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International Interior Design Association

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All Business?

By Katriel Costello

Of all the major issues facing today’s professional sectors, one of the hottest discussions centers on the degree of business training (or lack thereof) among executives. The interior design field is no exception. Some believe that high-level positions should entail some sort of business education. However, others say creativity is what matters most in interior design, and business savvy can be acquired on the job.

At Perkins & Will, one of the world’s largest design firms, this business-vs.-creative dilemma does not play a major part into most employees’ careerpaths. With few exceptions, most of the architectural and interiors professionals who track to leadership positions have no formal business management degree. “Most business management experience is acquired on-the-job, which includes real-time experiences, internally provided training and external professional development courses,” says Meg Brown, Director of Human Resources and Associate Principal at Perkins + Will’s New York office. “Additionally, a lot of our growth-by-acquisitions have been of well-run design firms founded and/or run by individuals who acquired on-the-job business experience.”

Such a structure works well for this successful corporation, but other companies find it better to require a more solid business background from their designers. Cary Johnson, FIIDA, Principal of The Environments Group in Chicago, has a business minor as part of his degree. “Traditionally, to get to the top of an organization, you have to have a well-developed background in all aspects of the design profession, including the business, the design and the process. The top creative people seldom reach the top management position in their design firms.”

The Right Mix

There is no question that a certain amount of business savvy can only help the interior design field. What is up for debate is the degree to which business knowledge should be obtained, who should obtain it and whether it should be considered a requirement for interior designers seeking high-level positions.

Sally Sirkin Lewis, owner and President of International Furnishings and Textiles Company J. Robert Scott, never received any formal business training. Yet along the way, she came to value such training, particularly with bigger, more established companies whose success depends partly on their position in the marketplace. “All firms, large or small, need business acumen” Sirkin Lewis says. “They have to be mindful of budgets and good business practices. They must be able to absorb professional standards that are necessary.”

Some designers avoid mixing business and design in an effort to preserve the purity of creativity, while others don’t perceive business and art as opposing forces. “It’s important for designers to learn how they earn their money,” says Aurel Aebi, Interior Designer/Architect at Atelier-Oi SA, Switzerland. “Designing to budget pushes you to be creative. If the budget isn’t there for the best materials, it means you can invent something new.”

Even Perkins + Will recognizes the relationship between business and creativity. “This past Spring, the firm sent 113 Principals and Associate Principals to a retreat on emotional intelligence,” Brown says. “It was an amazing opportunity to learn the value that emotional intelligence plays in combination with our design, project management, marketing and business management skills. Budgets, business practices, contracts, etc., are far easier to learn in comparison to the emotional capacity leaders must tap into to achieve a peak performance model.”

How to Get It

Firms such as Perkins + Will rely on designers to acquire business savvy on-the-job in many ways, including aligning themselves with colleagues who have a strong business sense. But many interior design students are expecting that formal training from their degreed courses. Lawrence Cohen, IIDA, an instructor at the New York School of Interior Design, welcomes this thirst for business knowledge in his students. He draws heavily from Mary V. Knackstedt, FIIDA’s, The Interior Design Business Handbook: A Complete Guide to Profitability and invites guest speakers to impart their knowledge of working in the industry. Students are assigned projects in which they must establish a “dummy” interior design business, complete with marketing agendas, advertising, rights procurements, pricing, contracts, client relations, human resources and managerial staffs. They also are well versed in the ethical implications of design, such as contractor relationships.

Nan Rosenblatt, Interior Designer and Director of Interior Architecture at the Academy of Art University, San Francisco, added similar business-skill prerequisites to her courses 18 months ago, and she’s already seeing results. “Employers have told us that what we are teaching the students is wonderful because they can hit the ground running and they are better equipped to deal with the business.”

Cohen also recognizes that learning doesn’t stop on graduation day. After equipping his students with business knowledge, he urges them to first work for someone else before they become their own boss. This way they may get a feel for the “real-life” principles of running a business.

The Future in Balance

The interior design profession is one that embraces differences and discussion, and this discussion is no different. Rosenblatt predicts that business education will be mandatory in the future. Many schools already have incorporated business into their interior design degree tracks, including the aforementioned New York School of Interior Design and The Academy of Art University, San Francisco. Cohen, too, says that as the industry becomes more legislatively regulated, designers will run better businesses that are more ethical and have a better sense of design’s codes and the rules—both technical and creative.

“It’s self-destructive to not have business acumen,” Sirkin Lewis says. “We’re handling and are responsible for large sums of money, and we need the business know-how to handle this. We owe it to our clients.”