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Transcending Limits

By Michael Thomas

There are numerous barriers within and outside of the interior design profession, but design becomes limitless when we accept change.

One of the most important jobs of an interior designer is to facilitate change. Whether helping an owner-chef realize his or her dream by designing a single-site restaurant or specifying workspace environments for a multinational client, designers are agents of change for the built environment.

We are contracted by clients to create, configure, cogitate, compose and conceive, turning undifferentiated space into an orderly sense of place. During the process, we are called upon to advocate a position, accommodate the needs of many and even arbitrate between parties. But despite plans, practices and collaborative efforts, roadblocks can derail the best efforts to create spaces that are productive and engaging, while being safe and supportive of the human experience.

Take for example legislation. Changing the perception of designers as "pillow tossers" and educating the public about the valuable role interior design plays in the built environment continues to be a long, slow process. Until state laws governing interior design began to be adopted (Alabama was the first in 1982), coupled by a deepening respect for interior design as a unique component in environments, most outside of our world believed that "design" was something akin to an avocation, a pleasant diversion that occupies one's thoughts and time.

There remains considerable opposition to the contributions interior designers make in creating spaces. Instead of collaborating with allied colleagues to educate consumers about the power of design, interior designers are faced with confrontation from others in related occupations that refuse to recognize designers' core capabilities, distinctive competencies and client accountability. And despite decades of efforts by an army of volunteers to change that belief, we still have, in the words of Robert Frost, miles to go before we sleep.

But a new change-order has been written.

In early March, the 11th United States Court of Appeals determined, at least as it applies to Florida, that the practice of interior design is valid and affirmed that "it is in the interest of the public to limit the practice of interior design to interior designers or architects who have design education and training."

That ruling from the second highest court in the nation was monumental and chopped away at the opposition's crumbling foundation. We can only dream about its implications and what the future may be for the profession if we don't have to face such obstacles. But without even thinking about it, each of us spends countless hours ensuring that interior design is recognized for what we do best of all: working with clients to connect the dots.

The interior designer, perhaps more than any other building professional, has the ability to make the necessary connections between client and criteria, a skill especially important when change can mean chaos, confusion and even catastrophe. Adept designers can see the big picture from 30,000 feet, yet still manage details at the human scale. We educate and inform clients about best practices in order to guide them during times of change, defining potential outcomes in order to make necessary critical decisions.

Yet one large roadblock resides within the design community itself. Although when working with others we remain instruments of change, within our own profession change doesn't come easily. The recent economic challenges have shown that to be true. Once viable firms have shuttered operations because of a failure to accept a different economic model.

If we are to be successful, we must remember change is inherent in our design DNA. It is vital to remain nimble, flexible and determined to adapt rather than oppose. We must realize that effective change is not the "strategy-du-jour" but rather one of realignment and refocus to achieve new outcomes. Recognize that such change may require new skills and knowledge. And while the uncertainty of change may prompt a desire to slip back into old, comfortable processes, replace the fear of losing the known with a belief in possibilities.

Perhaps Gandhi provided clear instructions when he said, "If I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning." The challenge is what lies beyond tomorrow. Design is limitless when we accept change.

ASID President Michael A. Thomas, FASID is the president of the Design Collective Group, a multi-faceted business located in Phoenix, Ariz. ASID can be reached at (202) 546-3480 or, and on the web at