Architects Vs. Designers

Many people outside of the profession are unaware of the differences between architects and designers. This page offers some clarifications.


What is the difference between an architect and a designer?

An Architect is licensed. A designer is not. Anyone, regardless of their level of education or experience, can call themself a designer. Architects, on the other hand, can only refer and market themselves as such after they have successfully passed all of the licensing exams. At the time I’m writing this, the Oregon Board of Architect Examiners states this as follows:

Oregon law prohibits the practice of architecture or use of the architect title by unlicensed individuals. To ensure the protection of the public, those seeking to become registered to practice architecture in Oregon must meet established education, experience, training, and examination requirements. Those who do not meet these requirements or fail to register with OBAE may not use the architect title, or provide architectural services, or even offer to provide architectural services in Oregon.
Oregon law requires that all building projects exceeding 4,000 square feet or 20 feet in height be designed by a registered architect.  The only structures exempt from this requirement are:
  • Single Family Residences

  • Farm or Agricultural Buildings

  • Buildings that have had no structural modifications or changes to occupancy or code related classifications.

Architects registered in Oregon are governed by Oregon Revised Statutes Chapter 671 and Oregon Administrative Rules Chapter 806 Divisions 1-10 and 20. There are a wide variety of provisions and prohibitions contained in the rules and statutes. Please refer to Laws and Rules for more information.

There are four main steps to becoming an architect:  education, internship, examination, and licensure. You can find out more about each one at the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards.


Why should I hire an architect over a building designer?

If you google that question, you will find quite a few pages with answers. Most of them fall into two categories.

The first of them would be because you have a project that is not an exempt structure. If your project is not an exempt structure, then a building designer cannot legally design it for you.

If your project is an exempt structure, then the second answer is that you want more than what a designer can or is willing to provide. As you will find from your google search, this can take many forms. Some of the more common ones include:

  • Education:  Today's architects have at least an architectural degree from an accredited university. The same requirement doesn't exist for designers. Some designers might have an architecture degree, while others might only have a 2-year drafting degree from a local community college. Those obviously are not equal.
  • Construction documents:  A typical designer's permit set might consist of a site plan, floor plans, roof plan, exterior elevations, and basic structural details (provided by a consulting engineer) - leaving the majority of the materials and finishes to be determined during construction. An architect's set is much more complete. In addition to those drawings, the architect's set can also include landscape plans, lighting plans, furniture plans, interior elevations, door schedules, window schedules, finish schedules, and architectural details. Depending on the size & scope of the project, it might also include a wider array of structural plans and details as well as drawings from other consultants such as electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, plumbing engineers, interior designers, lighting designers, etc. All of which are coordinated by the architect. The architect also usually prepares (and/or coordinates the preparation of) a specification that compliments the drawings. This document specifies products, equipment, materials, systems, standards and workmanship for the project as well as performance of related services. As a result, the design is much more thought out and the construction process can go more smoothly.
  • Design:  Perhaps you want a design that goes beyond what you've found in a plan book. While there are creative designers out there, the vast majority do not design like an architect.  There is a noticeable difference in thought between the two. Generally speaking, designers tend to follow trends and apply finishes more superficially than architects do.  In central Oregon this has manifested itself in the form of quite a few Tuscan-style, Craftsman-style, and Prairie-style homes with awkward spatial arrangements, abrupt material transitions, and that designer favorite:  the two-story entry. While there is certainly nothing wrong with those styles, the manner in which they are implemented leaves a lot to be desired. Compare the contemporary Craftsman to the turn of the century Craftsman bungalow and you'll find only the slightest resemblance. Compare the modern Prairie-style home to any of Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie homes, and the gulf is even more evident. Today's architects have not only been taught to avoid common designer signatures, but they also draw from a wider array of styles & precedents and implement them in more sensitive and creative ways.


Why should I hire a building designer over an architect?

Building designers are generally (but not always) cheaper. At least initially. You have to remember that they aren't providing the same level of service that an architect would, so it's not entirely unexpected that their design fees would be lower. You should also remember that their fees are usually based solely on the design and don't include site analysis, consultant coordination, construction administration, etc. Another advantage if you are looking to have a home designed is that designers do usually have quite a bit of experience with home design as it is arguably the project type they deal with the most. The disadvantage with this is that their designs tend to be more cookie-cutter in nature and not as specific or unique when compared with what an architect could provide. However, if you are looking for a typical design and have a site without significant challenges, then hiring a designer may be the most cost-effective route.


Do you work with interior designers?

Sure!  The first firm I worked at out of school had (and still has) its own interiors department – and an exceptional one at that. For the most part, those of us who were architects or who were planning on becoming architects got along great with the interior designers. The only times I can recall conflicts arising would be when someone from the interiors department would overstep his/her responsibilities and move walls without regard to structure and/or design intent. But those moments were rare and for the most part the two sides complimented each other very well.


Do you work with (building) designers?

The short answer is no. In the past, when I was employed at other firms, there were a few times when an outside designer was involved on a project and it was always a negative experience. In these instances, the designer was hired by the owner - not the architect. As such, there was always a communication disconnect between the architect and the designer. The architect, used to coordinating consultants, would naturally want to include the designer in this process as well. However, since the designer was not hired by the architect, he/she/they would not feel obligated to communicate directly with the architect. At best, this meant delays. At worst it meant a unwillingness to check ego at the door and put the well-being of the project ahead of personal desires. Those projects always went over budget and were generally a negative experience on most levels. Because of this, I can’t see myself partnering with a designer in the foreseeable future.

More to the point, since architects are trained in design, it really doesn't make much sense to hire a separate designer as well.  It's redundant and unnecessary. The biggest exception to that rule is if a designer is specialized in a field that the architect might not be. Interior designers and lighting designers are two examples that I've worked with on past projects.

Back to the Architectural FAQ.