Role Reversal in Design Education

A new generation of students and an industry shift toward multi-disciplinary project teams forces professors to rethink their teaching approach.

06.01.2014 by AnnMarie Martin

While each design school across the country might have its own brand identity and stake in the ground somewhere between theory and practice, all design education is grounded in the same traditions.

“Interior design education itself is very interesting because of its roots,” said Dr. Ellen Fisher, vice president for academic affairs and dean at the New York School of Interior Design (NYSID). “It began from several sources: schools that focused on design history and the decorative arts; other schools that started with home economics, such as Cornell; and it also started from the field of industrial design and efficiency engineering,” she explained.

And while a solid foundation in elements such as color, fabrics and furniture selection and arrangement, texture, pattern, and balance has always been there (and is still to this day at NYSID in particular), that wasn’t always the case when it came to evidence-based design (EBD) and the study of what is truly good for inhabitants’ well-being, health, and safety.

“Projects got very complex and complicated,” said Grazyna Pilatowicz, IDEC, IIDA, LEED AP, and associate professor, chair, and founder of the Sustainable Interior Environments program at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s (FIT) School of Graduate Studies. “And you cannot base your decisions on just intuition. Preparing students for the programming and the research of programming—that became more and more pronounced, and part of the education and expectation of what students have to know how to do. They need to know how to justify their design decisions. And that will apply to issues related to behavioral concerns or sustainability. It is about bringing whole systems thinking integrated design [into practice], where we realize things are working together and impacting each other, and students have to be aware that it isn’t about designing a piece in a void. This is a space which we’ll be interacting with.”

Today, ergonomics, biophilia and sustainability—all of which are supported by evidence-based design and the more systemic, programmatic way of thinking Pilatowicz identifies above—are of course now just as powerful a force in design education as the basics were and still are. This is in part due to more consistent quality controls that are in place thanks to the Council for Interior Design Accreditation (CIDA), but also because of a new breed of design student with an ingrained sensibility for these matters and a heightened social conscience. “It’s something they’ve learned throughout their lives,” said Fisher. “They truly believe in and are committed to things such as accessibility and universal design,” and don’t just view it as simply a wheelchair ramp.

“I think we see ... in many programs a real awareness of all different sectors of our culture, and needing to design not just for the wealthy and residential, but all kinds of environments that help people to be happier and healthier and safer of course,” she said, speaking as a member of the Interior Design Educators Council (IDEC).

These students have not only grown up with these values in place for what they want to learn, but there has also been a dramatic shift culturally in how they need to learn. Gone are the days of the lecture and even the lectern itself says Doris Guerrero, adjunct professor at California College of the Arts (CCA) and principal of San Francisco-based firm dForm.

“This semester I said, 'Let's try something different. Rather than being didactic about the work, let’s reveal the information and structure the exercises so that people have a chance to interact with each other first.'" she said. A lecture on ethics would begin with some reading assignments, followed by a discussion amongst students about the questions posed to them by Guerrero and her co-instructor. They would then report back to both the instructors and the other groups. “So it was more of a dialogue, and they were able to formulate in smaller groups their opinions and feedback.” Professors were “embedded” with their peers, she explains, rather than students having a sense of “I have to give this to my professor for approval.”

“They appreciate our wisdom but this issue of evaluation is the nuance of the different cultures. They want to be evaluated on their engagement in addition to the actual work,” said Guerrero. The new approach was a success as the semester resulted in the best round of finals they’ve ever had. “And they really taught us a lesson. They expanded my teaching, and I respect them for that. At the same time they appreciated that we took the time to slow the class down and really address what they needed culturally as a group. I really believe that with millennials it’s about them feeling empowered,” she added.

“We call it flipping,” laughed Pilatowicz. “Flipping is where you are creating an environment in which students are learning through teaching each other. And when you look at the pyramid of retention of information, the highest retention you get is if you teach others.”

This new sense of empowerment that’s been granted to students is also quite effective when they’re given the opportunity to design and present projects close to their hearts, not ones that have been imposed on them. For instance, in Pilatowicz’ ecology and built environment class, Nigerian students spoke about the environmental racism they’ve experienced in their country. British oil companies may follow certain environmental laws in the U.S. and Europe, then arrive in Nigeria and trash it because there are none.

Fisher recalled a student thesis project on an assisted living experience. “It developed from visits with his grandmother and older relatives and being horrified. He just thought, ‘I can do better than that. They deserve better.’ He really brought that to fruition this spring with his thesis, which is beautiful. Other students learned from hearing him talk about this thing that meant so much to him.

“And interior design in particular values the personal experience and knowledge of the designer. So I really like to hear from the students themselves about what they know. And everybody wins when people are able to speak from their personal experience to the whole class and share that knowledge,” Fisher said.

According to Pilatowicz, this can at times be a touchy subject for faculty uncomfortable with changing their role from the source of knowledge to a facilitator of knowledge.

“The access to information is so easy that we have to account for that and change the way we teach. It’s not anymore about giving the dates or names or facts. It’s more about where you can find information; how you can find information; how you can critically evaluate the information; how can you evaluate the source of information critically. And we need to teach them that, rather than the particular information,” she said. “It’s challenging for the faculty because you’re not the wiseman anymore. You’re not the source of knowledge anymore. And many of us feel uncomfortable and insecure stepping back and just facilitating and helping and pointing out and guiding.”

But this newly-found focus on collaborative learning is a vital one as the industry shifts to more multidisciplinary teams being formulated to tackle such multi-faceted projects. Architectural and design offices have been coming to FIT to speak to them about the importance of a graduate’s ability to work on a team in their office and also to work with outside consultants and contractors.

As a practicing professional, Guerrero reported seeing a fair amount of interaction recently being moved up in the design process, thanks in part to the emergence of LEED requirements. “We might interface with the drywall trades people immediately during schematic. That’s something we’ve never done before. Or we might interface with an environmental graphics designer early on in the project,” she adds.

Luckily, many students are already indoctrinated with a collaborative mindset and working in teams with participants not of the typical makeup, she says. “The students are better at it than practitioners.”

The classroom layout is also changing to accommodate this learning shift. “I worked on higher ed this year, and there’s much more of a demand for breakout group technology and furniture,” Guerrero said. While big screens are necessary, she’s also seen smaller sidescreens added for breakout conversations. Larger classrooms are becoming demisable so one class can break out into two isolated groups if need be. Larger tablets and wireless keyboards are also being utilized to account for presentations in various locations within the room.

Not only is collaboration taking place within the classroom, but it’s also disseminating throughout universities. The faculty at FIT, for example, is exploring the possibilities of different schools working together on various interdisciplinary courses and projects such as the design of a retail space, where the art and design department develop the interiors, and the business and technology school address branding and budgets.

As designers of the future (of all realms) continue to work more intimately with each other, the universal design languages of accessibility, systemic thinking, sustainability, and evidence-based design will continue to gain momentum. But the push for producing more licensed interior designers and architects is also supporting these principles, via the fight for legislation across the board.

“Legislation is a validation or verification of knowledge,” said Fisher. “The NCIDQ exam is the gatekeeper to licensure. Licensure and certification is that validation of this independent profession. Examination along with experience and education (the 3 E’s) is really what we look at in a bigger sense, and licensure is a natural result of that.” NYSID offers a free prep course to any graduate who’s qualified. She reports that more and more graduates are taking it, and more are taking the NCIDQ exam.

“While it’s an old profession it’s finally coming together in the eyes of the public as its own entity. Licensure says to the public: you’re protected when you work with this person. This person is a professional and understands they will specify products that won’t harm you, and will design a space that will protect your health and safety,” she said.

Guerrero agrees and will often pose the following question to skeptical students: “Would you go to a hairdresser who doesn’t have a license?” She has conversely seen less and less architects getting their license as the process has disempowered a lot of young designers and given it back to the states. “It’s turned them off because it’s onerous, expensive, and it takes too much time (the average is between 8 to 10 years).” But she says the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) is working to loosen some of these bureaucratic requirements.

They are also discussing the importance of internships at CCA in promoting earlier licensing, and students are expressing their desire that this component would come earlier in their education track. And while part of Guerrero wants to keep academia as an incubator of innovation and allow the “real world” to be a space where students figure out how to apply it, she is conflicted by the realization that students might get more out of their education if they understood the importance of the theoretical within practice.

No matter what these new core values are when it comes to design education, one fact remains: teachers have to continually grow and evolve as their student population changes and adapts to industry shifts and needs. “I think it’s our responsibility as teachers to figure out how to teach the generation that has different access, different attention, and different tools,” said Pilatowicz.

“I like to think of interior design as this big basket, and the different types of threads that are woven into that basket are the related disciplines of lighting design, environment and behavior research, of furniture and product design, sustainability,” Fisher said. “Yet you can’t forget about creating beautiful environments that make people happy.”

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