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Compass vs. Computer

By Michelle Taute

Technology is changing the face of interior design. But rather than exerting its power through one killer app, it’s flexing influence in a much more sophisticated way. Next-generation software incorporates the nuances of pre-CAD techniques, while designers themselves borrow tools from related disciplines. But the real innovations are the new ways designers use and combine technology to solve problems and push the profession forward. Whether it’s in the college classroom or at a client presentation, the people operating the technology — rather than the technology itself — drive change.

A Fourth Dimension

Interior designers soon may find themselves borrowing a few tricks from Hollywood. At Ohio University, David Matthews, an Assistant Professor in the interior architecture program, has been reading up on documentary filmmaking as he and his students communicate their design ideas through animation. This 4-D approach allows a presentation to match the sophistication level of the ideas within it. “I think it’s important that we distinguish ourselves as designers,” he says, “Rather than defaulting to the run-of-the-mill slideshow style offered by PowerPoint.”

Matthews primarily experiments with Flash, which is more commonly used by graphic designers for Web animation, and Final Cut Pro, an editing tool from the film and video industry. From layering music or voiceover tracks over video to creating interactive presentations for clients, the possibilities are endless. Designers can express themselves more creatively, exploring things like nonlinear presentation and animating still photos or renderings. “When you have a presentation that adds motion, an audio track, professional quality typography and other elements, it’s incredibly powerful,” he says.

Eventually, he believes, these techniques will trickle down from the presentation phase to the design-testing phase, allowing designers to look more closely at how people will move through a given space. It’s a great tool for further exploration of transitions, sequence and order of movement in interiors. “It’s a feedback loop for ourselves,” Matthews says. “It could have a significant impact on what we do.” In retail environments, for example, technology gives designers a way to examine the sequence in which products are introduced to customers as they move through a store.

Evolving Software and Timelines

When it comes to popular design tools like CAD, which has been adopted widely by interior designers for a decade, the changes have been more continuous and subtle. “The CAD programs aren’t revolutionary, but they’re evolutionary,” says Amy Manley, a Senior Project Designer at Kling, an architecture, interiors and engineering firm in Philadelphia. “They’re trying to make CAD as user friendly as Outlook.”

According to Denise Guerin, Ph.D., IIDA, ASID, FIDEC, Morse-Alumni Professor Interior Design, University of Minnesota, this software has run the course from innovation to acceptance to asking ourselves what’s missing from whatever this tool replaced. “We’re almost going to see some of the beauty of manual drafting put back into technology,” she says.

The other big impact of technology is the speed and process by which designers work. “People expect instant gratification from communication,” says Manley, pointing to e-mail, sharing files online and portable devices like PDAs and BlackBerries. “Clients want problems solved instantly.”

These expectations have put a crunch on what used to be a linear design process. Now it’s often a vertical approach, with everything happening at once. Designers are expected to start solving problems before they have all the information they need and make adjustments as things go forward.

Technology in the Classrooms

Time at the keyboard has undoubtedly changed the culture in design programs at campuses across the world. At Florida State University, Lisa Waxman, IIDA, Ph.D., an Associate Professor of interior design, watches her students walk around with USB storage devices around their necks that hold a whole semester’s worth of design work. She believes 3-D software helps young designers think about the volume of a space rather than getting obsessed with a 2-D floor plan. However, in the very early stages of the creative process, she encourages students to work by hand. “We don’t want them to give up their sketchbooks,” she says.

Those in the professional world agree. “When you’re drawing something, you actually go through multiple ideas very quickly,” Manley says. “It’s very fluid. Working on the computer is not a very fluid process. It’s almost labor intensive in some regards.” Her firm encourages interns and young designers to work out their ideas with a number of sketches to avoid moving to the computer too soon.

CAD drawings can run the risk of looking so finished and polished, Guerin says, that young designers don’t have to go back and clean things up — a stage where design solutions might become more refined. But overall, she thinks that technology is a positive. “The computer is only a tool,” she says. “It doesn’t do the thinking for you. It doesn’t inhibit you from being creative.” When used in the right way, she believes technology can actually free up the mind to be even more creative.

Matthews believes the computer should tackle things designers find taxing. “What the computer does is completely objective,” he says. “The technology frees up designers from having to remember and keep track of everything we do.” The history palette in Photoshop, for example, allows you to retrace your steps. “I think we’re in a realm where we’re self-aware of our history and what things should look like in the early stages,” he says.

Breaking the Age Barrier

There’s an age divide in many interior-design firms. Young creatives come in the door every year with knowledge of the latest software, while the old guard clings to its colored pencils and sketchbooks. What gets lost in the middle is the free exchange of information.

Denise Guerin, a Professor in the interior design program at the University of Minnesota, believes firms need to create a work culture where it’s easier for designers of all ages to learn from one another. She’s seen a lot of firms successfully foster collaboration through working-lunch seminars. On a rotating basis, employees take turns leading each other in mini-classes in their respective areas of expertise. Topics can range from beginning and intermediate CAD to working with clients.

For veteran designers, one of the keys to jumping on the technology bandwagon is learning how to admit they’re not experts in everything. “Don’t ever be scared to say, ‘I don’t know,’” says David Matthews, an Assistant Professor in the interior architecture program at Ohio University. “There’s no technology that’s going to take away from 30 years of design experience.” Instead of feeling threatened, embrace your role as a leader, figuring out how best to harness the skills and knowledge of your staff.

To stay current, enroll in a continuing education class. But many seasoned designers can find the experience frustrating if they don’t come armed with the right tools and attitude. To emotionally and intellectually buy into software, designers must start learning it with real-world projects rather than a tutorial, Matthews says. Once interior designers see exactly how a piece of technology relates to their day-to-day work, they’re more likely to embrace it as a meaningful part of the design process.