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Leaning In and Pushing Forward

October 24, 2013

The interior design profession is ill-defined in the United States. I believe this is true for several reasons, but the primary one is because “interior designer” is a job title in the public domain. What this means is that except for a few U.S. jurisdictions (including Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia), a person can call him or herself an interior designer, regardless of their education, experience or a qualifying examination. This means that 312.8 million people in the U.S. can claim to be an interior designer with no minimum level of interior design education, experience or examination.

The 25 states that maintain legislation regarding the licensure of designers require the use of the terms “certified interior designer,” “registered interior designer” or “licensed interior designer.” But it’s a sad fact that we as a profession—and I define a professional interior designer as one who designs safe, healthy spaces that benefit the public’s wellbeing, who has a minimum of a Bachelors of Science in interior design from a Council of Interior Design Accreditation (CIDA)-accredited institution, at least three years’ relevant experience and who has passed the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) exam—do not own the pure and simple title of “interior designer,” and I doubt we ever will.

So what are we to do about our professional title woes? It’s a challenge that I’ve been thinking about for quite some time, but as I recently read Sheryl Sandberg’s best-selling book, “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead,” I recognized some strategies that could help interior design professionals better define our profession.

For those of you not familiar with the author or “Lean In,” Sandberg is COO of Facebook; her book details her frustrations and struggles as a female executive in the male-dominated corporate world. Throughout the book, Sandberg urges women to “lean in”—an overarching term that encourages us to step forward, speak up and to make changes that open up more leadership opportunities for women. And while many of Sandberg’s experiences did not align directly with my own—most likely because I have been self-employed since I was 23 and never worked in the corporate world—I found myself relating her advice to the interior design profession’s fight to obtain more recognition for its unique contribution to the built environment. Two pieces of advice seemed particularly valuable: disrupt the status quo and stop trying to please everyone.

In her book, Sandberg recalls how the media asked her why she was speaking up so much about women’s issues, rather than technology or social media. She responded, “I made this my thing because we need to disrupt the status quo. Staying quiet and fitting in may have been all the first generations of women who entered corporate America could do … but this strategy is not paying off for women as a group. Instead we need to speak out, identify the barriers that are holding women back and find solutions.”

I echo Sandberg’s sentiment in the context of interior design. We need to shake things up and disrupt the established order. One way to do that is for the 29,000 interior designers in the United States and Canada with the proper education, experience and examination to include the letters NCIDQ after their name. This may seem like a relatively small act, but it speaks volumes by shifting the focus from professional associations like the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) and the International Interior Design Association (IIDA), which allow their members to use their appellations after their name, to the passage of a specific qualifying examination. To draw an analogy that many readers may understand, the use of NCIDQ is equivalent to the use of LEED AP after one’s name.

Why does this matter? Because a very large percentage of people who have passed the NCIDQ examination have chosen not to become a member of an association like ASID or IIDA, and we’re missing out on the chance to make our professional qualifications known to the wider building industry and the public at large.

Sandberg also makes a point in “Lean In” to tell women that they need to stop worrying about being liked and keeping everyone happy. Sandberg shares something that her boss, Mark Zuckerberg, told her early on in her time at Facebook. “One of the things he told me was that my desire to be liked by everyone would hold me back,” she writes. “He said that when you want to change things, you can’t please everyone. If you do please everyone, you aren’t making enough progress.” This piece of advice resonates with me personally, but I also see it in the context of our entire profession.

Over the past 27 years, I have witnessed professional associations, legislative coalitions, higher education institutions, accrediting bodies and even the NCIDQ itself try to appease other allied or related professionals by making concessions in defining our profession. Interior design leaders have also made compromises to keep others happy, ranging from allowing states to allow architects to be called registered or certified designers without having to meet the requirements for interior design education, experience and examination, or accepting other exams (such as those from the National Kitchen & Bath Association or the Council for Qualification of Residential Interior Designers) as equivalent to the NCIDQ exam. We need to quit trying to please everyone and stop worrying if we are liked. This is a profession trying to define itself, not a congeniality contest.

As I see it, there are two ways that designers can “lean in” on the effort to better define the profession of interior design: disrupt the status quo by using the NCIDQ appellation after one’s name, and quit trying to please everyone by being inclusive in our definition of the profession. If we want to really push forward, then I propose that we stop focusing on what we are called and instead emphasize the credential we have earned. To that end, I will quite willingly and happily put NCIDQ after my name.


Lisa Whited, NCIDQ, owns Whited Planning + Design in Portland, Me. and can be reached at