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International Interior Design Association

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Best in Class

By Ross Foti

Tomorrow’s world will need product innovators, industrial specialists, strategic planners. It’s no longer enough to leave school with drawing and drafting skills, architectural and design knowledge, business and interpersonal skills — you need the expertise to function in a high-tech workplace while incorporating humanistic sensibilities.

It all begins with a first-class education, but with so many accredited design schools, it’s difficult to choose one when your future is on the line. After all, every program has its own unique strengths and weaknesses — you must decide which will make the difference to your career.

To help you sort through the crowded field, educators across the United States were asked what makes a best-in-class interior design program.

Perspective: Why do interior design students have a hard time choosing a program that will meet long-term goals?

Barbara Anderson: You’d be surprised how many students don’t understand what interior design is. Some students only have a vague idea of what the profession offers.

We try to be as forthright with our prospective students as we can. All design education has a bit of a problem with lack of fit — what the student expects education to be like and what it really is like. We have to focus on some very basic concepts that students may not even realize are related to what they will be using in the real world.

Anna Marshall-Baker: An interior design education really is about helping students understand how to think, learn and do. We enable students to become informed citizens who are interested in their world. That way, when they enter the real world, through their experience, they can blossom into interior designers.

You shouldn’t compromise the quality of your education. Ultimately, you have to decide what you want to do, where you want to be and find the resources to get there.

Franklin Becker: Today’s career path is not that clear-cut. Students often start in a design firm doing more traditional work, but because of the critical thinking skills design students bring to a situation, they end up in consulting firms or other firms that require these skills — from interior design to graphic design to entertainment to straight-forward business consulting. Design is a wide-open field in which students apply skills in a novel way. A design education, if done well, can open up opportunities.

Perspective: Ideally, what characteristics should you look for in a school’s faculty?

Marshall-Baker: Good teachers are contemporary, current and well-read with issues that involve the designed environment but also are involved with professional organizations. Through my involvement in the Interior Design Educators Council (IDEC), I get exposed to all sorts of things going on at other schools. Those connections at professional organizations are critically important.

Frank Morigi: Too many faculties are just getting their degrees and then teaching. If we can get more people with professional experience to teach, the better a school is going to be.

Denise Guerin: An interior designer with a background in architecture or other allied professions brings a richness. Interior design is such an interdisciplinary profession that this kind of experience is invaluable.
But, most of all, a faculty must be dedicated to student learning, have the mandatory credentials and really want to teach. Educators must continue to develop the body of knowledge for the profession and continue to learn themselves.

Perspective: What should students look for in the interior design curriculum?

Anderson: In academia, it’s important to separate out succinct areas of study, but in design, you must integrate as much as possible. Any good program is going to have a student-learning focus in the choices they make. If your choices are always made on what will make the best student learning, you can practically guarantee that students will learn what they need to know.

Marshall-Baker: A well-developed curriculum will begin in the first year with a studio emphasis on design fundamentals and history of interior design, architecture and art. Studio is really about engaging thought.

Also, competitions serve as a wonderful measure for programs to understand how the work their students are producing compares with the work of students in other programs.

An internship, practicum, or a field or co-op experience is very important to interior design education, and the better programs will have that experience in some form.

Susan Kirkman: A good curriculum has to have the ability to change with changes in the industry. At the university level, you can only make minor changes every couple of years through a committee. A really good program has to be able to change with the industry, change with trends and put into practice classes that are needed for the times.

Perspective: Beyond theory, what does a top-notch program teach design students?

Morigi: A good school should educate future designers as problem-solvers. Most schools are just training designers for entry-level positions rather than educating designers for the future problems.

Becker: Students themselves are interested in skills development because that’s tangible. But, ultimately, knowledge is shifting so quickly and problems are so complex that we find it’s more important to coach students in thinking in different ways.

We require our students to make a lot of professional quality presentations and reports. They have to think on their feet and convey their ideas to an audience in a variety of ways.

Guerin: We want students who are critical thinkers, passionate about design and have a good work ethic, but if they don’t come to us with that, we have to be good role models. We have to create critical thinkers. We have to come up with projects and assignments that require critical thinking. We can’t just teach them solutions, we have to teach them to think.

Perspective: When students look at a course schedule, what core classes or areas of focus are essential for a well-rounded experience?

Morigi: You should be looking for a professional degree with a liberal education. We seem to tend too much toward the degree part and not enough toward the humanities or social sciences. We’re dealing with other people and how they relate to the city, each other and the room. With a liberal education, you can create a humanistic approach, rather than just a decorative, architectural or structural approach.

Becker: Our students are integrated and embedded in a program that has world-class psychologists and behavior experts that all feed into and help students develop a broad-based education in design. They are able to think critically and see design in a broader context.

Our strong behavioral and organizational focus allows our students to bring a strong commitment to environmental design — in sustainable design but also in community issues for critical populations.

Guerin: The human is the most important component of the problem and the solution. Unless we truly understand the human needs — psychological, physical and environmental — we will continue to design the wrong solutions.

Perspective: What do you see in students who are the most successful?

Guerin: I tell my students that I want them to be productive members of the profession at graduation. But my concern is that they are leaders of the profession in 10 to 15 years. I want them to be the change-makers. Part of the role of a good program is to promote professional leadership.

Becker: We’re educating students who will go into the field and serve clients and employers effectively. But we also want to shape the profession for which we’re preparing those students.

Perspective: With technology changing so quickly, how can a best-in-class program integrate relevant, practical skills?

Kirkman: The program must embrace industry standards and be on the leading edge of that. Just providing computer-aided design experience is not enough. You need to be into all the bells and whistles that are conversant with the industry. The more interactive, the better. This is the point-and-click generation, and you have to be that way or you’ll lose them.

Anderson: Technology is a problem. If you teach students to be highly conversant with the current technology, they’ll only be competent at the time they leave. You have to teach them to be lifelong learners.

Tommy Lambeth: It’s about using your hands, eyes, brains and heart. Direct experience with making things. Our entire first semester is focused on making things. Not making models or images, but making the actual things. Through working with a variety of materials, students make or craft a variety of products or artifacts that have some relation to human use or basic design.

Perspective: What do you feel are the courses that will emerge as important to the practitioners of the future?

Guerin: Intergenerational or multigenerational design. The emphasis on healthcare will continue, especially for the elderly. This is a wellness approach, not a disease approach — the need to understand human behavior better so design solutions can improve performance, satisfaction, health and welfare.

Becker: Interior design now is focusing on more fundamental issues in how to use the built environment to promote health and productivity. It’s gone beyond aesthetics toward a more fundamental challenge.

Sustainable design has gone from a fringe activity to center court. In every aspect, it’s pervading students’ and corporations’ thinking. They are asking for it. It’s changing how we think of materials and their social impact.

Kirkman: We just put in our mission statement that we’re going to teach design responsibility. This is a growing trend with architects — taking a close look at social responsibility and how and where you build so you don’t create harm.

Marshall-Baker: Cradle-to-cradle design — looking beyond the issues of green design and sustainability. Whatever you pull out of the planet for whatever purpose, whenever its usefulness is over, it disintegrates back into the form it came from. It’s important to think about how our culture has to change and the role we can play in that change. We have to think of humans as stewards of the Earth.

Morigi: Ecological and sustainable design, but also programs that have to do with the built environment. Furniture is a good open area — there’s an opportunity for universities and manufacturers to collaborate and upgrade products for the real world.

Lambeth: There will be a focus on the interface with technology and new material exploration and development. The space program has produced so many new materials that have been integrated into popular culture over the years. Lighting, computers and technology are increasing so quickly that designers need to think about how to integrate them into the workplace and homes.