Designing Minds

While the future of design technology has arrived, the work of human minds cannot be replaced.

01/03/2017 By Charrisse Johnston, ASID, LEED AP BD+C, Associate AIA


Quick: What do the Hollywood hits “The Matrix,” “Ex Machina,” and “i, Robot” have in common?  They’re all sci-fi flicks about how machines try to—or have already—taken over the world. As early as the 18th century, people have worried about how technology and automation have led to unemployment, and today, the digital age continues to obviate factory and service jobs. Hand drafting has made way for Revit and Grasshopper, and 3D printing will soon revolutionize the construction industry.

But design has always been a human activity, requiring the kismet of creativity and the filter of multiple variables, a process that algorithms will never replicate. Sure, a computer can generate mind-blowing parametric shapes, and the calculations and drawings needed to make them a reality. But it takes people to recognize that just because you can build something doesn’t mean you should. And the work of the surrealistic 3D rendering artist Victor Enrich exploits this technology to create witty, memorable works that comment on politics and culture.

“Design Impacts Lives” is the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) credo but also the very reason we interior designers do what we do.  Our choices undeniably have a direct impact on the users of the spaces we create. Taken in aggregate, though, our designs can also lead to entire paradigm shifts. I’ve been inspired by so many revolutionary thinkers and doers whose ideas have done just that.

John Peterson, for example, is one of those heroes.  As founder of the non-profit 1+ Program, he has helped convince over 1,100 architecture and design firms to devote one percent of their billable hours to pro bono work, injecting social consciousness into design and spreading the idea that design is not just for the wealthy. His firm, Public Architecture, put the spotlight on such issues as the plight of day laborers and using recycled building materials with its Day Laborer Station and ScrapHouse projects. Peterson doesn’t sermonize; instead, he demonstrates by doing. His keen intelligence and quiet grace has taken the notion of socially responsible design and made it real for me. I am so proud that ASID and the ASID Foundation have partnered with the 1+ Program.

Paul Scialla is another hero of mine. A former partner at Goldman Sachs, Scialla used his financial prowess and connections to create the International WELL Building Institute, another ASID partner, and the WELL Building Standard. Unlike LEED, which promotes sustainability through energy-efficient and resource-conscious design choices, the WELL standard is meant to promote human health through
the design of our offices, schools, and homes and was developed based on years of research in human physiology and psychology. To date, 270 projects totaling 57 million square feet in 23 countries have registered or have already been certified under WELL, thanks to Scialla’s tireless
dedication, vast knowledge, and easy charm. Because of him, I’m actively trying to introduce WELL standards to my own clients and projects.

Theaster Gates is a name that is well-known in the art world but fast becoming known in design as well. It’s a challenge to describe him—he’s a world-renowned sculptor and performance artist, a community activist, an urban developer, a professor, a workplace developer, and an electrifying personality. His Rebuild Foundation transforms abandoned buildings and vacant lots into thriving community centers and housing, and provides job training to local residents by connecting them with craftsmen and contractors. He saved an empty, neoclassical building from the wrecking ball and turned it into a beautiful exhibition and performance arts center and a library for the local community.  Gates isn’t content merely sharing a vision; impatient with bureaucracy and conventional wisdom, he simply jumps right in and takes action. If you wonder what you can do to help your community and ever have the opportunity to hear him speak, drop everything and do it.

And while these three gentlemen are undeniably rock stars, I’m also inspired by people who are not as well-known, especially students and emerging professionals. Recently I visited the Fay Jones School of Architecture at the University of Arkansas, where interior design, architecture, and landscape architecture students take classes and work on projects together. Their work is phenomenal, and it shows the power of multi-disciplinary teams. Working together is absolutely crucial to the future of design, because the problems we are faced with solving are becoming more and more complex.

So let’s recognize technology for what it is: a tool, not a threat. While artificial intelligence and the internet can threaten the careers of bank tellers and stenographers, design requires human minds … and human conscience.

Charrisse Johnston, ASID, LEED AP BD+C, Associate AIA, is the Chair of the Board of Directors and a principal and the firm-wide interior design practice leader at Steinberg Architects. Learn more about ASID at