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Opportunities Rising

Even in today's challenging business climate, there remain real opportunities for motivated designers willing to step outside the box.

By Lisa Henry

Even in today's challenging business climate, there remain real opportunities for motivated designers willing to step outside the box.

For the past few years, many of us in the A&D community have incorporated new strategic initiatives into our business plans. Yet, despite our best efforts, the profession has been tempered by the economy and changing business climate.

Who among us in the past several years has not been affected by new economic challenges? Of course, when new projects come our way, we are reminded all over again why we do what we do. As one of ASID’s members commented in a recent survey, “People pay me to create great spaces. This is the best job in the world!”

The questions I hear most from my interior design colleagues are, “What’s next on the horizon for new business opportunities?,” “What should we be ramping up for now?” and “How do we get our stake in new business?”

For many years we have counted on corporate expansion, the booming housing industry and the luxury market. But the vital signs of those sectors are still fragile. The healthcare, education and government

sectors have been stronger in comparison, but it’s uncertain how looming government deficits and fiscal hawkishness may affect those types of projects in the future. I don’t have a crystal ball, but at ASID we conduct research and continually scan social, economic and design trends to help our 30,000 members get a clearer picture of the market today, and anticipate what may be coming down the road. The good news is that we see several areas of opportunity emerging.

accessibility & the boomers
The first, and potentially the largest, comes from our changing demographics. For years now we have been hearing about the aging of baby boomers, and speculating on the effect it will have on the housing market and the workplace. We were told about the huge transference of wealth that would occur as age-resistant boomers received their inheritances, and how they would shed their McMansions in suburban areas for simpler, more stylish and carefree lifestyles. Now the recession has called all that into question.

Is this a lost business opportunity? Perhaps not. The majority of the nation’s housing stock, as well as commercial and public spaces, were originally designed for young and middle-aged adults. With one in every five Americans reaching age 65 or older by 2030, many of those spaces will need to be modified or replaced. This more affluent demographic group will want seamless access to restaurants, shops, museums, hotels, airport lounges and the other places they are used to going.

In regards to the workplace, corporations recognize a talent gap is developing and their succession plans are in sharp focus. A broad array of needs and preferences will arise because of the unprecedented demographic mix in the workplace. It is predicted that workers will stay in the workforce longer, so ADA compliance will become a major HR concern, as will space planning and ergonomics. In addition to accessibility and mobility issues, sensory issues such as acoustics, color, lighting and support for distributed work styles will need to be addressed through workplace design.

Our opportunity is to develop even better design ideas regarding modes of accessibility in the interior environment that address the dignity of people and respect the changing ergonomic needs throughout one’s lifespan. Although people may have temporary or permanent disabilities, they should not be challenged by their environment or prevented from participating fully in society.

design for the next generation
Shifting to the other end of the demographic spectrum, young people starting out their lives and families are not looking to buy their parent’s type of suburban house. If they are not living with their parents, they are gravitating towards smaller, environmentally conscious, low-maintenance residences with versatile floor plans. They have shown an interest in newly re-energized building methods like modular, precision-fabricated off-site construction and, in a bit of good news for interior designers, they are very design-conscious. Young people value innovative, well-designed products and spaces, and are already accustomed to experiencing good design in offices, hotels and restaurants.

They don’t have hoards of cash to spend on interior design services; however, they have the potential to become lifelong consumers of design. We need to be thinking about providing them with a new array of services and support now in order to develop their longer-term appreciation and value for professional design expertise. How do we, as a profession, become like Apple—an indispensable source known for providing innovative expertise to satisfy the attitudes and expectations of a new generation of consumer?

creating interactive spaces
Another opportunity that we are seeing for interior designers lies in the realm of technology, particularly in the design of interactive spaces. It was once our challenge to integrate technology into a design to make it less conspicuous. Now, we are creating entire walls out of flat-panel screens that can connect to internal and external networks, or be used for digital imagery and light displays. More of the products we specify will incorporate smart technology, all linked together through a single controlling device like a smartphone.

Apple now offers an app for travelers that can tap into a hotel’s servers, meaning that we can now use our iPhone as a hotel key, or as a remote to control a room’s lighting, HVAC, TV or stereo. We can book a visit to the hotel spa, reserve a conference room and check-out all from the palm of our hand. How will such technology change the way hotels are designed? And how will that experience shape an individual’s expectations about other environments they interact with, such as their workplace, the coffee shop or their home? As a profession we need to be leaders in a mode of continuous learning, proposing innovative solutions before clients come looking for answers.

a new model of design
So what’s next in terms of opportunities? It’s my belief that we have only scaled the tip of the iceberg of both environmental and social sustainability. We have made great strides in a short period of time, but mostly we have been addressing symptoms. We need a new model of design based in a broader context of sustainability.

Today, we are designing spaces for near-term or relatively short-term use, when we could be advocating for long-lasting, adaptable solutions. Recycling and repurposing help conserve resources, but those strategies are still grounded in a “disposable” mindset. Real sustainability means designing spaces that can be easily modified for different uses, as well as creating products that can be renewed rather than recycled. This approach creates a new role for the designer as a steward of design, guiding it through its evolution as needs and functions change over time. Think how much we could learn and improve our outcomes if we could switch from treating design as a closed loop—a project—and instead treat it as an open system—an ongoing relationship with a space.

Designers are perfectly poised to play a key advocacy role among policy makers, governments and institutions by reinforcing key principles of environmental stewardship, including the use of safe products, renewable energy sources and sustainable materials. But in an even broader world context, our profession is well-positioned to tackle larger social and economic issues like poverty, geographic crises, natural disasters and long-term unemployment. We are problem solvers. We know that the interrelationship of people and the built environment provides a fundamental sense of place, safety, identity and dignity to people.

Through leadership, education and advocacy we can change the perception that design remains the domain of an elite segment of the world’s population. Professional designers can bring forward their best abilities as creators, innovators and leaders to solve complex social challenges of which “place” plays a critical role. This would be a genuine transformation, and reflect the true significance of the interior design profession in today’s world.


ASID President Lisa Henry, FASID, LEED AP is the Knoll Southwest regional architecture and design director. ASID can be reached at (202) 546-3480 or, and on the web at To download a copy of the ASID Environmental Scanning Report, go to Practice & Business at