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International Interior Design Association

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Higher Learning

By Jan Stone

As interior designers work to demonstrate their professionalism and prove their role in the built environment, the function of interior design university programs has become strikingly clear: Higher learning institutions must raise the bar to produce well-rounded, business-minded interior design graduates, armed with the range of skills needed to overcome stereotypes and media hype.

Unfortunately, many schools have yet to catch on. “The design and built environment today is extremely complex, and the knowledge required to design and build today is far beyond what one or even two professions can handle,” says Denise A. Guerin, Ph.D., IIDA, ASID, FIDEC, Morse-Alumni Distinguished Professor at the University of Minnesota. “We must create integrated, interdisciplinary teams, and they must start in schools.”

She continues, “Faculty have to want to ‘learn a new dance’ to educate students who can collaborate with architects, graphic designers, engineers and, in fact, all other design practitioners to solve clients’ design problems. We need to help students understand how to use their critical-thinking skills so they can apply the design process and their specialized knowledge to each project.”

The good news? Select universities spanning the globe are rethinking their curricula to better prepare interior design graduates. Some require both a thorough understanding of fundamental interior design concepts and knowledge of other design professions’ challenges and expectations. Others focus on providing first-hand experience through internships and community service. Still, additional programs incorporate more extensive business and marketing studies or include deeper examination of specific design segments such as healthcare.

“There are many reasons why interior design programs must now be more inclusive of other disciplines,” says Professor Lyndon Anderson, Acting Dean of the Faculty of Design at Swinburne Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. “The world is a more complex environment than it used to be, and it is no longer plausible for any discipline, design or otherwise, to be taught and practiced in a silo.”

The Business of Design

Because interior designers often focus on long-term projects and challenging scenarios that involve diverse stakeholders and decision makers, they regularly work in large, interdisciplinary teams, Anderson says. “[We] often work with architects, construction companies and as in-house designers for large multinational companies,” he says, stressing the necessity for interior design students to gain a solid business knowledge base. That knowledge base, he says, should include intellectual property law, logistics, presentation techniques, research skills, site management, project and people management skills, and communication and rhetoric skills.

Swinburne has gone beyond simply offering business-related classes for those in its interior design program. Earlier this year, the university began offering students dual degrees in Interior Design and business. The five-year degree combines the “humanistic element of space” with the “abilities pertinent to a variety of professional careers in the private and public sectors,” according to Swinburne’s Web site.

Even for a single interior design degree major, required coursework includes classes in construction concepts and economics. Additionally, a new program enables singledegree students to focus three electives on one of nine themes outside students’ degree disciplines to broaden their skills and employability — programs such as “Effective Communication,” “Enterprising Marketing,” “Information and Knowledge Management” and “The Networked Economy.”

Ultimately, Anderson believes “the education of an interior designer will need to be extended … [to] include gaining at least a master’s degree as a first step.”

Half a world away, in the heart of the U.S. Midwest, the interior design program at the University of Nebraska at Kearney also emphasizes business-related, non-design disciplines, in addition to extensive design courses. The university houses its interior design program in the College of Business and Technology, where core classes include “Principles of Accounting and Selling” and “Construction, Design, Mechanical and Electrical Systems.”

“Clients seek the services of designers to solve differing kinds of problems and to reach a wide variety of goals through design,” says Phyllis Markussen, Professor and Chairwoman in the Department of Family Studies and Interior Design. “Design, therefore, must consider a more collaborative and ‘global’ philosophy from many disciplines, socio-economic and cultural orientations — courses from business, the behavior sciences, art, construction and engineering.” She says these courses have always been priorities at the university because they are necessary to the professional world.

Universities aren’t just incorporating different disciplines; some are weaving design and business trends such as sustainability into their interior design curricula, as well.

The University of Minnesota’s College of Design, which includes interior design, architecture, landscape architecture, graphic design and other programs, places a strong emphasis on sustainable design. Among other initiatives, “the college has created one of the nation’s first Master of Science degrees in sustainability to meet the growing demand for sustainability coordinators who work for companies, institutions or universities to help foster a more environmentally responsible workplace,” Thomas Fisher, Dean of the College of Design, told the University of Minnesota’s UMNnews.

Today, the Center for Sustainable Building Research (CSBR), sponsored by federal and state agencies and local industry, is an official unit of the College of Design and housed at the university. The center “supports the development of new educational initiatives, such as its master’s degree in sustainability, and the advanced work in areas like building technology and performance evaluation.” It further enhances the College of Design’s interdisciplinary teaching missions — collaborating with the College of Natural Resources and the College of Human Ecology.

Through the center, several College of Design professors and researchers worked to develop The Minnesota Sustainable Design Guide, first published in 1997. These guidelines have become requisites for many Minnesota municipal construction projects receiving state bond money, Guerin says.

Come Together

In practice, collaboration among interior designers, architects, engineers and other building professionals is fundamental. Some forward-thinking educators have realized this need and, subsequently, rethought their interior design programs. Many schools, such as New York’s Parsons The New School for Design, have integrated elements from other design professions into their interior design curriculums to foster professionals who understand and appreciate different design disciplines and learn collaboration for the most effective outcomes. The design program at Parsons houses Interior Design, lighting design, architecture and, most recently, product design.

But Lois Weinthal, Associate Professor and Director of the BFA Interior Design Program at Parsons, points out that while multidisciplined programs expose students to a range of skills, “it is more important that one knows the foundation of their discipline first. Once students learn their foundation’s discipline, advanced electives and studios give students across programs the opportunity to work together and learn from other disciplines,” she says. In the fall of 2007, an advanced “Hybrid Studio” course, which combined interior design, architecture and lighting students, collaborated to improve sustainability in the school building, addressing it from each discipline. In the end, the students gained new perspectives by learning from one another. The students addressed the same issues, but presented different solutions based on their expertise, Weinthal says.

The University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning (DAAP) not only incorporates collaborative learning, it invented co-op education — the practice of alternating students’ studies with paid professional work relating to their majors — in 1906. More than a century later, that mantra is a major contributor to the success of the college, says M.B. Reilly, University of Cincinnati Public Information Officer. Interior design students “begin at their second year and alternate study with the paid co-op programming. Most graduate with about a year and a half of carefully planned experience.”

The program gives graduates both academic and professional grounding in problem-solving, design skills and pertinent historical and technical knowledge. The school even shares a common curriculum with the architecture program in the first four quarters. The curricula, complete with coursework in structural requirements, lighting, materials, and time and project management skills, prepare students to work with clients and other design professionals.

“DAAP combined the two already rigorous architectural and interior design schools in such a way that interior designers end up with something of an architect’s sensibility, and the same with architects, who learn extensive interior design components,” says Michaele Pride, AIA, Associate Professor and Director at DAAP.

This practical, multi-disciplinary approach has proven successful. DAAP’s interior design program has ranked No. 1 for nine consecutive years, as of 2007, in DesignIntelligence’s America’s Best Architecture and Design Schools. “University of Cincinnati graduates’ desirability and design intelligence is determined by those who are doing the hiring — that’s a particularly telling fact,” Reilly says, referring to the judges who determine the criteria for DesignIntelligence’s annual results: employers who are hiring. Pride estimates that about 90 percent of graduates are offered a job upon graduation.

The Head of the Class

The need for higher-quality interior design graduates with a holistic knowledge base will only increase with time. Whether through multidisciplined programs that include other design areas for collaborative opportunities and greater knowledge, or through incorporating business and marketing curriculum into interior design programs, universities must continue to meet the demand.

Says Tama Duffy Day, IIDA, FASID, LEED AP, Principal and the National Interior Design Healthcare Practice Leader at Perkins+Will’s Washington, D.C. office, “We seek out graduates that have the obvious talents of creativity, technical savvy and variety in their school work. But in addition to those skills, the incoming talent must offer other characteristics: a desire to sustain the planet, a commitment to social responsibility and a passion or drive for knowledge.”

An Inside Perspective

Three Design Practitioners Share What They Believe are the Skills and Training Needed for Students to Master the Professional World

  • “The ability to work with clients in a way that positively reflects the company is a skill set that must be developed while in school and continuously honed during one’s professional life. Many grads have cutting-edge technical experience, including a working knowledge of [Autodesk] Revit [building design software] and an understanding of and willingness to use BIM. Many have already begun studying toward or have passed the LEED AP exam by the time they get to Gensler. As an industry, and for Gensler, the attitude toward sustainability bodes very well for full integration of sustainable design into our methods. For these new grads, designing green isn’t seen as one way, but the only way to design. Interior design departments really need to spend time developing top courses that educate students in the latest sustainable design issues and technologies. We are seeing much experimentation with sustainable building design; we need to see more sustainable experimentation in Interior Design.”
    Diane J. Hoskins, Faia, Principal And Executive Director, Gensler, Washington, D.C.
  • “Some educators have the ability to mentor, to poke, to prod, to question, and from those instructors come students who continue the quest. Finding those grads — that’s our quest. Two exceptional new hires completed what their schools offered for education but pushed further into research, into presentation deliverables, into the profession in general. They have a passion for their chosen profession, and it’s wonderfully contagious. Almost everyone we hire is LEED accredited, or we can quickly prepare him or her. Sustainability needs to be core programming nowadays. Yet technology is a part of how we deliver projects, how designers communicate.”
    Tama Duffy Day, Iida, Fasid, Leed Ap, Principal And National Interior Design Healthcare Practice Leader, Perkins + Will, Washington, D.C.
  • “It’s critical to focus on cultural sensitivity. We’re looking for students who’ve been taught by faculty that instills cultural curiosity, an understanding of evidence-based design and technology that is internationally relevant. Educators have a major difficulty finding time in the curriculum to introduce cultural sensitivity when programs are straining at the seams to include as much as possible. We need students who don’t fall short in comfort level when it comes to communication. Technology allows different cultures to communicate through software, but students have to be comfortable making presentations in a studio.”
    Ken Ledoux, IIDA, FASID, AIA, Interior Design Director, Ellerbe Becket, Minneapolis, Minnesota