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Head of the Class

How design school programs are changing with the times, technology and market demands.

By Margie Monin Dombrowski

How design school programs are changing with the times, technology and market demands.

Whether you’re a freshly matriculated interior design student, recent grad or industry veteran, it’s an exciting time to be a part of our rapidly changing field. One of the worst recessions is now behind us and the jobs outlook gets more optimistic every day. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, interior design jobs are predicted to grow by 19 percent between 2010 and 2020, while jobs at specialized firms are predicted to increase 27 percent.

Opportunities to learn a new specialty and stand out from the crowd are also opening up. Today, sustainable design and healthcare design are highly sought-after markets, and they’re being added to many interior design school curricula. Software like BIM, Revit, Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign and SolidWorks are not only being woven into course offerings, they’re increasingly becoming essentials for any designer’s toolbox.

design education: practice vs. theory
There are roughly 300 post-secondary colleges, universities and independent institutes with programs in art and design accredited by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design; more than 150 professional-level interior design programs offering bachelor’s or master’s degrees are accredited by the Council for Interior Design Accreditation. While every program has its own concentration on theory or practice—or a bit of both—each uniquely caters to its students’ needs. The question is, how are these programs meeting the needs of the marketplace? Are students picking up the skills they need to succeed on the job?

“Many schools are less skills-oriented—their philosophy is the skills they’ll need they’ll learn while on the job,” says John Martin-Rutherford, Ph.D, president of the Interior Design Educators Council (IDEC) and department chair of the interior design program at Harrington College of Design in Chicago. “Our school is practice-based. We know when our grads take the NCIDQ exam, they will have the right skills to practice in the profession.” Harrington students must complete 300 internship hours before graduation so they can land entry-level jobs.

Not only are communication and presentation skills a must, but students need to learn how to work as part of a team and with clients, according to IIDA President Felice Silverman, who is also principal and president of Silverman Trykowski Associates in Boston. Any time you give students an opportunity to work collaboratively ultimately readies them for project management in the real world. Doing this effectively, Silverman says, involves “working in a more interdisciplinary approach within their curricula—not only interior design and architecture, but also construction management and partnering with other disciplines.”

This approach can be as simple as combining interior and graphic design students in the same class, notes Dr. Martin-Rutherford. “We combine courses with the graphic design students because they know more about branding,” he says. “By doing that, [interior design students] get the graphic and interior design skills, and they all learn how to work with each other.”

real-world experience
Preparing students for entry-level jobs typically means internships, which employers are looking for on student resumes. Silverman points to Boston Architectural College as one school doing a great job of giving students real-world experience. The BAC’s concurrent curriculum has students learning hands-on at firms during the day and taking classes at night.

During the downturn, the school had to get creative because students weren’t finding jobs, which is how the Gateway program began. Through Gateway, students can earn credit by participating in pro-bono projects, competitions and other work experiences. Says Silverman, “This Gateway concept allowed students to still mirror that experience” of getting on-the-job experience with mentorship from a practicing professional. PageBreak

technology shift
Teaching students in-demand technological skills is a challenge because they’re constantly changing.

“Years ago, you’d have a separate class on AutoCAD,” says David Sprouls, president of the New York School of Interior Design (NYSID). “Now it has to be integrated into classes almost from the beginning.”

Revit has been added to the Harrington curriculum over the past five years because it’s used so frequently in the industry. To make room for the course, others were lumped together to avoid increasing credit hours. “We had a separate class for project management and one in business practices,” says Dr. Martin-Rutherford. “We combined those into one so they learned project management software in the same class where they learned accounting and the legal principles of professional practice, as well as the other aspects of running a business.”

As the industry evolves and designers look to boost their resumes, continuing education can fill the gap. NYSID recently stepped up by adding three new year-long, post-professional master’s programs in healthcare, sustainable and lighting design; the school also offers continuing education classes in graphics and technology. “Professionals feel they need to add to their resume, specialize or become an expert,” says Sprouls. “They’re looking for that leg up.”

“I think that we expect a lot out of graduates,” says ASID President Barbara Marini, FASID, IDEC. By the time a student arrives for their first day on the job, she says, “we expect them to be functioning at a high level, to sit down and work on their own projects or work with a partner or small team.”

While learning the various programs is important, it’s only part of the equation. “Technology is a vehicle to communicate a design idea,” says Marini. “We don’t want to turn the classroom into a software learning experience.” Still, instructors can leverage technology to teach and share ideas in the classroom and beyond, with remote classrooms and new apps like FaceTime making global education possible.

“How do we teach cultural awareness if our students aren’t connected with students or people from other countries?” Marini says. “We’re seeing more of this in higher education. Technology is being used to deliver a different type of education that’s unique.”

social responsibility
With easy access to information, students have the ability to research project solutions in more depth, which they can utilize for social good. Students are realizing design’s social responsibility and taking on pro-bono projects for homeless shelters, food banks and more, addressing a need in their communities and enhancing their resumes while they’re at it.

“We see this in design competitions, senior thesis projects or dedicated studios,” says Marini. “It shifts design from a static view to a very purposeful human interest story. We want students to look at the impact of interior design and how we can make a difference. Interior design students are grabbing onto that.”

Margie Monin Dombrowski is a freelance writer and interior design student based in Orange County, Calif. She frequently writes for interior design publications and creates copy for businesses on design topics. Find her online at


Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition, Interior Designers: (visited April 29, 2013).