5 Qualities of Design Mastery

Is it possible to reverse-engineer the lives of design masters to map out the route to success? Maybe not, but there are at least five basic qualities, embodied in IIDA Fellows, that play an important role in the mastery of design.

by Felice Silverman, IIDA

When I was asked about what makes a master of design, my initial impulse was to design the answer. Instinctively, I reached for consistencies in the lives of the designers I respect, and which I try to maintain in my own life and career. It quickly occurred to me that the traits that make a master of design are much the same as what IIDA recognizes in its Fellows, and that those qualities are pretty well defined.

Induction into the IIDA College of Fellows is the highest honor that IIDA bestows on its members. Fellows typically are outstanding professionals and leaders, immersing themselves in advancing design through education, mentoring aspiring designers, serving on committees, and taking part in initiatives that benefit the profession. Like others before them, this year’s inductees—Barbara Dellinger, FIIDA, MA, EDAC, AAHID, CID (HDR Architecture, Alexandria, Va.); Judy Pesek, FIIDA, LEED AP (Gensler, Dallas, Texas); and Jim Williamson, FIIDA, LEED AP (Gensler, Washington, D.C.)—exhibit those five chief characteristics common to those who have truly mastered the art of design.

No one gets anywhere in design—or in anything, for that matter—without a lot of this. Vision will get you so far, but commitment is demonstrated in the amount of effort you expend in achieving your goal. For masters of design, that commitment is total. Design isn’t part of life—it is life, and it’s evidenced by everything one does, from deliberately integrating one’s self in the design world to approaching everyday problems from a design perspective. No one becomes an IIDA Fellow without enormous commitment, not just to one’s own work but to the profession itself.

There’s no question of the commitment of this year’s Fellows, with the many millions of square feet of work between them, decades of experience and demonstrated leadership in the profession. For example, many readers will recognize Jim Williamson as my predecessor as IIDA international board president, but Jim also acts locally to better his community of Washington, D.C., including participating regularly on the Design Leadership Council, a body of interior design and architectural professionals who meet each month to strengthen the relationship between the two disciplines. Like the rest of his esteemed Fellows, Jim exemplifies the commitment to his profession that any would-be master should aspire to maintain.

It’s one thing to have the will to better the world through design, but turning will into action is what separates the good designers from the great ones. It’s the designers with initiative, the ones who are great at their craft and who use their experience and knowledge to lead, to start their own firms and mentor the next generation, who have the greatest impact.

Judy Pesek has, through her own initiative, made the most of numerous leadership positions during her 25 years with Gensler. She’s grown the business of Gensler’s Washington, D.C., Houston, Charlotte, and Dallas offices, and along the way helped the Dallas office pick up two IIDA Pinnacle Awards, a designation as AIA Firm of the Year in 2008, and the honor of Corporate Citizen of the Year in 2012. These awards underscore Judy’s initiative as someone who cares enough to be great at design and who has the confidence to step into a situation and use her expertise to the advantage of her firm and the greater community.

Many people decide to become a designer because of an instinct or a knack for it, but there’s no substitute for experience. Expertise is typically what we think of when we imagine mastery in any field: the intimate knowledge of a craft or subject gained through years of continuous practice and study. Anyone working hard in his or her discipline is bound to pick up an extensive familiarity with it, but for the master, there’s a greater insight at work—something that enables design masters to take their core of understanding and squeeze the future out of it. All of our Fellows, including this year’s inductees, maintain an impeccable level of expertise that enables them to shape the future of design and gives them the authority to discuss its direction with the less-experienced.

There is no design without innovation. Innovation is what gives design its vitality, its force and much of its appeal to our senses. It’s what we respond to when we see great design, and it’s what we work toward. Masters of design are able to innovate consistently and with style, thanks to their extensive backgrounds in problem solving and their almost reflexive ability to envision the best design solutions. They’re not afraid to step outside their comfort zones and find new ways of approaching a project.

Barbara Dellinger did just that, helping to advance the evidence-based design (EBD) movement through the integration of research into her work. She was even honored to have her EBD furniture checklist become a mandatory part of the U.S. Department of Defense Military Health System’s World Class Toolkit, which is a set of tools designed to assist architects, hospital planners, and facility managers in creating effective and efficient medical facilities.

As you’ve no doubt guessed, many of the above-mentioned attributes play into each other pretty strongly, and the idea of contribution is no exception. In fact, all of the above traits are essential if a designer is to use his or her abilities to strengthen our foundation and the design community at-large. Each of this year’s IIDA Fellows has a résumé that includes significant community outreach to benefit both their local communities and the interior design profession. Jim has his work with the Design Leadership Council; Barbara mentors, is working to implement effective educational programs for future designers, and was invited earlier this year to join the Center for Health Design’s Research Coalition; and Judy plans to use her Fellowship to connect with universities to help develop the next generation of designers.

All five of these qualities are driven by a sixth characteristic that’s an absolute in our profession, and that’s passion. It’s the fuel that enables us to persevere, allowing us to follow our initial vision to its conclusion as a fully realized and effective space. It’s passion that keeps us in the office when others have gone home, and that compels us to push beyond our limits and produce the best design solutions possible. It may not be enough on its own to propel an individual to master status, but without it, the other five characteristics become little more than theory.


IIDA President Felice L. Silverman, IIDA is president and a principal at Silverman Trykowski Associates, Inc. in Boston. You can reach IIDA at (312) 467-1950 or at iidahq@iida.org.