Yes, Professional Licensing Is A Big Deal, Ctd

by Conor Friedersdorf

A reader writes:

I studied architecture at a university that also included an interior design school. Among the courses that both architecture and interior design students had to take in order to graduate was a series on structures. This is because, despite what HGTV might suggest, interior design isn't just moving furniture around and matching pillows with curtains but impacting load bearing elements and moving walls around. In order to do this you need to be able to sign and stamp construction documents that get approved by the city to ensure they comply with various building codes and so forth. The power to sign and stamp those documents is a legal grant that comes with licensure and in states where interior designers are not licensed, firms typically have to have an architect or structural engineer on staff for that purpose. Meanwhile architecture firms can dabble in interior design without this added cost because they do have a license (and reciprocity in all the other states aside from California due to earthquake issues).

The point of this is not to defend professional licensing requirements or schemes as they currently exist...  Instead it is to correct your portrayal of interior designers seeking licensing requirements. They're trying to compete with architectural firms but are legally precluded from doing so, much like hygienists trying to compete with dentists are being hampered; not prevent people from rearranging their living room. If you're opposed to interior designers getting licensed then you would by necessity be opposed to structural engineers and architects being licensed as well. Given your writings I wouldn't be surprised if that is the case, and I'm somewhat sympathetic to it. However, please frame the debate in that manner rather than in the somewhat mocking tone that always seems reserved for interior designers.

I hope it didn't seem as though I was mocking interior designers – as it happens, I have more appreciation for the field than most, having watched my mother transform a motel and several other spaces in phenomenal ways. I've spent the last decade encouraging her to pursue that talent  in Orange County, where my parents live. Without knowing more about building permits I have no strong views about who ought to be able to sign off on them. But I don't think the reader is framing the larger issue correctly. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that interior designers should face the same hurdles as anyone else to sign off on building permit paperwork. Sounds reasonable to me. Licensing requirements specific to interior design are still a sham.

Here's the thing: in states that don't require licenses, there simply isn't a problem with rogue interior designers! That alone should cause us to question the case for government intervention elsewhere. The Institute for Justice has the numbers (PDF) to back this up:

Consumer complaints about interior designers to state regulatory boards are extremely rare. Since 1998 an average of one designer out of every 289 has received a complaint for any reason. Nearly all of those complaints, 94.7 percent, concern whether designers are properly licensednot the quality of their service.

Back in 2008, Tyler Cowan summarized the state of the industry:

In Alabama it is illegal to recommend shades of paint without a license.  In Nevada it is illegal to move any large piece of furniture for purposes of design without a license.  In fact, hundreds of people have been prosecuted in Alabama and Nevada for practicing "interior design" without a license.  Getting a license is no easy task, typically requiring at least 4 years of education and 2 years of apprenticeship. Why do we need licenses laws for interior designers?  According to the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) because,

Every decision an interior designer makes in one way or another affects the health, safety, and welfare of the public.

This hardly passes the laugh test.  Moreover as Carpenter and Ross point out in an excellent article in Regulation from which I have drawn:

In more than 30 years of advocating for regulation, the ASID and its ilk have yet to identify a single documented incident resulting in harm to anyone from the unlicensed practice of interior design...These laws simply have nothing to do with protecting the public.

Most states do not have license laws for interior designers but the unceasing lobbying efforts of the ASID have expanded such licenses.

Thankfully, IJ has had success rolling back some of this absurdity in the years since, but lots of work remains.