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Coming to Terms With Ourselves

What does the future hold for the interior design profession when it can’t even agree on a definition?

By Michael Thomas

What does the future hold for the interior design profession when it can’t even agree on a definition?

It comes as little surprise that the design community continues to feel the impact of changing economic conditions.

Designers in firms have had to reevaluate their value proposition as their clients question the necessity and expense of hiring an interior designer. Projects have been put on hold or cancelled altogether due to a lack of available financing. Global competition has snatched both clients and projects away from North American firms despite years of expertise, experience and portfolios of successful work.

The solutions to these challenges are varied. Many firms have outsourced all but the most critical elements of the design process to control costs and remain competitive. For some, it has meant developing new ways of providing design services by reinventing archaic business models. Some designers are incorporating a virtual team approach rather than hiring staff. And a radical few are giving up design altogether and seeking new career paths not contemplated before the recession.

While hope for some level of enduring economic stability remains elusive at present, these changes, over time, will create unique opportunities for those designers who do survive. Most will reinvent their firms to be more focused, selective practices, with improved operational efficiency yielding higher profitability in a marketplace with possibly fewer competitors.

Yet one thing remains constant during this era of change: we still have not agreed on a definition of interior design. This dilemma is not at all surprising for a profession that is still relatively young in comparison to medicine, law or the ministry. As Socrates observed, “The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.”

Many professions throughout history have been forced to put a stake in the sand and claim their occupational territory by asserting specialized knowledge and training; by creating organizations for the purpose of establishing professional standards and educational requirements; by instituting a professional code of ethics; and, when needed, by advocating for laws governing who can perform certain practices. As you might imagine, this process of setting boundaries frequently leads to disagreement within and outside the profession.

The American Institute of Decorators (AID), the forerunner of today’s interior design associations, encountered this problem early on. Attempting to distinguish themselves from painters, paper hangers and other trades that apply decorative and ornamental elements, the leaders of the AID established a committee to create a new definition of “interior decorator” more appropriate for the times, and invited members to submit their suggestions. As reported in the New York Times on June 19, 1935, after a great deal of debate and angst, they settled on the following description:

A decorator is one who, by training and experience, is qualified to plan, design and execute structural interiors and their furnishings and to supervise the various arts and crafts essential to their completion.

Introduced at the fourth annual AID conference and broadcast over the local NBC radio affiliate, that definition represents a significant milestone in the development of the interior design profession. So how is it that 75 years later many inside and outside of the design community still question what interior design is, who we are as a profession and what we do?

Over the years a number of good-faith attempts have been made to define the interiors profession by establishing a common set of beliefs, values, attributes and experiences—the benchmarks by which other professions define themselves. The set developed by the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) is perhaps best known, but in the past year, two others have emerged.

The Interior Design Profession’s Body of Knowledge, recently updated by Drs. Denise Guerin and Caren Martin, is a thoughtful document that provides deeper insight into the scope and evolution of the profession, and maps the areas of practice and expertise around human environment needs. Likewise, in a declarative document published in February, summing up a multi-year, international effort to re-define the profession, the International Federation of Interior Architects/Designers parsed the interiors profession into seven “buckets”: Value, Relevance, Responsibility, Culture, Business, Knowledge and Identity. The descriptor of Identity states that interior designers “determine the relationship of people to spaces based on psychological and physical parameters to improve the quality of life.” We have come a long way from the AID definition of 1935.

As the profession expands through interdisciplinary collaboration in other arenas such as industrial design, environmental and graphic design, and design technology, interior design becomes something not unlike Silly Putty—hard to nail down, highly malleable and increasingly difficult to determine its borders once broadly applied. It seems much more soul searching will need to be done as the practice expands in this environment of continual flux.

Meanwhile, as associations, educators, practitioners, and even the media and public strive to come up with a more concise definition of interior design—and thereby establish its hard and soft boundaries—perhaps the following “elevator definition” can simply serve for now: “a process and profession that impacts human and spiritual experiences unlike any other.”


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