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What’s Next for Design Education

IIDA considers and explains the foundational skills that are essential for developing a successful career in design.
12/01/2017 By Louisa Fitzgerald

Jon Otis, IIDA Educator of the Year Primo Orpilla, IIDA Global Chair of Student Experience

In October 2017, the International Interior Design Association (IIDA) brought together a distinguished group of more than 20 experienced designers, educators, and emerging professionals for the second annual IIDA Educators Roundtable. The discussion, hosted at Milliken’s Spartanburg, S.C., campus and moderated by IIDA Executive Vice President and CEO Cheryl Durst, Hon. FIIDA, LEED AP, focused on how today’s industry leaders can better prepare the next generation of designers. 

IIDA Global Chair of Student Experience Primo Orpilla, FIIDA, principal and co-founder of Studio O+A and interior design lecturer at San Jose State University; and 2017 IIDA Educator of the Year Jon Otis, IIDA, founder and principal of Object Agency and professor at Pratt Institute, provided insightful commentary about the myriad topics that have emerged as critical to the future of our industry. Here, they share their thoughts on foundational design skills, experiential learning, and diversity in the industry.

 the balancing act
Often, preparing students for an interior design career means requiring them to master current technology, but design-rendering programs cannot replace foundational skills.  

“Educators are trying to keep students up to speed with what firms are using for their clients, whether it’s Revit or Grasshopper or some other software program,” Otis said. “We’re responding to things that are happening in the field and that’s important; however, we need to get back to teaching students how to sketch—that seems to be a lost art form and is a critical way of communicating with other designers and the client.” 

According to Otis, design professionals who hire recent grads concur that the ability to hand sketch is an asset, one that is becoming more difficult to find.

Orpilla sees the strict timeline of college classes and extensive program requirements as contributing to this issue. “Right now, we have a checklist for the technical skills students need before they graduate,” he explained. “We need to advocate for students to be more well-rounded when they leave school. We should be encouraging them to take art, sculpture, print making, but often there’s no time to explore different subjects that will ultimately make a student a better designer.” 

 experiential learning
Hand sketching and a broader understanding of art are not the only skills that make for a stronger entry-level design professional—soft skills can be difficult to teach in a traditional classroom setting and often determine whether the transition from college to career will be smooth. Experiential learning, which includes internships, community projects, or in-class projects that mimic the designer-client process, can bridge the gap and help students hone critical thinking, communication, and management skills.  

“How can we ensure new designers experience entry-level work, internships, or reality-based client projects so they leave school understanding the design process, how things get built, and what it takes to complete a design?” Orpill asked. “That’s something we need to provide our students.” 

One example of this kind of learning: Otis’ students at Pratt have participated in a yearlong intensive exhibition design course. “In this class, I’ve found actual clients and organized the students into teams,” he noted. “I've run the course a bit like a professional design studio. Most of the projects are exhibitions or experientially related—children’s museum exhibits, pop-up retail shops, trade show booths. While I have overseen things as the creative director, the students managed the projects on a day-to-day basis, responded to clients, and were respectful of timelines and budgets—they acted as professionals.”

 diversity in design
Designers are called upon to create spaces for all people—not just those who look like them, making diversity in the profession a critical issue—particularly when the profession continues to lag in attracting students of diverse backgrounds.

“It’s difficult to expect African American or Hispanic students to seek out design as a career because there’s a lack of role models for them,” Orpilla said. “If you see someone who looks like you in the profession, it’s much easier to see yourself pursuing that career.” 

IIDA initiatives, like the Diversity Award, which recognizes and celebrates an educator who is representative of a diverse background, are addressing the issue and encouraging change. Otis, who is working to develop a foundation devoted to diversity in the design industry, presented on this topic during the IIDA Educators Roundtable.

“There continues to be a real lack of diversity in design, whether it’s interior design, industrial design, or architecture,” he stated. “This is something that needs to be addressed at the student level within the educational process.” The roundtable discussion provided insight and ideas that will be included in the executive report due out this month. 

To learn more about the Educators Roundtable, IIDA diversity initiatives, and other student programming, and to download the Educators Roundtable report, visit iida.org