Is Design Lacking Diversity?

IIDA held a weekend-long summit earlier this year to discuss what diversity means and what industry leaders can do to help with inclusion.


The International Interior Design Association (IIDA) recently released its Industry Roundtable report tackling the topic of diversity and inclusion in the design industry. The report, “Diversity and Design: Why Gender, Equity, and Multidisciplinary Thinking are Essential to Business,” summarizes the discussion of 30 design industry leaders at the 19th annual IIDA Industry Roundtable last January, and provides a strategic roadmap for the newly formed IIDA Diversity Council, chaired by Stacy Walker, Ind. IIDA, director of customer experience, Milliken.  

“IIDA approached the subject of diversity in the design industry by taking stock of our association,” said IIDA executive vice president and CEO Cheryl S. Durst, Hon. FIIDA, LEED AP, who moderated the Roundtable. “From chapter events to continuing education programs, to the headquarters of our partners in manufacturing to our own board of directors—diversity, or the lack thereof, was apparent. This report and the formation of the IIDA Diversity Council are the first steps of many toward a more diverse industry—in race and gender, and thought and discipline.”

Because the meaning of diversity is “highly personal,” the Roundtable made sure to discuss the various definitions of the idea and how it is addressed and conveyed in different environments and segments in the design industry. As illustrated by figures compiled in the report, diverse companies perform better in terms of monetary success in addition to problem solving and innovations. Additionally, they “are more immune to the perils of groupthink,” according to the report.

George Bandy, Jr., now vice president of sustainability for Mohawk Group, noted, “As workplaces embrace diversity, they realize benefits that help improve their companies: more varied ideas, increased international opportunities, and new perspectives.”

According to Roundtable participants, which included industry members, IIDA international board members, design practitioners, and others, despite the awareness of lack of diversity, many firms are not doing everything they can to alleviate the issue, particularly with racial and ethnic diversity. In addition, within higher positions in interior design firms there is significant misrepresentation of women, with only 25 percent of firm leaders being female. However, according to a 2013 industry survey, 60 percent of the 87,000 industry practitioners in the U.S. are women. A bigger picture of the lack of diversity is reflected in the figures from a 2015 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics: 77 percent of architects are white and 25.7 percent women.

What’s interesting, however, is that when design industry members were asked if they thought their field was lacking in diversity, many initial comments reflected they did not believe so. Responses included broad objections: “I disagree with this statement [that design is considered one of the least diverse professions]. I would like to see the data backing it up,” and more personalized views: “This has not been my experience within my organization or team.”

The general sentiment is that the design community has more diversity when it comes to thought; dubbed “cognitive diversity,” this idea encompasses the mix of backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives from people who all think differently. According to a recent Fast Company article cited in the IIDA report, millennials define diversity as this idea of cognitive diversity, while baby boomers and Gen Xers think of diversity in terms of gender, race and, sometimes, age.

While the numbers show that the industry of design is, in fact, lacking diversity, the A&D world prides itself on its creativity and overall broad-minded way of thinking. “The design profession seems extremely open and inclusive and willing to embrace what makes individuals or groups unique,” said Alan Almasy, Ind. IIDA, director, A&D programs and marketing, Herman Miller.

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