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International Interior Design Association

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State of Education

By Shaila Williams

Any discussion regarding the quality of interior design education is bound to conjure up instant debate and controversy. It is, to a certain extent, a subjective critique, one that’s made even more subjective by the fact that as a degreed program, interior design still is relatively young. The program is still defining itself and its standards. A truly accurate evaluation won’t be possible at least until several more generations of students have passed through their programs and carried out much of their careers.

Premature as it may be, a regular critique is necessary and appropriate. It is one of the things that will factor into the growth and establishment of interior design as an area of professional study.

Setting the Curve

An established set of standards is the foundation for any critique — and also the point of hottest debate. Most people agree standards are necessary, but where they differ is on what the standards should be.

For the past six years, Greenway Consulting and Counsel House Research have conducted a survey on the state of interior design and architecture education. Published annually in Design Intelligence, it is one of the only studies of its kind and therefore one of the few pools from which to draw a factually, statistically based picture. The survey’s methodology — a polling of design partners, managing principals and human resource directors — suggests that the true determinant of an education’s success lies with the professionals who hire the program’s graduates. Most students enter college with the intent of forging a career, after all, so what good is an education that doesn’t help achieve that goal? Using post-graduate career performance as a “final analysis” of sorts, perceived strengths or weaknesses can then be traced back to their educational origins.

Based on the findings of studies such as these and the anecdotal observations of various teachers and professionals who are directly involved in or affected by design education, here is a look at some of the broad trends and conclusions regarding the current state of interior design education.

Most Improved

Works well with others. One of interior design education’s biggest strides is in the area of multidisciplinary collaboration. This is evidenced factually — via the increasing number of schools offering “hybrid” degrees and the increasing number of graduates entering hybrid careers such as design/build, design/develop and design/research — and observationally, via individuals. “As with what we are discovering in cultural diversity and exchange, disciplinary diversity and exchange is often expansive and transformative and can enrich the work we do,” says Garth Rockastle, Dean of the University of Maryland’s School of Architecture. “Universities can lead the way by opening classrooms and studios to more interdisciplinary experiences and experiments.” This feeds into a second area of perceived growth: interior design’s impact on the world at large.

Shows potential. The recognition of interior design as a major mover and shaker in academia and beyond is something the industry has struggled to earn for many years. And while there is still much respect to earn, there are also signs of progress. Accreditation undoubtedly is playing a part in gaining credibility, with the list of FIDER- (Foundation for Interior Design Education Research) accredited schools growing a bit longer each year. This is even in the wake of FIDER’s heightened standardization requirements over the past five years. “The numbers don’t necessarily give justice to the whole story,” says FIDER Executive Director Kayem Dunn. “As our standards become more stringent, so must the schools.”

Schools’ efforts to continually grow to meet changing standards pay off in the form of credibility. Forty eight percent of the firms responding in Design Intelligence’s report believe that in the United States, the influence and power of interior designers are increasing.

Better School Supplies. Technological advances continue to make their mark on nearly every professional industry, but the design industry in particular appears to be in the midst of a type of technological renaissance. “The ability to model and visualize environments using advanced computer systems is a big leap forward,” says Brian Sinclair, MRAIC, Professor and Dean of the Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary. “Accurate lighting simulation, true color rendering and texture mapping, for example, give designers a significant tool set for understanding and conveying implications of decisions.”

Room for Improvement

More hands-on. Ironically, an education’s biggest accomplishments often feed into its biggest deficiencies. The proliferation of computer-assisted design, for instance, can increase design speed but also can have a tendency to detract from a student’s intuition, manual skills and real-world client relations. Last year’s Design Intelligence prodded its respondents to rate the specific skills most lacking in post-graduate new hires. Ranking top three on a list of 15 were detailing knowledge (59 percent), practical business and practice knowledge (59 percent) and sketching skills (55 percent). Computer skills, on the other hand, seem plentiful (8 percent).

Work better with others. While interior design programs have undoubtedly progressed in the area of multidisciplinary education, most firms feel they need to go a lot farther. “The academy is now realizing that many conventional pathways are dead-ending,” Sinclair says. “Our associated disciplines, while evoking interdisciplinary thought internally, often fail to collaborate to common advantage. Turf wars and boundary disputes get in the way of our moving design forward — seeking title protection and scope legislation, while with justification — run the risk of further encouraging that fragmentation and separation.”

Sinclair believes the solution lies in multidisciplinary, rather than segregated accreditation and has even called for omnibus legislation to that end.

More homework. The effort to advance the reputation and quality of interior design education won’t be fully complete without significant expansion in the areas of research and scholarship. Here too, many schools have stepped up their knowledge base, but many others have not. As Rockastle writes in Design Intelligence’s 2005 report, “Successful research and scholarly activity is growing exponentially at some universities, with programs generating well over $1 million a year and many faculty publishing books and/or dozens of peer-reviewed articles each year. But more needs to be done to properly qualify and characterize the creative and service value of our studio and case study work alongside this growing research and scholarly work,” he says.

Final Grade

Overall, the picture appears to be a bright one. Opinions vary on the degree of design education progress, but most in the industry would agree that there has been progress. The true test lies with the willingness and speed at which schools and firms agree to change — a challenge that historically has proven to be one of the biggest hurdles of all.