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International Interior Design Association

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Designers are Professionals

By Michelle Bowles

“Design” is everywhere you look, from the television to the newsstands. There's Home & Garden Television's "Design on a Dime" and "24 Hour Design;" "Top Design" on Bravo; and even "Designing Women" reruns on Lifetime. Hit the magazine racks, and you'll find Home & Design along with a slew of regional design magazines such as Dallas Home Design and California Home + Design. The list goes on and on.

There's no doubt all the attention has put interior designers in the spotlight and made "Interior Design" a household name. But just what kind of name?

Many of these shows and magazines, while well-meaning, may be giving the impression that Interior Design is either simplistic enough for any Average Joe (or Josephine) to perform in an hour, or pricey, elaborate and intended only for high-end residential clients. And now interior designers - not just on the residential side but in all disciplines, including corporate, healthcare and retail - are charged with distinguishing themselves from decorators and explaining their qualifications to prospective clients and the public in general.

But interior designers, including those who participated in this roundtable, are determined to communicate their design skills, education and business acumen - and prove they are, indeed, professionals.

Perspective: With the way the media portrays the interior design profession, is there confusion about the difference between interior designers and interior decorators?

Mitchell E. Sawasy
: I think there is some confusion in the industry as a whole. As the term "Interior Design" becomes better known because of programs and networks like HGTV, the challenge before us is reaching out to the public and consumers, and demonstrating the specific differences between an interior decorator and an interior designer.

Linda Adams: The general public doesn't have the understanding that interior designers do more than just decorate a home or room like you'd decorate a cake. We have the ability to move walls and do architectural work, as well as put the frosting on the cake. We want the public to understand we have both those abilities.

Sawasy: Interior designers address the complex issues that come up in the field much more competently than a decorator. You could consider a decorator to be like a makeup artist and an interior designer like a plastic surgeon.
Linda Adams

Megan Weaver: My favorite part of my classes is when I do space planning and complex problem-solving. That's as exciting as the creative aspect of design. We're thinking about the patient going into the healthcare system. We're thinking about the guest going to the retail store. I find when I tell someone I'm an interior design student, they assume I'll decorate homes. We have to communicate all the activity that goes into being an interior designer.

Perspective: Are more incoming freshmen interested in Interior Design because of these television programs?

Weaver: Growing up, Interior Design was something I always had in mind, but the increased media attention helped support my ideas. If you took away all of that media, interest wouldn't disappear, but it definitely encourages people to get involved. Interior design programs are becoming very competitive as a result. It's also attracted international and non-traditional students. I think that's going to create really dynamic professionals in the field in the future.

Perspective: Because of this media attention, do students entering college automatically associate Interior Design with the residential side only?

Weaver: Students come in very much thinking about residential design. But the encouraging thing is that CIDA-accredited programs expose them to the many facets of design, giving them the experience of residential and a variety of other sectors, like hospitality, corporate and retail design. There's great education that goes on in schools now, both with the curriculum and through speakers from groups like IIDA or design firms. The education helps battle the assumptions.

Perspective: You all agree the media contributes to a false public perception of Interior Design. But how can we use this raised awareness to benefit the profession?

Sawasy: To me, these television programs are a good news/bad news situation. They definitely have exposed more people to design in general. As we watch the shows, obviously not all of what we see is good. But it has opened up consumers' eyes. The bad news is the perception that anyone can do Interior Design. If we were to approach the networks and say, "Look, we only want you to deal with interior designers. We don't want you to do this decoration stuff," they'd laugh at us. The reality is, networks are only concerned with ratings.

Adams: I was on "Designers' Challenge" on HGTV and I liked how the network handled everything. One of the positive aspects was they had us do color boards. That would certainly be a way to promote professionalism: to encourage the use of our tools - perspective drawings, color boards, etc.

Weaver: I think there are a few shows, such as "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" and "Deserving Design," that have shown the power of design and how it can improve lives. They've shown how a designer can completely redo a space to reflect someone's needs and how that benefits their everyday lives, whether it's creating a more open environment for family time or designing for special needs.

Perspective: IIDA has reached out to partners like Fast Company and BusinessWeek to support their analysis of innovation in design. How else can designers improve the perception of professionalism in Interior Design?

Sawasy: Certainly the legislative movements in all 50 states is a very good start. [See "Designers are Advocates".] That's really making some inroads in a lot of communities. The challenge is getting the word out to the consumer that he or she is better suited to hire a professional, certified, practiced interior designer than a decorator. It becomes a marketing campaign that needs to be reinforced by the various associations and the industry at large. It would be tough to get manufacturers - certainly on the residential side - to buy into that because so many of their colleagues don't care about the professionalism of Interior Design, yet call themselves "interior designers."

Weaver: Perhaps a simple solution would be getting publications like Interior Design magazine into the hands of the general public, through doctors' offices or in shopping markets, for example.

Sawasy: You read magazines like Metropolitan Home or Architectural Digest, and you'll see some really magnificent designs. But they don't always identify that they're done by certified interior designers. The title "Interior Design" has been out there for so long without any regulation, you can't dial it back in.

Adams: And many who are published in magazines like Architectural Digest aren't members of our organizations or professional interior designers.

I think it would be helpful to have some design television shows focusing on aging and accessibility. A professional designer would be able to show off his or her ability that comes from training, and that would open some eyes. Accessibility has become a hot issue in residential design in the last couple of years. So we've been making hallways and doorways wider, and incorporating roll-in showers. Awareness of that is definitely growing, and I think it's going to require a professional designer to make all that happen.

Weaver: Most of the design shows are found on HGTV. Because our services reach other areas outside the home, it would be great to see interior design professionals on other networks. It would be interesting to see a show about how resorts are built on the Travel Channel or one about how to open a restaurant - beginning with design - on the Food Network.

Perspective: Could the increased public interest in "going green" be a mechanism for interior designers to educate consumers about the power of design?

Adams: Absolutely. We have a lot more resources than a person off the street or the housewife decorator to find these fabulous products and get them into the home.

Sawasy: On the corporate side, green design is almost mandatory now. Every project we're doing has some form of LEED certification in place. It's slowly creeping into the residential market, and that could be a way for the professional interior designer to separate him or herself.

Perspective: Is the public perception issue really keeping you up at night? Do you struggle with it on a daily basis?

Adams: I'm always careful to explain my training and education, and why I charge the fees I do. That's usually where it starts - it's, "Oh my god, that's a lot of money!" I take time to explain to them all of my certifications and community involvement so they'll see me in the same light as other professionals they hire.

Sawasy: It's not in my day-to-day life. The interior designers at my firm do mostly larger corporate facilities or big, multi-family housing projects. But interestingly, I'll be at a cocktail party and someone will say, "Oh, what do you do?" I'll say, "I'm an architect." Immediately they say, "I've got this room addition. Can you help me with it?" Then I have to qualify the fact that I don't do room additions. The term "architect" may be well accepted, but, like interior designers, there are different types of architects.

Adams: That's a good point. The residential arena needs to have more of a focus on professionalism. Students coming into the business world should be encouraged to join one of the professional organizations and be active. The organizations can support us in these efforts.

Perspective: How can university programs help increase professionalism?

Adams: The thing I lacked in my educational training was how to be a good businessperson - how to be successful in business planning, profit-and-loss statements and accounting; how to be a good salesperson; how to be a good people manager. We were taught all the design parts - the drawing, the drafting. In my area, I've heard schools still don't do a good job as far as business skills are concerned.

Sawasy: I don't know of too many schools - Interior Design or architecture - that bring business curriculum into the program to the point that you'd know how to write a contract or run a business. That's something many schools look at and say, "Well, they'll learn on their own."

I don't agree with that. Of course, not everyone will eventually run their own business, but certainly, having a business understanding would not hurt. In our firm, we need to know as much about our clients' businesses as they do. We need to know how to respond to their concerns. We need to address their specific industries as they relate to human resources, employment retention, employment attraction and functionality of facilities.

Weaver: University programs can elevate professionalism in Interior Design by encouraging collaboration with other professionals such as architects, business managers and graphic designers. This helps interior design students learn to communicate design concepts to other professionals - those in the design profession and others who work with us indirectly.