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Glancing Back ... But Looking Forward

By all accounts, a united interior design profession would markedly expand the power of interior design.

By Sari Graven, ASID

By all accounts, a united interior design profession would markedly expand the power of interior design.

Reflecting on my experiences as ASID president and what those experiences might mean, I'm both inspired and distressed. And I'm beginning to think that's okay—that maybe this contrast of feelings can be construed as a healthy tension, and that the sources of my distress represent a chance to move forward, rather than serve as a roadblock to success.

I am inspired by the sense of community that I've witnessed in talking with hundreds of ASID leaders and members at both the chapter and national levels. Unsolicited, I heard over and over that the value of membership lies in the relationships people form through ASID, the networking opportunities it offers, and its role as a pillar of strength and resources upon which practitioners can lean in hard times and grow in good times.

At the same time, I'm distressed by the distinct disunity that I continue to experience in our profession as a whole. It saddens me that after some 35 years in existence, we remain so fragmented. We continue to let those outside our profession define us—the inevitable result of our collective inability or unwillingness to agree on our own clear explanation about who we are. This often puts us in a weak, defensive position in which too much time is spent seeking respect and/or attacking each other about who is or isn't an interior designer, rather than making bold, active choices about where to go next.

And where might that be? Again, I am inspired by the obvious potential that interior design has for social innovation, including our ability as designers to change society for the better—whether through improved human health, dignity and well-being, more prosperous organizations, or by helping to create a cleaner planet. And again, I am distressed to see that potential go largely unfulfilled in the face of polarized distractions and debates that focus on "either/or" solutions. Of course, this phenomenon is not limited to our profession; it is a malady of our times, evident in our practices, within ASID and far beyond it: People come forward with great ideas, but we tend to think in terms of "X" at the expense of "Y"... either this or that.

"Reflective practice involves thoughtfully considering one's own experiences in applying knowledge to practice while being coached by professionals in the discipline."


—Donald Schön, MIT professor and chairman,
Department of Urban Studies and Planning (1990-1992)

For example, to participate in a professional organization we must either maintain highly restrictive or exclusionary requirements for membership or lose our value as professionals. But I believe we can be both more inclusive and maintain the respect our profession deserves. Yet we can't forsake our contributions to the body of interior design knowledge in favor of a commitment to individual continuing education. Both research and education are possible—and necessary. We cannot place all our focus on internal aspects of our Society at the expense of our relationships and responsibilities in the greater design community. Both inward and outward focus matter. In each of these cases, the issue is less about resources or "rightness" than it is about balance and creativity.

Our future relies on our ability to create and sustain balance. Differences are healthy; they offer perspective and spur creativity. But absolutes get us in trouble; if not through the marginalization they cause then by the paralysis that otherwise results. We are smart, motivated, visionary people who are fully capable of navigating an environment that needs us to look at the world not as "either/or" but as "both/and." In fact, with our ability to synthesize disparate information and find inspired, unified solutions, designers are among the most qualified people on the planet to find and forge the center path to progress.

Do not mistake the middle for mediocrity. I am not proposing a future of bland, toothless solutions that strive to appease everybody and thus please nobody. I see original, nuanced ideas that integrate diverse needs; short-term action in light of long-view thinking, elegant notions and finely detailed follow-through. It requires the willingness to take risks and assume responsibility. It means acknowledging the tension of differences and deciding to use those differences as a means to purposefully and imaginatively arrive at solutions. Like I said, designers are ideally suited for the work.

And it is work. Over the past five years, ASID has made huge investments in leadership, branding, marketing, education, and strategic planning. The organization has matured and is coming together. I am inspired by the progress and confident that we're on our way to becoming a better organization. Now imagine if we're able to extend that culture to our profession as a whole. Imagine the possibilities of a united interior design profession—one that defines itself on its own terms, respects its members' various abilities and aspirations, and encourages each to fulfill them. Imagine how that would expand the power of interior design.

Our profession is nearing middle age—the time when identity solidifies, creativity thrives and stability reigns. We are old enough to know the important stuff, and young enough to act on it. And it couldn't happen at a better time; we're at the threshold of a period in history that many believe will belong to those who are curious, creative, integrative, empathetic, and committed to meaningful living. Inspiring, wouldn't you say?

ASID president Sari Graven is the director of planning and resource development at Seattle University's Facilities Services. ASID can be reached at (202) 546-3480 or, and on the Web at