparison, earn about $21 hourly (via ZipRecruiter). Price points are important when considering how much you might be paying for renovating a room or more inside your house.