Architects, Designers, Interior Designers

Designers and Architects

Architects, Designers, Interior Designers. What does the one do that the others does not? If I hire an architect to design my building, might I also have to hire a designer to design, say, the kitchen?


The word has a protected use in many states. It means someone who is licensed to practice…architecture. States have an interest in protecting the health, safety and welfare of the general public. Architects show competency in designing buildings safe for public use. Competence in building design regarding health, safety and welfare is the distinguishing legal feature of an architect. States, including Maine, limit the ability of unlicensed building designers to call themselves architects.

Generally speaking, the State of Maine requires commercial buildings required to be permitted to be designed by licensed architects. Certain buildings, such as residences, are not required to be designed by a licensed architect. “Architect,” then, is a legal term.


When speaking of building design, the word “designer” is not protected in its use. Anyone can call themselves a designer. Many architects, myself included, called themselves designers prior to becoming licensed. In other words, to an architect, “designer” can connote someone who designs buildings without a license. In reality, there are many times when an owner needs design advice that has no bearing on a building’s safety. In those cases, the owner can, but does not need to hire a licensed architect. They need to hire a competent designer. Some architects will be competent choices. Others may not be.

In the architecture profession, architects will often say “designer” to mean the person on a team of professionals who is actually creating the three-dimensional form of a building. The person doing the code research or writing specifications is not the designer. They are part of the design team, doing other tasks. Thus, “designer” is a role in the practice of architecture. In large firms, the design, specifications writing, code research and other tasks are done by different people.

Many non-designers (read: consumers of design services) use the term to mean “interior designer.” This is the person whose responsibility centers on building features that most directly influence humans and their interaction with the building. Whereas the architecture profession uses the term “designer” to mean the person most directly responsible for building form and appearance at any level, the vernacular term generally refers to the person responsible for features which are directly visible and relatable to occupants. These include finish materials for floors, walls and ceilings. 7In the profession, the designer determines whether the building has a flat roof or pitched roof, to use a blunt example. For the lay person, the designer picks colors and cabinetry.

Interior Designer

The term is not protected to the extent “architect” is protected. However, many states license interior designers: they pass a test to prove competency. Interior designers focus on the planning and development of interior spaces in a building, primarily to suit an intended function. I tend to think of interior design as a subset of architecture. Partitions, flooring and other surface materials, and even lighting typically are in the interior design domain.

In the architecture profession, it is common to think of a building as having core and shell, and an interior. The core and shell are the structure, envelope, vertical and horizontal circulation, and the plumbing, mechanical and electrical systems- the container. The interior is composed of non-loadbearing partitions, finishes, specialty components and equipment, such as casework- the contents. There are, in fact whole firms that specialize in core and shell architecture. There are whole firms that special in interior architecture. Also common are the firms with core and shell groups, and interior design groups. These groups may work on the same projects, or they may work on different projects.

Architecture and Interiors

In smaller offices working in more rural areas (such as eastern Maine), most commercial space is designed by architects; there simply are not that many interior designers around.

Sealander Architects has two licensed architects. I concentrate on the core and shell components of building design. My partner concentrates on interiors portions. The division of labor makes sense, since there is plenty to know about the core and shell side, and there is plenty to know about the interiors side. We enjoy having competency in both core and shell and interiors portions of the design. There is no clear demarcation over where I stop and she starts. In fact, our work style has me being her critic, and she being mine. The design of buildings is a team effort.

Follow Mike Sealander, Maine Licensed Architect:


Principal at Sealander Architects, Ellsworth Maine. Revit guru. Married with 3 children. Avid gardener. Lived in San Francisco for nine years. Master in Architecture from Columbia University Bachelor of arts in religious studies, Wesleyan University. Graduated Staples High School, Westport CT. Hope to spend some time in Hokkaido before all is said and done.

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