“Designed to Mislead”: New Study Undercuts Case for Interior Design Regulation

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · September 25, 2008

Arlington, Va.—Do people who design interiors “mislead” the public when they call themselves “interior designers” without government permission? Industry insiders advocating greater regulation say yes, but practicing interior designers who simply want to accurately describe what they do say no.

A new study tests each side’s claims, and the stakes are high. Interior designers in Texas and Connecticut are in court challenging laws that forbid them from saying they are “interior designers” or that they do “interior design” work without a special license from the government.

Three other states have similar laws that limit speech by entrepreneurs, and thereby limit consumer information and choice. Worse, industry insiders—led by the American Society of Interior Designers and its state affiliates—seek to use these “titling” laws as a stepping-stone toward full-blown occupational licensure, which would keep many design entrepreneurs out of business altogether.

According to ASID and its allies, as well as the state of Texas in its legal defense of its law, titling laws prevent consumers from being “misled.” They assert that “interior designer” refers only to someone who has met specific government-mandated requirements, including a certain level and kind of education and an apprenticeship, and who has passed a 13.5-hour exam. By contrast, entrepreneurs who simply want to accurately describe what they do argue that interior designers are defined by their work, not arbitrary state-mandated credentials.

To find out which side is right, the Institute for Justice polled consumers and surveyed leading interior design publications. According to the results, published today in “Designed to Mislead: How Industry Insiders Mislead the Public About the Need for Interior Design Regulation”:

• The public thinks “interior designers,” first and foremost, design interiors.
• The public does not associate the term “interior designer” with the credentials of a specialized education, completing an apprenticeship and passing an exam.
• Likewise, the leading interior design publications pay no attention to state-mandated qualifications when it calls people “interior designers.”

In short, no one is misled by people who perform interior design work calling themselves “interior designers,” regardless of their educational background or credentials.

“Interior designers honestly describing what they do misleads no one,” said Dr. Dick Carpenter, the study’s author and director of strategic research at the Institute for Justice. “Imposing qualifications by law that lack any basis in evidence is what misleads the public.”

The results square with the experience of actual design entrepreneurs who report that their customers care about their style and their work, not the degree they hold or whether they passed any test.

As Connecticut designer Cynthia Hernandez says, “Only one person has ever asked about a design degree. Everyone else has engaged me on personality, knowledge and the ideas I come up with when we meet. People just don’t ask about qualifications.”

“Without any basis in real-world evidence, these laws require designers to secure what amounts to a free-speech license to truthfully advertise their services,” said Clark Neily, an IJ senior attorney who represents designers challenging titling laws in Texas and Connecticut. “These laws do nothing but stifle competition and consumer choice, while trampling on the First Amendment rights of entrepreneurs.”

Download “Designed to Mislead,” in PDF.

For more information on IJ’s legal challenges to interior design laws visit our case pages for Texas and Connecticut.