architect vs architectural designer architectural designer vs architect

Architect vs Architectural Designer vs Architectural Engineer: What’s the Difference?

9 min read

When crafting our built environment, the roles of various professionals—i.e., architects, architectural designers, interior designers, interior decorators, and architectural engineers—often intersect. While their designations suggest similarities—and indeed, their work does overlap in many respects—it is essential to delineate the specific functions, education, and skills associated with each profession. Recognizing these distinctions offers clarity when executing your own design or construction project, helps determine which career matches your goals and skills most closely, ensures the optimal utilization of each professional’s expertise, and assists each professional in communicating with their clients. In this article, we elucidate these differences, explain where these roles overlap, and shed light on how each profession contributes uniquely to the industry as a whole. Whether you are a student, a client, a project manager, a designer, an engineer, or an architect, read on to learn more.

Architect vs Architectural Designer vs Architectural Engineer: What’s the Difference?

Architects are the principal designers of buildings. Their expertise lies in translating conceptual visions into tangible structures—ensuring that a building is aesthetically pleasing, functional, and compliant with safety regulations. Their training encompasses a rigorous curriculum spanning several years—culminating in licensure that bestows upon them the formal title of “Registered Architect”.

Architectural designers—often part of the broader architectural ecosystem—focus predominantly on the initial design phases of a building project. Their role is primarily centered on crafting preliminary design concepts, space planning, and visualization—often without delving into the intricate technical and engineering specifics. While they share common ground with architects in terms of education, their scope is usually more concentrated on the artistic and conceptual facets of architecture.

Architectural engineers—juxtaposing the artistic with the technical—delve into the structural and systemic underpinnings of a building. Their expertise ensures that the building’s systems—from electrical to plumbing—function seamlessly. Moreover, they address the structural soundness of a building—ensuring that designs can withstand environmental forces. Their training is grounded in engineering principles and augmented with a deep understanding of architectural concepts.

Together, these professionals form the pillars of the construction and design industry—each playing an indispensable role in the journey from a building’s conception to its realization. Let’s take a closer look at each profession and key differences between them.


The primary role of registered architects is to design structures that seamlessly merge aesthetics with functionality. Beyond the realm of mere visual appeal, architects also ensure that these edifices adhere to stringent safety standards set by the local building department and state codes—making absolutely certain that every constructed environment offers its occupants both beauty and security.

Education and Licensing

The journey to becoming an architect is both demanding and rewarding. Aspirants typically begin that journey with a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture—through which they obtain a foundational understanding of the discipline.

Once they have studied architecture at the undergraduate level, aspiring architects typically follow up with a Master’s program. Masters’ in Architecture typically provide deeper insights and specialization opportunities. But academic accomplishments alone do not an architect make. Licensure—achieved only after meeting specific professional requirements and passing a series of exams—is necessary.

In the United States, the primary examination candidates must pass to become licensed architects is the Architect Registration Examination® (ARE®). Architectural Registration Exams are developed by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB).

The state in which your architectural firm operates will provide licensure based on the outcome of your architectural registration exam. Your state Architects Registration Board will also determine which other criteria you must meet to practice in that jurisdiction.

About the Architect Registration Examination® (ARE®)

The ARE is designed to assess candidates’ knowledge and skills regarding the practice of architecture. It ensures that those who become licensed architects have the requisite understanding and proficiency in architectural services to provide safe and competent practice.

The ARE is divided into the following divisions, which can be taken in any order:

  • Practice Management
  • Project Management
  • Programming & Analysis
  • Project Planning & Design
  • Project Development & Documentation
  • Construction & Evaluation

It’s also worth noting that—in addition to passing the ARE—candidates typically must meet education and experience requirements to become licensed in a particular U.S. jurisdiction. These requirements are usually fulfilled often fulfilled through the Architectural Experience Program, or AXP. Each State Architect’s Board may have additional requirements or variations, so it’s essential to consult with your specific state’s architectural registration board for detailed information.

Fuel your creative fire & be a part of a supportive community that values how you love to live.

subscribe to our newsletter

Continuing Education Requirements

In most states, architects have a legal responsibility to build upon their education if they want to keep their licenses current. Like licensure requirements, specific CE requirements can vary from state to state. Most jurisdictions that mandate continuing education set a certain number of learning units (LUs) or hours that architects must earn within a specific time frame—typically every year or every two years.

Many jurisdictions require a portion of the CE credits to be in subjects designated as Health, Safety, and Welfare (HSW). These courses cover topics pertinent to the protection of the public and the provision of safe and functional built environments.

It’s the responsibility of the architect to keep track of their CE credits and to report them to the appropriate registration board when renewing their license. Some professional organizations—like the AIA—assist members by tracking these hours on their behalf and reporting them to the state boards. Jurisdictions may periodically audit license renewals to verify that CE requirements have been met. Architects may be asked to provide proof of completion of CE courses during such audits.

Key Skills and Tools

Modern architectural firms lean heavily on computer-aided design software like AutoCAD, Revit, and SketchUp for design and visualization. These digital aids facilitate precision and allow each licensed architect to visualize and iterate designs in unprecedented ways.

However, an architect’s role goes far beyond the technological. The ability to convey complex ideas to clients, builders, and other stakeholders—and to do so compellingly—is just as vital as the design itself.

Architectural Designers

Put simply, an architectural designer is an architecture professional who has not become licensed by taking and passing the ARE. In the U.S., the title “architect” is legally protected and reserved for individuals who have met specific education, experience, and examination requirements. Without a license, a designer’s salary potential is usually lower than an architect’s. In many cases, the skills, knowledge, and prowess of an architectural designer do not differ significantly from those of an emerging architect.

Of course, there are a few distinct differences: licensure, a complete understanding of local regulations, the need to complete continuing education requirements, and the scope of participation in construction or design projects. These differences vary by state. In some states, licensure is the primary differentiator.

Scope is what sets many architectural designers apart from architects. Architectural designers operate predominantly within the embryonic stages of a building project or renovation. While architects participate throughout the entire trajectory of a project—from conception to completion—architectural designers provide technical drawings at the beginning.

Their primary role is to craft preliminary designs and concepts—envisioning the spatial arrangements, aesthetics, and initial layout of a prospective structure. They are often responsible for drafting construction documents. Architectural designers often work in an architectural office—assisting each fully qualified architect as they ideate and execute residential or commercial buildings.

In most cases, they are directly supervised by an architect. However, some architectural designers work independently. Those who work directly with their own clients might design single rooms or additions. They might also consult on larger projects or participate in documenting design projects for other firms as an independent contractor. Bear in mind that the term is somewhat nebulous and open to interpretation. “Architectural designer” might mean something different in your area than it does in a neighboring state.

Education and Background

Designers often attend similar programs to those that architects enroll in. However, some designers complete their education with an Associate of Science in Architecture. At the Associate’s level, an architectural design program might focus more heavily on design theory, history, and conceptual development.

Even if they do attend a Bachelor’s or obtain a Master’s degree, a designer’s educational path may not provide as much regulatory and technical knowledge related to architecture. Of course, this depends heavily on whether the student intends to pursue a career as a designer or become a licensed architect. Some designers receive the same rigorous training as architects but decide not to pursue licensure.

Key Skills and Tools

Architectural designers use many of the same tools that architects and other design professionals do. They often use Adobe Creative Suite, Rhino, and other 3D modeling programs to bring their designs to life.

Architectural Engineers

An architectural engineer’s purview extends to the building’s skeleton and its myriad systems—from electrical and plumbing networks to HVAC and other environmental controls. While architects craft the vision and designers refine it, architectural engineers ascertain whether their vision will endure the practical challenges of the real world—ensuring the seamless operation of all building systems.

Education and Background

Aspiring architectural engineers will enroll in programs that emphasize building structures, systems, and their integration. These programs offer a deep dive into subjects like structural engineering, mechanical systems, and electrical systems in the context of building design.

Once their formal education is complete—like other engineering professions—architectural engineers often face licensure requirements. This usually entails passing specific exams, such as the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) and the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exams. The licensure process for architectural engineers—while rigorous—differs from that of architects, underscoring the distinct technical focus of their profession compared to the holistic design emphasis of architecture.

About the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam

The FE exam is typically the first step for recent graduates or soon-to-be graduates in engineering. Passing the FE exam is a prerequisite for taking the PE exam. Successful completion allows individuals to be identified as Engineers-in-Training (EITs) or Engineering Interns (EIs). This computer-based test lasts for 6 hours—which includes a 25-minute break and a brief tutorial.

It consists of 110 multiple-choice questions about fundamental engineering topics. While there are common topics for all examinees, the specific content varies based on the chosen discipline—such as Civil, Mechanical, Electrical, etc.

Examinees are allowed to use the NCEES FE Reference Handbook—which is provided during the exam. This handbook contains formulas and essential information related to the exam’s content.

about the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) Exam

The PE exam is designed for engineers who have gained a minimum of four years of post-college work experience in their respective engineering discipline. Passing this exam is a significant milestone in an engineer’s career as it leads to licensure and the legal designation as a “Professional Engineer.”

The length of the PE exam varies by discipline. Most PE exams are 8 hours long, typically broken into morning and afternoon sessions. The number and type of questions vary based on the engineering discipline, but many exams have 80 or more questions, including multiple-choice, constructed response, and fill-in-the-blank types. A PE exam’s content is more in-depth and specialized than that of an FE exam—focusing on the practical aspects and advanced knowledge required in specific engineering disciplines.

Key Skills and Tools

Central to an architectural engineer’s toolkit is their analytical acumen and mathematical prowess. They must dissect complex problems—from load-bearing challenges to energy efficiency considerations, and devise solutions grounded in scientific principles.

To aid in this, they employ an array of software tools tailored to their needs. Software platforms like SAP2000, ETABS, or Revit MEP facilitate structural analysis, systems design, and integration within building models. These digital aids—combined with an architectural engineer’s analytical skills—ensure that the poetic visions of architects are anchored in the tangible realities of physics, materials, and environmental considerations.

Collaboration Among Architects, Architectural Designers, and Architectural Engineers

Architects, architectural designers, and architectural engineers often work in tandem. The combined insights of these professionals guarantee that designs are not just aesthetically pleasing but also technically sound, safe, and functional.

By involving all three from a project’s inception, potential challenges—whether related to design aesthetics, space utilization, or structural considerations—are anticipated and addressed early on, preventing costly mid-project changes. This fusion of diverse perspectives also fosters innovation. While architects might champion design integrity, designers can introduce novel concepts, and engineers can suggest advanced building techniques or materials.

As a student, the choice between pursuing an architectural design, architecture, or engineering career will depend on your goals and strengths. Many young graduates also consider interior design—which also requires technical knowledge and creative vision.