The difference between commercial and residential interior design 

06 November 2023

A student on interior design sitting at a table with books, paint and fabric samples in front of them
Interior Design online
Type: Text
Category: Industry insights

Although both commercial and residential interior design aims to create visually appealing and functional spaces, the task of the interior designer differs quite significantly in each of these sectors. In this article, we caught up with Amanda Losasso, Course Leader for Interior Design BA(Hons) (Online), to hear about the differences between commercial and residential interior design. 

What is commercial interior design? 

From hotels, restaurants and co-working spaces to retail stores and gyms, if you’ve ever been to these places and enjoyed the overall feel of the space then this has likely been the result of carefully considered interior design.  

Commercial interior design focuses on creating well-designed, functional, and visually appealing spaces that support the goals of the business or brand, and create a positive experience for customers, visitors, patients, clients, and their employees. 

What does a commercial interior designer do? 

A commercial interior is based on an idea. That idea could be a brand identity, business proposition or even target audience. It’s the role of the commercial interior designer to imagine how that idea can be translated into a 3D environment. Commercial interior designers will work with clients to build a profile of their target customer, understanding their values, lifestyle and aspirations. They will then design an interior space that aligns with both the business owner’s objective and customer experience. 

The role of a commercial interior designer involves a lot more than simply deciding on furniture, decorations, and paint colour. Commercial interior designers will often oversee the whole project, from initial design concepts through to final construction. They will create product and material specifications, and regularly coordinate with the client and build team to ensure the project is on track from concept to completion. 

The scope of a commercial interior project is often much wider than a residential project, in scale, complexity and in usage. How a space makes us think, behave and feel are all important concerns for commercial interior designers. Creating spaces for social interaction and engagement can lead to strong, emotional attachments between users and the interior environment, encouraging people to spend time there. A well-designed interior can help to build brand loyalty and lead to business growth and profitability. 

What skills do commercial interior designers need? 

Commercial interior designers need to be highly creative and innovative, forming a clear vision for a space and then having the skills to transform that vision into reality. Time management, problem solving, and flexibility are all essential skills needed to drive a project forward. 

Technical knowhow is also needed for the role. Commercial interior designers should have a practical understanding of CAD software, materials and construction. They should understand the constraints and opportunities that a building offers and how it might be organised spatially. They also need an up-to-date knowledge of building regulations and codes to ensure that designs are safe, inclusive and accessible. 

Commercial interior designers need to be both good visual and verbal communicators. They also need to be good collaborators as they will be working with the client and the whole build team, such as engineers, builders and electricians, right from the start of the project. Skills in project management are key as commercial interior designers often direct and coordinate the project from the outset and guide the client through the build and decision-making process. 

What does a residential interior designer do? 

Residential interior designers focus on creating living spaces for homeowners. This usually involves designing interior spaces in private homes and apartments but could also extend to holiday homes, the rental sector and even yacht interiors. Unlike commercial interior design, where the needs of both business owner and customer should be considered, residential interior designers only focus on the needs, comforts and tastes of their client and their family.  

What skills do residential interior designers need? 

Residential interior designers need to really understand the needs of their client so good relationship building and communication skills are key. They should also have the skills to be able to guide the client through the decision-making process and manage the stakeholder’s expectations on what is achievable.  

Residential interior designers should have the skills to develop a vision in tandem with the client’s wishes. They will create mood boards, materials palettes and drawings to communicate their ideas. Like commercial interior designers, they too need to be aware of the materials and finishes that are appropriate to a residential setting and the relevant building regulations in place. They also need to have skills in project management and be able to coordinate a build team. 

What are the major differences between commercial and residential interior design? 

There are a lot of crossovers between commercial and residential interior design – ultimately, both are seeking to enrich human experience. In both sectors, designers need strong interpersonal skills, and need to produce an interior that is fit for purpose. 

The most obvious difference is that commercial interiors are created for use by the public and can be much larger in scale whilst residential interiors are for private use. The commercial interior is based on the idea of a brand or business and the user experience, whilst the residential interior is personalised to a specific individual or family and expresses their taste.  

Different building regulations and standards for materials and products apply to commercial and residential interiors. Generally, for a public space the regulations are stricter; for instance, materials and finishes are expected to be more durable and fire regulations are much more robust, so the designer needs to be aware of the relevant codes and comply with the appropriate regulations and requirements.  

These differences, although seemingly small mean that different types of spaces are needed for commercial and residential interiors. From the intimate and comfortable in a residential space to the grand, playful, thought provoking, and immersive in a commercial environment, thoughtful design and careful execution can make all the difference. 

However, a recent trend named ‘resimercial design’ has been on the increase. It brings the residential into the workplace by adding softer, more tactile elements like breakout spaces with soft furnishings, rugs and lamps. Resimercial design aims to make the workplace more reminiscent of home, helping to boost employee wellbeing and reduce stress. 

Is there an area of interior design that our online degree focuses on? 

Our Interior Design BA(Hons) Online degree focuses on the commercial sector of interior design, although we also include residential design within the course structure. We believe that equipping our students with a good exposure to the commercial sector, with both its tighter constraints and its greater creative freedoms, means that students have the confidence to move freely between the two sectors once they start their careers. 


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