Earning a Master's in Interior Design Online

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Studying interior design means exploring the intricate question of how spaces affect the people who inhabit them. Blending art and science, students learn how to plan and design healthy, functional, and sustainable spaces. More than ever before, rapidly growing industries like healthcare need sustainable, accessible, and environmentally friendly spaces that promote well-being and happiness.

An online master's in interior design serves as a great option for students who want to advance their career or pursue a specialization within the field without relocating or giving up their current employment. Graduates go on to fill a variety of roles, whether owning their own small business, working for an established design firm, or teaching.

This guide explores the ins and outs of earning an online master's degree in interior design, including what to expect in terms of coursework, milestones, funding, and professional requirements after graduation.

Student Profile: Who Earns an Online Master's Degree in Interior Design?

Students pursuing an online master's in interior design typically hold bachelor's degrees in interior design or a related field. Other potential students include established professional designers who want to expand their career options or pursue a higher salary. Some designers may pursue a master's to gain credentials in a certain specialization, such as kitchen and bath design or sustainable design. Some may also pursue a graduate degree in lieu of pursuing a professional certification.

Why Get a Master's Degree in Interior Design?

Pursuing a Specialization

Specializations allow professionals to enter niche areas of the field or compete with their peers for multidimensional design jobs. Students in a master of interior design program can specialize in areas of design such as kitchen and bath design, sustainable design, commercial design, universal design, healthcare design, stage and set design, and retail store design.

Career Advancement Opportunities

Graduate degrees help candidates stand out among large pools of job applicants and compete for higher-paying positions or clients. For professionals already established in the field, earning a graduate degree can lead to promotions or higher wages within an organization.

Online Learning Technology

As distance programs inherently rely on technology to bridge the physical space between students and their instructors, online coursework prepares students for technology used in the interior design field.

Prerequisites for Online Interior Design Programs

Students applying to interior design master's programs should anticipate a few prerequisites. Although prerequisites vary from school to school, many programs look for some combination of the requirements listed below.

    • Work Experience: Some master's programs require that applicants possess 1-3 years of professional experience relating to the interior design field. Work experience ensures that students understand basic concepts and possess first-hand experience applying these concepts. Not all programs require work experience; many look for relevant academic experience instead.
    • Exams and Test Scores: Because of the discipline's inherently artistic nature, few interior design master's programs require that students submit test scores, such as GRE scores. In lieu of exams, students typically showcase their abilities through a creative portfolio or resume. Most programs also require academic transcripts.
    • Coursework: Programs typically require that applicants possess some academic background in interior design, architecture, or a closely related field. Additionally, some schools may only require that students complete a certain number of courses related to the discipline. Schools that admit students without any design background may ask students to complete a longer, more involved program to graduate.
    • Recommendations: Applicants generally must submit letters of recommendation when applying to an interior design program. Recommendation letters often come from prior professors who can confirm the student's academic ability. Letters might also come from a supervisor at a job or volunteer experience who can attest to the student's knowledge, skills, or work ethic.
    • Essays: Many programs require that students submit an academic essay addressing a topic within interior design. The length of the essay may vary greatly depending on the program but typically falls between 10-20 pages. Essays should demonstrate writing ability, critical thinking skills, and creativity.
    • Interviews: Interior design master's programs rarely request interviews with applicants for a position within the program. However, some may require students to submit a portfolio of work that demonstrates their interests, experience, and aesthetic.
    • International Students: Schools may require international students to submit evidence of English proficiency. This typically means that students submit qualifying Test of English and Foreign Language (TOEFL) scores or International English Language Testing System (IETS) scores as part of their application.

How Much Can I Make with a Master's Degree in Interior Design?

The earning potential for interior design graduates varies depending on the career. The average interior designer earns around $50,000, while designers at the top of organizations, such as interior design directors or art directors, earn significantly more. Designers who decide to pursue a career in academia can also earn a generous salary. Other nontraditional careers, such as a career in illustration, also boast generous earning potential. Whatever you decide to do after graduation, a master's degree allows you to compete for higher-earning positions.

Traditional Careers for Master's in Interior Design Graduates

Career Stats Description

Interior Designer

Median Pay: $51,500

Job Growth: 4%

Interior designers plan and implement designs for interior spaces with the goal of maximizing beauty, health, function, and accessibility. They use elements such as color, lighting, and materials to enhance spaces.

Ideal for: Creative personalities who can work flexible hours to accommodate clients.

Interior Design Director

Median Pay: $81,454

Job Growth: 4%

Interior design directors oversee the organization's design program, educating and training members about the overarching vision for design. They work with other departments like marketing and finance to achieve and implement said vision.

Ideal for: Highly organized individuals capable of managing large groups of people and implementing a large-scale vision.

Lighting Designer

Median Pay: $53,055

Job Growth: 4%

Lighting designers work with engineers, architects, and construction teams to create and implement lighting plans for a given building or space. They work in a variety of contexts, including industrial, commercial, private, and residential spaces.

Ideal for: Designers with an interest in the function and aesthetics of lighting who boast strong numbers and planning skills.

Nontraditional Careers for Master's in Interior Design Graduates

Career Stats Description

Illustrator

Median Pay: $49,520

Job Growth: 5.1%

Illustrators draw or create images for various commercial publications, such as magazines, books, greeting cards, calendars, or advertisements. They may draw by hand or rely on software to create digital images to achieve their client's vision.

Ideal for: Highly creative individuals who possesses visual arts knowledge and contemporary digital design software.

Postsecondary Teacher

Median Pay: $76,000

Job Growth: 15%

Postsecondary teachers instruct courses at colleges, junior colleges, universities, and technical schools. In the design field, they may teach courses in interior design, illustration, lighting, architecture, or another related area.

Ideal for: Artistic individuals interested in academia who enjoy working with primarily college-aged students.

Art Director

Median Pay: $92,500

Job Growth: 5%

Similar to interior designer directors, art directors orchestrate and oversee the artistic vision of an entire organization or project, such as a magazine, newspaper, or advertising campaign. They develop a vision for design and work with others in the organization to achieve said vision.

Ideal for: Highly artistic, collaborative individuals who enjoy working in a high-stress, fast-paced environment.

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, PayScale, 2017-2018

Paying for an Online Master's in Interior Design

When it comes to financing an online master's degree in interior design, various elements can affect the overall cost of tuition. Tuition rates vary depending on the school and whether or not a student qualifies for in-state tuition. Students may also end up paying less for accelerated programs, which typically require fewer semesters of study. Full-time and part-time enrollment can also affect tuition costs. In addition to detailing the factors that can affect the cost of school, this section explores financial aid opportunities and scholarships available to online interior design students.

Subject-Specific Financial Aid, Grants, and Scholarships

The list below explores various scholarship opportunities for students pursuing their online master's degree in interior design. Some scholarships focus on specializations, while others remain open to all students.

What to Expect from a Master's Level Online Interior Design Program

An online master's degree in interior design typically requires two to three years of study comprising 30-60 credit hours. Several factors can abbreviate or expand this timeline, including course load size, type of enrollment (full time or part time), accelerated course formats, incoming credits, and internship requirements. Some programs also require several studio courses. Others may require fieldwork or in-person site visits. Before graduating, students typically complete and defend a thesis project.

Major Milestones

  1. Research Course

    Many programs require students to take a research course to explore how to conduct research within interior design. This course helps students prepare their thesis project and research methods.

  2. Decide on Research Topic

    After taking a few courses, students decide on a research topic within the interior design field. This topic guides their study and ultimately culminates in a thesis project.

  3. Internship/Independent Fieldwork

    Many programs require that students complete an internship or fieldwork component during their second or final year. This experience typically relates to the student's topic of interest and should directly inform their thesis project.

  4. Thesis

    Students spend roughly two semesters working on their thesis project. Although students work independently, thesis hours often fall under the supervision of a faculty member who provides guidance as the project develops.

  5. Defend Thesis

    After completing their final thesis project, students defend their research and findings in front of faculty members. Faculty members typically ask questions that students must answer, both about the project and related concepts in design.

  6. National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) Exam

    Students with at least 60 credits of coursework in interior design can apply to take the fundamentals section of the NCIDQ Exam during their final semester of study. After gaining the required professional experience, they can proceed to the next section of exams.

Coursework

Although course offerings vary depending on the program, the courses listed below typically appear in some form or another in most online interior design master's programs.

Color for Interiors

In this course, students study color and color schemes in interior design, looking at color choices for ceilings, floors, upholsteries, window treatments, and accents. Students also learn about the psychology of color and its practical applications.

Materials and Construction

Students in this course learn about materials, construction methods, and finishes. Students encounter new materials and construction methods through presentations, site visitations, and lectures.

Digital Imaging

In this course, students learn how to use imaging software to enhance digital photographs, focusing on design concepts. Students study professional photographs, analyze their own images and their classmates' images, and learn to articulate their aesthetic intentions.

Professional Practice

This course explores the business aspects of interior design, examining the skills and knowledge required to operate a small design business. Students learn about state certification and licensing, business law, accounting and billing, professional ethics, fee generating, and documenting purchases.

Kitchen and Bath Design

This course focuses on aspects of kitchen and bath design related to accessibility, safety, sustainability, and universality. Students learn about industry standards and common materials. They also delve into aspects of construction and planning.

Licenses and Certifications

The NCIDQ certification serves as the main certification in interior design. This certification, which entails an intensive, three-part exam, proves to employers and clients that a designer meets certain standards of quality within the field. In some states, designers must hold NCIDQ certification to register as a licensed interior designer. To qualify for all three parts of the exam leading to certification, students must hold a combination of education and work experience in interior design.

  • National Council for Interior Design Qualification Certification:

    An NCIDQ certification, the industry standard for interior design proficiency and a requirement to practice in some areas, requires that students pass a three-part examination. The exam comprises three tests, the Fundamental Exam, Professional Exam, and Practicum Exam. Applying for all three exams costs $225, plus an additional registration fee for each exam ($295, $350, and $455 respectively).

  • National Kitchen and Bath Association Certifications:

    A certification from NKBA helps kitchen and bath designers stand out to their clients. NKBA offers four levels of internationally recognized certification: certified kitchen designer, certified bath designer, certified kitchen and bath designer, and certified master kitchen and bath designer. To receive certification, designers must pass an examination and demonstrate relevant professional experience.

  • American Lighting Specialist Certifications:

    The American Lighting Association offers four certifications for designers pursuing careers in residential or commercial lighting: lighting associate, lighting specialist, certified lighting manufacturers representative, and certified lighting consultant. Each certification requires either coursework, an examination, or a combination of the two.

  • American Academy of Healthcare Interior Designers Certification:

    A certification in healthcare interior design alerts employers and clients to a designer's excellence in this specialized area. The AAHID offers two pathways to become a certified healthcare interior desirer. The first requires NCIDQ certification, three years of healthcare interior design experience, and a portfolio of three completed projects. The second pathway requires 10 years of experience and five completed projects.

Professional Organizations and Resources

Interior design students and recent grads should consider joining a professional organization. Interior design professional organizations not only connect burgeoning designers with established professionals and potential clients, but they also offer benefits such as continuing education programs, job listings, marketing platforms, certifications, and professional development opportunities. Some organizations also host networking events like conferences and in-person classes. Many also advocate for national policies that affect designers and small business owners.

  • American Society of Interior Designers: ASID offers professional development opportunities, including an exam prep course, business seminars, and leadership development training to more than 13,000 professional designers and 5,000 students. ASID also lobbies for policies that support design.
  • International Federation of Interior Architects/Designers: Members of IFI, which connects architects and designers from across the world, enjoy benefits like global networking platforms, events, competitions, social media advertising, and news about the world of design.
  • Interior Design Society: IDS offers a variety of member benefits such as certifications in GREENleaders sustainability, continuing education opportunities, access to market events, an annual conference, member spotlights, and local and online chapters.
  • Designer Society of America: In addition to offering credibility and networking platforms for established designers, DSA delivers certifications and educational programs for students in art school. The society also provides a residential interior design certification.
  • National Kitchen and Bath Association: For designers focused on kitchen and bathroom design, NKBA offers member benefits such as networking opportunities, professional certifications, marketing tools, jobs listings, events, and discounts.
  • Interior Design Magazine: Interior Design Magazine, both the physical publication and its digital platform, deliver news and articles relating to interior design, architecture, and facility management. The magazine also hosts industry-related events.
  • The Architect's Newspaper: This publication and its digital equivalents offer news articles, interviews, profiles, essays, and an events calendar relating to topics of the built urban environment. The newspaper targets designers, engineers, architects, developers, academics, and lighting designers.
  • Metropolis Magazine: Metropolis publishes compelling stories about trends and movements in design and architecture. The magazine also features articles about lighting, furniture, and textile design and healthcare, cultural, and workplace architecture.
  • Council for Interior Design Qualification: CIDQ oversees the primary certification exam for interior designers working in the U.S. The council's website provides information about eligibility, scheduling, fees, and exam prep.
  • IVY: This business management software helps designers run their own small business. The software tracks invoices and expenses, centralized workflow, and offers access to interior designs events and courses. IVY also curates a magazine about design.