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So You Want to Go to Design School... But How Do You Choose One?
by Shaye Eller

In this world of high technology, fast-paced living and even more rapid change, it sometimes seems there are a bewildering number of choices in anything we do. Choosing an Interior Design school is no exception. There are a vast and often confusing array of options for the prospective student, from the mail-order 'Interior Decorating' courses found in the back of fashion magazines to a five-year Master's Degree in Interior Architecture. But all is not lost--here is your guide to navigating the Design School Jungle.

There are several considerations to make when planning your secondary education. Level of education, financial responsibility, location and what we'll call 'atmosphere' must all be carefully considered.

Level of Education

Choosing the level of education you desire is the first step in choosing your school, and it can narrow your scope considerably. Even this decision must be carefully considered, since there is no industry-wide standard. Some states in the US have education or qualification requirements for Interior Designers, but not all have even that. The most standardized method of recognition in the field is to sit for the National Council on Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) exam, which can be taken after six years experience as a Designer, school and work combined. However, the testing is quite rigorous and even seasoned designers benefit from the study classes held before the exams are given.

Located throughout the United States are various decorating schools, with courses lasting about two months. If your interests lie in purely aesthetic areas of the business, this may be enough education for you. Nevertheless, any in-depth field of expertise, such as color consulting, will require more extensive education. In addition to these decorating schools, some community colleges offer one-year Certificate programs, though they do not generally offer Degrees in Interior Design. You will have to research locally to find if options such as these exist in your area. A good place to start is the Internet Yellow Pages.

The next levels of education can be received only at a true design school. Any such school will require courses in technical areas such as drafting, AutoCAD, codes, and building systems. For this reason, Interior Designers are more equipped to deal with small structural issues than Decorators. Also, most true design schools will offer Associate's, Bachelor's, and/or Master's Degrees, and will be accredited by the state to offer these. This means you will be required to take General Education courses such as English and Math as well as your design courses. If you make the decision to enter a degree program, how far you take your education is up to you, and the decision can, of course, always be altered as the need arises.

Financial Responsibility

If your decision is to enter a degree program, the issue of cost is going to play a large part in your choice of school. The first thing you should do is fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aide (FAFSA), which will determine how much, if any, money the government will give you to go to school. You may also qualify for a Subsidized Federal Stafford Loan, in which you are required to repay the principle amount you borrow, but the government pays the interest. You can find a FAFSA at any institution of higher learning, as well as your high school and, most likely, your local library.

The most costly form of schooling is to go to a private institution. Many private colleges and universities offer Interior Design or Interior Architecture degrees, though finding one is another matter of research. Some private colleges offer Internet courses, while others require you to be on campus for every class.

One system of schools to look into for an excellent Interior Design education is the Art Institutes International. Located in over forty cities throughout the United States, and online, the Art Institutes offer applied arts degree programs in various design fields, and most of them offer Interior Design. As a recent graduate of one of the Art Institutes' Interior Design programs, I can vouch that the education I received was thorough and progressive. However, since the Art Institutes are not state-sponsored, tuition at one of these schools is currently about $15,000 a year. For most, student loans are a necessity. Tuition at an independent private college will most likely cost somewhere in that neighborhood as well; some cost even more.

A less expensive choice might be a state school. If you choose a public university located in your home state, the tuition will cost somewhere around $8000-$10,000 per year. When you consider that you may be attending school for four years or beyond, the savings at a state school can be substantial. The education you receive at a public university will always be up to the state's standard, or they would not be able to offer degrees in that field. Also, you will be more likely to have the option of enrolling in a Master's Degree program at a university, if that is what you desire.


Quite simply, where do you want to attend school? I chose to live at my parent's house while I attended college, so I enrolled to a school close to home. However, for many, the college experience is defined by living away from home for the first time. In that case, a school with on-campus housing is generally the best option. Most universities, public and private, offer dormitories and meals for an additional cost. The Art Institutes (AI), however, are all commuter campuses, and if you choose to attend an AI away from home, you will have to find your own housing.

Location within the country is also another consideration. Do you want to attend college in a completely different part of the country than you live in? Where, exactly? You won't find the perfect college close to home if your dream is to attend school elsewhere.


Every school is different, and I suppose this difference could be described as the 'feel' of the school, or the atmosphere. The atmosphere depends greatly on a wide variety of factors, including the size of the school, the location, whether or not it is a commuter campus, the other Majors offered by the school, and the type of people that are drawn there. For example, the first time I visited my alma mater, the first person I saw was a girl with blue dreadlocks. The rest of the student body was quite eclectic as well. There were very conservative people attending classes in close company with people who were heavily involved in the city's counterculture. Those people were all drawn to the school I attended because it was a small school in an urban area that offered primarily design majors. The student body was so small that by my third quarter at the school, the registrar knew me by name. If you are intimidated by that kind of close contact and would prefer more anonymity, you should definitely look at a larger school, most likely a university.

Other elements can affect the atmosphere in many ways. Schools in small college towns will give you a different experience than schools located in big cities. Universities will potentially put you in contact with a greater variety of people than at an art school. The feeling of community in a dormitory will be much different from that on a commuter campus. The list goes on and on.

Atmosphere is hard to explain, and even harder to advise on. The best advice I can give is that it is essential to visit the school before you decide to enroll. Talk to the student body, talk to the counselors, spend a little time taking in the unique ambience of the school. When you find the correct one, you will know. Don't confuse intimidation at the step you are taking with intimidation by the school itself. Pursuing an education, especially if you're just out of high school, can be very frightening. But choosing a school that has the potential to make you feel welcome and at home will soon ease those worries. The only way to know if the school is right for you is to visit it, and experience it for yourself.


All of this information will be useless if you don't know where to start looking for a design school. There are several ways to begin your search, and many resources you can use.

-Index of Majors and Graduate Degrees is the most extensive resource I know of for finding schools which offer your chosen major in any state. Interior Design as well as Interior Architecture are included. This book will tell you the names of private and public universities, colleges of the arts, and community colleges that offer Interior Design, as well as what degrees or certification they offer. They are published yearly; try to find the most recent edition you can for the sake of accuracy. Usually available at your local library.

-The Art Institutes can be contacted through

-Once you've found the name of a school you're interested in, you can locate it using

-Don't underestimate the value of Career Fairs and guidance counselors. They may seem cliche, but they are there to help. I first learned of the school I attended during my sophomore year of high school at Career Day.

The final bit of advice I can give in choosing a school is not to put yourself under more stress than the decision merits. Remember, your choice of design school is not an irreversible decision. Once you begin attending a school, should you find that you are dissatisfied with it, you have the option to transfer. The process of selecting an institute of higher learning is not an exact science. If nothing else, should you decide to transfer and begin the process over again, you will be armed with the firsthand knowledge and experience you gained during your current search.

The study of interior design is artistically as well as intellectually rewarding. I hope that you find it so. Good luck in your search!

Shaye Eller

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