Interior Designer vs. General Contractor

Sometimes it is hard to know whether an interior designer or a contractor is the best fit for your project. The advice I am going to give in the following post is specific to Washington State, so please check regulations for licensing, testing, etc. in your own state before following this as a guideline.

I want to start very basic because I honestly believe that simplicity is EVERYTHING.


Here is a quick rundown of the specialists you may need to involve on your home project and their skills:


  • Degree in Architecture plus several years intern training followed by seven, intense industry exams. Without the completion of these exams, they technically may not use the architect title.

  • State licensed

  • Creates plans, technical drawings, and models- with a focus on building massing and form and how the structure interacts with its site.

  • Should be involved through planning and construction

  • Design fee is typically 15-20% of the project budget.

Interior Designer

  • Degree in Interior Design, some states require a license- Washington State does not (however, we are currently going through the process of taking the test that is required for licensing in many states simply for the assurance that we have that level of expertise).

  • Creates plans, technical drawings, and models- with a focus from the interior function, and how the space interacts with the user.

  • Should be involved through planning and construction

  • Design fee is typically 15-20% of the project budget.

Note that neither the interior designer nor the contractor are structural engineers and may substitute this professional.
If load-bearing walls are moving, a structural engineer must be involved


  • Creates plans and technical drawings, but usually does not design. You tell them what to draw, they draw it.

  • Often employed by Architects

  • May offer the same skills as an architect, but without the license or degree, meaning a cost savings, but a bit of a risk if you are looking for a design project.


  • Specialized in the construction process

  • Some larger residential general contractors may provide design services if they have a designer employed. Be sure that this designer has the required training mentioned above!

  • Some qualified and experienced residential general contractors are able to perform the same services of a skilled draftsman, and often these services are provided free of charge when such a contractor is contracted to build your home. My general rule is “you get what you pay for”. If someone is designing for free, I question their ability to do so.

The designer will develop ideas for your space that consider the adjacent spaces, the views, light levels, and more all using design principles and elements to provide cohesion and consistency throughout your space. The designer will select the appropriate finishes and fixtures, and essentially develop the guidebook for installing your space.

unless specified otherwise, the designer does not provide finishes and fixtures, nor do we install them or provide the installers. This is the job of the contractor or general contractor.

On a large project, a general contractor will plan and coordinate the installation, hiring all the subcontractors needed to complete the job. On a smaller project, the owner may be working directly with one or two subcontractors. Now, this is important, are you paying attention?


I’m also going to be perfectly honest in that most interior designers have done this in the past. In fact, up until a few months ago, I thought this was all good and fine to do, after clearing it with my window treatment workroom who stated that all designers did this! But, it is illegal to do this without the proper insurance, and unless someone is a licensed and bonded contractor, they are not properly insured to secure anything to your home. As in, we can’t hang a picture because that nail goes into the wall. Even more extreme, we cannot provide less than three referrals without holding liability for their work. So, if you’re looking for a painter, I’ll give you three I know of, then you’re on your own.

Now, along those same lines, general contractors do not typically have the training nor do they have errors and omissions insurance that is required to provide design work. So, those floor plans and elevations they are doing to get the job moving along… I just advise being careful with that. If you know EXACTLY what you want in your design, I suggest hiring a draftsperson (this could be your GC if they draw) and understand that they are not liable for the design or design details. Additionally, regardless of who this person is- they should be paid for this time. A designer is not a draftsperson- a designer draws to create something that has not been considered and absolutely will advise against unsafe, nonfunctional, and poor aesthetic decisions.

Okay, so now we understand whose job is whose, but the wrong size cabinet was delivered, the paint doesn’t match the sample the designer showed me, and my bathroom floors are dangerously slick! Who is to blame??!!

Eep, what a mess, and yes, these are all possibilities. Knowing who does what is a part of the problem, but it is also important to know what expectations should be had from each service provider.

This note graces every page of the contract documents provided by Waldron Designs.

This note graces every page of the contract documents provided by Waldron Designs.

In the goal of keeping this uncomplicated, the contractor is responsible for verifying field measurements… even if the designer’s measurements are wrong. You see, the designer takes measurements for design purposes- to convey a vision. The contractor is the one who needs to ensure that it can be built, order the proper parts and pieces, then install it properly. So, in the above example- the wrong size cabinet would be a contractor liability.

The contractor is also responsible for providing finish samples and mock ups as-needed to fully understand and see the exact item going into the home. In our example above, the contractor should have provided a paint swatch for approval before moving forward. That swatch may be submitted to the owner or the designer for approval. This is an important piece of the Construction Administration phase that ensures that the installation matches the design. Back to our example above, the contractor is again liable for this error.

Now for a twist… the finishes selected by a designer is where the designer becomes liable. If a large scale, glossy, ceramic tile is specified for a bathroom floor, we are likely going to run into some serious problems when the owner slips and falls. A properly trained designer will verify that the tile is floor-rated and appropriate for the space (slip-rated and with appropriate water absorption rates). The slippery floor above is a designer liability.

A designer is also responsible (but not liable) for meeting building codes, such as egress, ADA in commercial spaces, and health and safety precautions. Liability in these cases comes down to the owner. Waldron Designs takes our ethical responsibility very seriously and always draws to code unless specifically requested by the owner. If this is the case, we alert them as to the liabilities and possible fines incurred.