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Fueling the Future Workplace

Despite continuing challenges in the market, we should take a moment to reflect on our strengths as design thinkers, and honor the educators and innovators pushing us forward.

By James Williamson, IIDA, LEED AP

Despite continuing challenges in the market, we should take a moment to reflect on our strengths as design thinkers, and honor the educators and innovators pushing us forward.

It seems like we talk about the challenges designers are facing on a daily basis, but perhaps we should spend more time focusing—and capitalizing—on the strengths of our profession. Designers have the integrative tools necessary to survive the prevailing conditions and regulations found in every business environment. Effective designers are creative, socially conscious and realistic workplace strategists—characteristics that are all in demand as companies try to navigate the volatility inherent in today’s economy and global marketplace.

Designers, or design thinkers, are part of a business, a science and an art—a rare combination, indeed. Our perceptiveness and, perhaps more importantly, our skills allow us to work on a wide breadth of projects providing an array of innovative solutions.

Of course, those skills can only come from a strong educational foundation, and I believe that our interior design students are receiving some of the best educations of all the professionals working in the built environment today. Our design schools and professional associations are focused on providing students with unique mentoring opportunities and apt projects to work on, which apply to today’s real world challenges.

One such educator that is going above and beyond for her students is Liset Robinson, IIDA, currently an instructor at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). Robinson was recently (and proudly) recognized as the 2012 IIDA Educator of the Year. This award, sponsored by Milliken, celebrates excellence in leadership by an interior design educator, which Robinson illustrates through her extraordinary accomplishments and commitment to her students. She has mentored students for the past five years, providing internship guidance and instruction, and has consistently earned high praise from her colleagues.

“IIDA is proud to honor Liset for her tireless devotion, enthusiasm and service to her students and the interior design profession. She has gone above and beyond to share her knowledge and passion with the next generation of designers by helping them cultivate a desire to learn inside and outside of the classroom,” says IIDA Executive Vice President and CEO Cheryl Durst, Hon. FIIDA.

One of the many ways Robinson has demonstrated her ability to promote the development of design thinkers was through her 2010 Grad Studio III course, which included an opportunity for students to design the renovation of the Zaban Couples Center. Through extensive research, planning and face-to-face interaction with the residents, students were able to experience the power of design and strengthen their understanding of the user through empathy—in other words, they became design thinkers. In the following year, the IIDA Georgia Chapter and SCAD co-sponsored the renovation of 22 resident rooms at the shelter, and the design that was implemented was based on one that the students had proposed the year before. This unique chance to experience a project from concept to implementation is an opportunity not many students receive.1

The latest issue of IIDA’s Perspective magazine features an interview with Primo Orpilla, Associate IIDA, who discusses the process of moving from design student to design thinker. Graduating in one of the worst economies in U.S. history, Orpilla set out to specialize in the tech industry and ended up taking a position in facilities management and real estate— a job that taught what he calls “the other side of design.” He learned that programming—space planning and how to accommodate churn—is the underpinning of design. Orpilla is currently the principal and co-founder (with wife Verda Alexander) of San Francisco’s Studio O+A, and is working on custom solutions for open plan workspace projects.2

Through his background in the tech industry and some inspired design thinking, he has found ways to push facility managers out of their comfort zones. With Facebook’s Palo Alto, Calif. office, he has liberated staffers by designing multiple breakout spaces; technology is infused throughout the office, enabling employees to roam with their laptops; and cubicles and walls are torn down to facilitate collaboration and foster community. Orpilla adds, “To perform their best, employees need to think, rest, play and socialize.”

Future generations will be shaped by design thinkers just like Orpilla; his work on office workplace design for tech titans like Facebook and Yelp demonstrate the true value of design thinking. By enabling flexible management styles and efficient communication, they are building ideal conditions for teamwork and innovation. And this doesn’t apply only to “creative” industries or people tasked with the design of products. Design thinking is universal and can be applied to a broad range of issues and concerns, like encouraging bank customers to save more, developing effective public service campaigns, improving a guest experience at a hospital or hotel or updating energy conservation techniques.

Design thinkers don’t simply research solutions—they design them. And because of this, they are not constricted by challenges in the workplace. As illustrated by Robinson, educators go beyond classroom walls and textbooks to bring the real world to their students. Design thinkers have the ability and the drive to utilize their creative management skills to convert human need into demand.

Our world is changing rapidly. Economic conditions, globalization and technological advances continue to inspire our industry to grow, learn and evolve every day. As designers, we have both a huge responsibility and growing opportunity to change the way people work, live and play across the globe. Design thinking enables us to leave a commanding mark with every project, every build and every design. Design thinkers have the power to do the kind of work that is both felt and remembered. It is a natural tendency to underestimate the importance and impact of design thinkers. I often have to remember to stop for a moment and observe the workplace with new eyes. There are, and will always be, so many improvements to be made, and we all own the tools to make a difference.


IIDA International President James Williamson, IIDA, LEED AP is a practicing interior designer and principal at Gensler in its Washington, D.C. office. You can reach IIDA at (312) 467-1950 or at


1 Editorial contributions from Liset Robinson, IIDA.

2 Excerpts from Perspective Spring/Summer 2012 Issue.