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Credentials Count

Titles are a dime a dozen these days; it’s the professional credentials after a name that tell you who knows their stuff.

By Lisa Whited, NCIDQ

Titles are a dime a dozen these days; it’s the professional credentials after a name that tell you who knows their stuff.

Titles are important in the workplace, as they help people understand what one does for work; of course, titles can also be a liability (more on that in a bit). Professional credentials, on the other hand, function in a different way: they typically indicate minimum standards of education, experience and, in some cases, examination. A credential is a “seal” that has far more meaning than a title—a fact that was reinforced for me recently while I was talking with a real estate broker.

After we met to review a commercial property for a client, I asked the broker what the letters CCIM on her license plate stood for. She shared with me that it was a professional credential she had earned, but that it was “an unfortunate set of letters that are meaningless to most people.” It turns out that those letters stand for Certified Commercial Investment Member, and are given to experts in the disciplines of commercial and investment real estate. I later discovered that only 6 percent of all commercial real estate professionals have earned the designation.

Most people know the title of commercial real estate broker, and many even have a general idea of what those in the profession do. But learning about the designation and my colleague’s achievement gave me an even greater appreciation for the expertise she offers her clients.

An example that many design professionals can relate to is that of the LEED AP and LEED GA designations. People from all different kinds of industries and backgrounds hold this credential, from engineers and bankers to interior designers and code officials. And while the general public may not be familiar with what LEED stands for, it tells those in the know that the holder is knowledgeable about energy and environmental design.

While conducting research for this article I came across a video of a panel discussion at the University of Minnesota featuring Janice Linster of Studio Hive, who happens to be a highly regarded design professional in Minnesota and a NCIDQ certificate holder. “The title interior design has been somewhat of a liability,” she said. “I choose a more generic title [designer] to avoid stereotyping or misconceptions about what interior designers do. The title means too many things to too many people—it has been stretched like elastic.”

The truth is I’ve had a love-hate relationship with titles for a long time. Back in 1996, I opined in an IIDA Perspective article that if we didn’t tell people what our titles were (interior designer, not architect and not decorator), then the public would continue to hold a misconception of what interior design is all about. I later wrote an essay for the State of the Interior Design Profession (Fairchild, 2010) pondering titles and the profession’s identity crisis.

After almost a quarter century of membership in the International Interior Design Association (IIDA) and close to 20 years of membership in the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), I dropped both, keeping only the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) credential. My business card now has my name but no title. PageBreak

A few months ago the “liability” of titles became apparent when I was called by a law firm to discuss “interior design” services. They brought me in and invited me to comment on a plan that an architect had developed for them. I spent one minute looking at the plans and proceeded to tell the managing partner, rather bluntly, that I thought they’d be making a huge mistake if they moved from their current, maze-like offices into a space that reflects how they worked 30 years ago, rather than how they work today.

Several weeks later, at a management meeting with the firm, an attorney said, “I thought we were calling Lisa to discuss furniture and colors, but she proposed different ideas regarding the configuration of the space.” This is frustrating to me and other NCIDQ-qualified individuals. Our expertise is in assessing space needs at the beginning of a project—clarifying the vision, conducting research and focus groups, determining square footage and programming, and developing schematic plans. Yet, the perception is that I am a CPO—a color-picker-outer—who provides the “finishing touches” on a space.

What is NCIDQ?

Standing for the National Council for Interior Design Qualification, NCIDQ is a leading organization working to establish standards of competence for interior design and interior architecture professionals. NCIDQ credential holders have the knowledge and experience to create interior spaces that are not just aesthetically pleasing, but also functional and safe. An NCIDQ credential holder is an expert who provides expertise for:

  • Determining the space and use needs of building occupants.

  • Meeting U.S. and Canadian accessibility requirements.

  • Installing doors, lighting and equipment for compliance with fire safety and other local, state and provincial building codes.

  • Specifying ergonomic, sustainable designs and furnishings to protect human health.
At a more recent meeting, the managing partner stumbled when making introductions. “This is Jim, our architect, and this is Lisa, she’s uh … a troublemaker?” (I like to think he said it in an endearing tone.) He did not refer to me as an interior designer. I believe this is because I do not fit the traditional mold of his expectations for my profession.

Maybe that’s an assumption, but I say it because the public knows exactly what they believe an interior designer does and is—they see it on HGTV and read beautiful, glossy magazines that show them the work of interior designers. I am not going to change the ingrained perception of what I used to call my profession. However, I can educate the public regarding something they have no clue about: the letters NCIDQ and what they mean.

The public needs to know that virtually anyone in the United States can call him or herself an interior designer. The title “interior designer” cannot be used in Washington, D.C. or Louisiana unless an individual is registered by that jurisdiction. That leaves approximately 293,398,840 people in the U.S. who can claim they are interior designers. Yet, only 29,000—.0001 percent of all people who could call themselves interior designers—have earned the NCIDQ designation. (According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 71,700 people claim they are interior designers, which means that approximately 40 percent of those people have earned their NCIDQ credential.)

NCIDQ’s recent Louis Tregre Award honoree, Caren Martin, eloquently shared her perception of the credential at the organization’s annual Council of Delegates meeting in Chicago back in November. Reflecting on her passage of the exam, she said, “With the exam under my belt, I felt that I could confidently present myself as a qualified interior design professional. In a world where interior design is often belittled, that confidence boost was tremendously important.”

NCIDQ might be an unfortunate set of letters to most, but thanks to designers like Martin and Linster, they can have a real impact on the daily lives of people. I hope you’ll consider helping us to spread the word.


Lisa Whited, NCIDQ, owns a consulting firm in Portland, Maine. She can be reached at