print logo
© 2020
International Interior Design Association

Chicago, IL
Toll Free: 888 799 4432
International: +01 312 467 1950

Frames of Mind

By Meredith Landry
Illustration By Yann Legendre

When it comes to business, we’ve all heard the phrase, “Leave emotion out of it.” But according to a growing number of industrial-organizational psychologists and researchers, the more we acknowledge, understand and appropriately use our emotions to guide our actions, the more likely we are to get ahead in the workplace. And in a highly creative and personal field like Interior Design, understanding your emotions and those of your clients can help make your designs more holistic and on target. It also can help improve your relationships with co-workers and team members.

“It’s impossible to leave emotion out of anything,” says Susan Kornacki, Co-Founder of EI Skills Group, an emotional intelligence assessment and skills training consultancy in New Haven, Conn. “Our emotions are formed from our senses, they’re what make us human. And interior design is an incredibly sensory profession, so it’s vital to be tuned into that.”

But getting ahead isn’t about simply feeling your emotions, Kornacki says, it’s about using the wisdom of the emotion.


Emotional intelligence (EI) is defined as the ability to identify, assess and manage the emotions of one’s self, of others, and of groups. The term was first introduced by psychologists Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer in 1990, but was popularized five years later by Daniel Goleman — a Ph.D. from Harvard University and former editor of Psychology Today — in his book, Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ, a New York Times bestseller.

“Emotional intelligence helps [designers] cross the bridge between the unspoken inner-world of hopes within a client and the screaming reality of construction,” says Kathryn Cherne, a principal with Chicago-based firm Design Inside and a former practicing psychologist with the University of Michigan. “The interior designer is in a unique position from the other members of a construction team. As a bridge between tradesperson and client, the designer must embrace balance, awareness, responsibility and empathy in order to successfully communicate with all parties and keep the project on track.”

The ability to feel, use, communicate, remember, describe, identify, learn from, manage and understand emotions is necessary for the smooth progression of any design project, Cherne says.

And that’s incredibly important to interior designers since, according to Jodie Leppa, IIDA, CID, LEED AP, President-Elect of the IIDA Northland Chapter, and Office Director of the Minneapolis-based commercial design firmSmithGroup, design is an emotional profession.

“Creativity is driven by emotion,” says Leppa, who’s participated in several SmithGroup-sponsored EI training sessions. “If it was not, our environments would be, sadly, purely utilitarian and lacking in spirit or substance.”

Based on the business acumen EI can provide, it’s no surprise that by the mid-1990s corporate America got wind of the concept and researchers began studying the link between higher emotional intelligence skills and success in the workplace. Among that early research was a 1997 study of 130 executives, which found that how well people handled their own emotions determined how much people around them preferred to deal with them, according to the Rutgers Universitybased Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations.

Since then, academic and corporate proponents of EI continue to claim that having a higher EI can lead to improved communication and relationships. And in almost every business, but particularly in Interior Design, effective communication and strong relationships are vital to one’s success.


But given that the concept of EI is relatively new and the field is rapidly growing, it still has varying definitions and means of measurement. Most, however, fall into three main model types — an ability-based model, a mixed model or a trait-based model.

Kornacki and her partner at EI Skills Group, David Caruso, Ph.D., rely on an abilitiesbased model to define EI and to assess their clients. According to Caruso — co-creator of the Mayer, Salovey, Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (like an IQ test that measures emotional skills) — emotional intelligence combines feelings with thinking, and thinking with feeling. It can be described as four related, but different, abilities: Perceiving emotions; using emotions; understanding emotions; and managing emotions.

Other models measure one’s emotional skills by focusing on competencies including self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management.

Regardless of the precise definition or the assessment means, the theory is the same: The more we understand emotion, the more we can use it to our advantage. The first step to developing solid EI skills, Kornacki says, is to acknowledge the desire to do so. Simply being aware of your intentions can help to heighten your sensitivity to external and internal emotional stimuli.

“EI is absolutely trainable,” she says. “But, as with any skill, awareness, practice, more awareness and more practice is what’s going to help people identify emotions and then manage their own emotions most effectively.” And practice comes in various forms. There are single-session training seminars, weekend retreats and weeklong workshops, for example, offered for individuals, groups, or entire organizations. But not all training begins with an emotional intelligence assessment test, which Kornacki says is the best way to determine what areas need the most practice.

“If you score really low on identifying emotions, for example, it might be hard for you to make a decision about someone’s emotional state based on the visual information on their face,” she says. “But you may score high in other areas, so we wouldn’t want to focus on those as much.”

No matter how interior designers decide to learn and hone their EI skills, the outcome can be advantageous to their practice. Leppa says her EI training has not only helped her deal with co-workers and everyday job stressors, but also in her dealings with clients.

“The tools I’ve learned help me to be sensitive to other’s emotions,” she says. “Then I’m able to use that knowledge to facilitate effective discussions and, ultimately, manage them to meet the client’s goals for a space that reflects their brand and culture.”

Cherne says that her training has enabled her to pick up on subtle cues in a person’s body language, facial expression and tone of voice. “I am able to tell if a client likes something before they even open their mouth, or get a sense of their color preferences based on certain dialogue. For example, extroverts tend to prefer warm colors,” she says.

At EI Skills Group, after the initial workshop, Kornacki and Caruso coordinate follow-up coaching sessions with interested clients where practice involves showing them a series of slides and asking them to identify the emotion in the image. Afterwards, they’ll go back through each slide and dissect the person’s eyes, the intensity in their face, the energy, their body language and expression. Participants also learn through auditory training by listening to movie clips, and eventually they’re asked to actually emote certain words in a group setting.

Aside from being able to pick up on subtle emotional cues from clients, and knowing how to communicate expectations and manage conflict more effectively, Cherne says, a designer with high EI is not easily threatened by criticism.

“I don’t feel the need to defend myself if a client doesn’t like a particular pattern or attack a contractor for not understanding a drawing,” she says. “Instead, I prefer to take these inevitable bumps as an opportunity to listen and learn from other people.”

As for how long it takes to truly become emotionally intelligent, Kornacki says it doesn’t happen overnight. “The awareness part can happen overnight, but the skill building takes time.”

Your Name
Your Email Address
(not made public)
Your Email Address (not made public)
Your Comment