In Search of a Defined Body of Knowledge
A visionary collaboration supports the important task of defining the interior design profession's specialized body of knowledge.
By Katie Sosnowchik
Knowledge, according to Webster's Dictionary, is the general awareness or possession of information, facts, ideas, truths or principles. Acquiring it is arguably a life-long mission because, by its very nature, knowledge is not static; it is ever-changing, always growing; a universe that expands daily.
How then does a profession identify a concrete body of knowledge that informs its practice? How can it possibly identify all that which informs the profession—not only what its practitioners know, but also what they do? And how does what they do equate to the value of the service they provide—a service that is, of course, built on the knowledge its practitioners possess?
This hugely complicated and immensely complex pursuit is hardly a task for the faint of heart, and so it is that five interior design professional organizations are joining forces to advance an effort to articulate how the profession can best define its knowledge base.
Debating a Definition
One of the initial milestones in this momentous collaborative effort occurred in May 2003 when 25 interior design practitioners, educators and industry representatives from the United States and Canada spent a weekend together in Washington, DC, to debate and attempt to define a body of knowledge for the profession. At the onset of the conference, facilitators John Weigand and Beth Harmon-Vaughan expected that, "It shouldn't be too tough a challenge to get our hands around a body of knowledge for interior design. Do we not, in fact, know what we know and what we do,?" they remembered thinking at the time.
It soon became apparent, however, that the challenge was not so simple. In fact, the dialogue was quickly punctuated with multiple sub-texts as participants vigorously articulated positions on how the profession can best define its knowledge base. Several, for example, argued that interior design is distinguished through its underlying values, theories and cognitive processes and, therefore, is better defined in descriptive terms rather than by prescriptive skill sets. Recurring discussion also centered around the need to recognize that all knowledge is not "created equal."
Another predominant discussion topic centered around "boundaries." What interior design knowledge is proprietary (unique to interior design) and what is shared with other allied professions such as architecture? To what extent does the interior design profession "own" a body of knowledge? And if interior design knowledge is both shared and unique, then what is the process for gaining this knowledge and for generating new knowledge? Additionally, some attendees advocated for the need to address the inaccurate stereotypes about the design profession perpetuated by the media. It may be far more important to spend time and energy communicating interior designers' legitimacy to others, they said, than attempting to define it among ourselves.
By quitting time, said Harmon-Vaughan and Weigand, "It was clear that we would not walk away with any clear consensus about what constitutes a body of knowledge for the interior design profession. It became especially obvious to the two of us that a body of knowledge is multi-faceted; how one defines a body of knowledge depends on one's perspective."
The group did, however, reach one consensus: to propose a document created for the Association of Registered Interior Designers of Ontario (ARIDO) as a "best effort to date" to summarize a body of knowledge for the profession. This document,
crafted by Denise Guerin, Ph.D., FIDEC, ASID, IIDA and Caren Martin, Ph.D., CID, ASID, IIDA, both of the University of Minnesota, was commissioned specifically to support ARIDO's licensing efforts and to begin to more generally define a body of knowledge for the profession. By looking comprehensively at content knowledge across
the spectrum of education and practice, the ARIDO document seemed to provide a thorough assessment of the profession's knowledge base.
"The best you can ever do," says Harmon-Vaughan, "is take a snapshot at a particular point in time. It was irrefutable that this report did, in fact, capture that material that is publicly printed and available for anyone interested in knowing what the profession of interior design is all about."
Making the Case
The publication authored by Guerin and Martin, The Interior Design Profession's Body of Knowledge: Its Definition and Documentation, was commissioned by ARIDO in 2000 when it was working to fortify with evidence the need for interior design practice regulation, explains Martin. It was intended to show that there was, in fact, unique and specialized knowledge that interior designers possessed that protected the life, health, safety and welfare of the public.
"What we had to do with our work was to link the fact that the health, safety and welfare of the public is key, and then document those things that have to be done to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public. Finally, we had to show that these are the very things that interior designers do," notes Martin. "There are very few pieces of literature that actually put those three pieces together. So in most cases, the report, along with the annotated bibliography, makes that case."
The report approached the body of knowledge from the perspective of four stages of a career cycle:
* education (based on FIDER standards);
* experience (based on the requirements of the Interior Design Experience Program or IDEP);
* examination (based on the National Council for Interior Design Qualification
* and legal regulation (based on state, jurisdictional and provincial laws governing
More than 300 documents from FIDER, IDEP, NCIDQ and state/provincial regulatory agencies, as well as refereed journals, trade magazines, industry reports and the popular press, were consulted to "discover and record, through credible sources, what constitutes interior designers' work, that their work requires a specialized knowledge, and that application of that knowledge contributes to the life, health, safety and welfare of the public."
Key words from the credible sources' documents were then compiled into a matrix, which in turn categorizes the key words into seven major knowledge areas: codes;
communication; design; furnishings, fixtures and equipment; human needs; interior building construction; and professional practice (see chart). This matrix shows the benefits each of the knowledge areas provides to the public's health, safety and welfare. An annotated bibliography documents that the specialized knowledge is used by practitioners and serves as a resource for individuals wanting to expand their knowledge about interior design through further in-depth reading and studying.
From the onset of their work, Guerin and Martin believed it was important to base the findings on the career cycle of an interior designer: practitioners are first educated, then they gain experience working in the field through internships followed by professional experience, next they successfully complete a qualifying examination, which then allows them to be professionally regulated.
"The method we used to document the knowledge areas was one of the greatest contributions made by this work, in addition to the fact that it defines the jurisdiction of interior design practice," comments Guerin. "In interior design, there are other entities, such as FIDER and NCIDQ, that have defined particular bodies of knowledge as they relate to their end product. But none of them are comprehensive. What we did was take a look at the complete career cycle of the interior designer and identify previously
published documentation that included the body of knowledge for each stage. There is very interesting information about what is included in one stage that's not included in another."
"When you look at the matrix, you will see, for example, that there are certain things taught in education that don't repeat in experience," describes Martin, "and certain things in experience that show up in the exam or regulatory stage. You'll see holes and you'll also see great consistencies where something is introduced in education and moves through all four stages of the career cycle."
"That's an important contribution in and of itself to have come up with a method that can show that," says Guerin. "However, having said that, this method is also open for criticism. Anytime a method is put forward as an exploratory component, it too is open for discussion—and that's wonderful. We hope more dialogue will occur."
A Shared Vision
Certainly, a supplement to the original Body of Knowledge document currently in the works will likely generate some lively dialogue—at least, that's the intention of the report's original authors, who have been commissioned by the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), the International Interior Design Association (IIDA), Interior Designers of Canada (IDC), FIDER and NCIDQ to update and further develop their first effort.
While a component of the 2004-05 segment will naturally include an updated annotated bibliography that documents related material published since 2000, the primary challenge now facing Guerin and Martin will be an effort to weight each of the knowledge areas.
"We will examine what level of knowledge is required of the practitioner to competently protect the health, safety and welfare of the public," explains Guerin. "We will examine all of our documentation, looking for evidence that will direct us as to how we can weight each area. Once we have a preliminary weighting, we will then go to focus groups to review or dispute it and to arrive at a consensus about levels of importance."
Martin says she expects the finished document, which will be produced using the same method as the first, will stimulate "welcome" debate. "We hope it will be a touchstone, a basis for discussion and argument and certainly controversy—but controversy in a positive way that provides many opportunities for dialogue."
The updated document, which is expected to be completed in summer 2005, will be "owned" by the collaboration of the five interior design organizations with FIDER acting as the agent responsible for its distribution and for maintaining a Web site on which the new document will be hosted. (The five associations are funding both the research efforts and the Web site.) ARIDO, which co-owned with Guerin and Martin the
proprietary rights to the original document, has generously contributed it for widespread public dissemination.
The new document will represent a number of significant hallmarks, and will serve, says Harmon-Vaughan, as a starting point, especially for anyone interested in entering the profession. It will also provide a foundation for future research, allowing for identification of gaps that might exist in the body of knowledge.
But most importantly, she notes, the effort signals a critical collaboration—a joint effort by nearly all of the interior design associations to work together on a common goal.
"The organizations all working together is something that a lot of us have wanted to do for a long time. This project signifies a big overarching issue, and if we can be consistent and have solidarity on a project of this magnitude, it will help move the profession forward faster."