The Education Community Responds to Change: The Conversation Continued

On April 9, IIDA hosted Design Online: The Education Community Responds to Change, the third episode in our Collective (D)esign webinar series of interactive community discussions. This conversation, hosted by IIDA Executive Vice President and CEO Cheryl S. Durst, Hon FIIDA, and moderated by Ryan Ben, IIDA’s student engagement and advancement manager, featured a panel of educators and students centering on the changing education and employment landscape.

Panelists fielded questions from our audience covering everything from internships and altering educational programs to balancing an increased need for mental and physical health and contributing to community aid. This webinar was attended by close to 1,000 members of the international interior design community who submitted dozens of questions, many of which could not be addressed due to time constraints.

In an effort to expand the conversation, we’ve compiled answers to additional questions, alongside highlights from this discussion from panelists Tyler Hatton, Student IIDA, The Ohio State University campus center co-leader, Ohio/Kentucky Chapter; Rebekah Matheny, IIDA, assistant professor of interior design, Department of Design, The Ohio State University; Jon Otis, IIDA, founder and principal, Object Agency (OlA), professor, Pratt Institute; and Meghan Webster, AIA, principal and global education practice area leader, Gensler. 

What can firms do right now to help engage students?

Jon Otis, IIDA, founder and principal,Object Agency (OlA), professor, Pratt Institute

Jon Otis: Firms must try and consider how to engage graduates or interns and allow them to do something—paid or unpaid. Provide them an experience of some type so that they learn and grow and will be better prepared for eventual employment. Perhaps there is a new model,which refers to the past ‘atelier’ concept; or a new ‘virtual’ model of engagement.

Tyler Hatton: Take the time to view the senior showcase work from schools in your region, reach out to the students and ask questions if you are curious, or maybe offer opportunities for insight and critique. Many schools will probably switch to digital exhibitions as The Ohio State Department of Design has, but the students are not getting the professional connections and feedback as they normally would from the experience. 

You can set up virtual coffee chats with students so they can build interview and communication skills, as well as build their firm and industry professional networks, to prepare for opportunities that may arise in the future.

How do we maintain community at our schools and campus centers?

Tyler Hatton: Through social media channels or other virtual platforms, offer a summer design competition after the semesters’ work is finished that would be either open to all students or be specific in nature to recent graduates. You can also host a virtual book club related to design or put on mini design skill challenges like hand sketching or rendering.

Tyler Hatton, Student IIDA, The Ohio State University campus center co-leader

How do I find a job or internship?

Rebekah Matheny: I would first start by reaching out to your undergraduate advisor, they are often the main point person for companies interested in an internship. Our advisor posts all inquiries to our Slack channel. I would then email your professor mentor, who often have professional contacts that they can reach out to for a more targeted search. I also think your local manufacturer’s reps are a great resource, they know all the design firms and often have a pulse on who’s searching. Also check your IIDA chapter’s website, most sites have an internship or job search section. 

What skills do I need as a graduating interior designer for this virtual world?

Rebekah Matheny: Communication is key! Both verbal and visual. As professionals, we often send presentation decks to clients before walking them through the information over a conference call. Making sure that you have clear graphic communication that uses a combination of the written word, drawings, diagrams, or tags explaining the conceptual ideas or design strategy is important. Think of this as storytelling and the more you can visually narrate in a clear sequence the easier it is to digest and comprehend. Through telecommuting, you will be able to connect with people all over the world who are in different time zones and speak different languages, so you should allow people to see and even translate the information prior to the verbal presentation over the call becomes more important. 

Working to develop your visual storytelling and communication is a much-needed skill and can be demonstrated through your portfolio as well as your studio project presentations. With that, verbal communication is also critical. So practice your speaking ability as you want to come across as comfortable, confident, and knowledgeable. Presenting virtually is a bit different since you are unable to “read the room” as you typically would, make sure to leave time to pause to let people catch up and also check in with them to make sure they don’t have any questions throughout the conversation. 

What educational experiences should I seek out to supplement my education?

Rebekah Matheny, IIDA, assistant professor of interior design

Rebekah Matheny: Competitions—look at competitions, current or past, as these will help expand your portfolio and give you a chance to keep your mind and skills sharp. IIDA, IDEC, Steelcase, RDI, PAVE—there are many options to choose from. You can also use this time to work on your portfolio, either in creating it or expanding it. You can go back and add to or improve past projects. Or you can give yourself a weekly challenge, like doing one new rendering a week. This not only helps improve and expand your skills, but could become a feature in your portfolio. There are a lot of YouTube skill tutorial videos that you could use to help with this. You could also create your own project assignment, maybe fill the gap of an area you’ve not worked on. For example, maybe you’ve not done a restaurant or a hospitality project, but are interested in doing that professionally. You can create your own prompt and give yourself a time frame to complete it. 

What educational experiences should I seek out to supplement my education?

Rebekah Matheny: Seek out continuing education as well.  Many manufacturers are offering CEU’s, which is a great way to extend your education beyond the classroom, learning the same information as many professionals. I know the IIDA Ohio/Kentucky Chapter is also doing a series of benefactor CEU’s, this is a great way to get connected to your local professions and manufacturers while also extending your education.

I also recommend reading, this situation affords you the opportunity to read books that you might not otherwise have the time for. For example, if you want to expand your understanding of sustainability you might like Cradle to Cradle by McDonough and Braungart, Biomimicry by Benyus, The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability—Designing for Abundance also by McDonough, or Fashion and Sustainability by Fletcher and Grose. You could also look and see what classes are offered at your university this summer. 

What resources are available to students and educators from associations, firms, vendors, manufacturers, etc.?

Meghan Webster: Rebekah’s point that the global situation has amplified the disparity across the socio-economic and cultural backgrounds of students was spot-on and seemed to resonate deeply with the audience. The Learning from Home component of our Education Engagement Index Survey that we’ve developed is based on this research around diverse learning styles and contexts, underscoring that if we design for all learners (instead of a mythical average), we design for everyone in between. 

The conversation posed some salient questions around what we can apply to future design for learning and working environments based on this abrupt transition to the virtual world. In the wake of the global pandemic, we released this piece that examined this topic as we’re currently experiencing it, and this piece poses a similar question as we look at the much longer term. The immediate situation is forcing us to learn tools and new forms of behavior quickly, and the more we all can gain literacy in this arena, the faster we will be ready for what comes next.

Meghan Webster, AIA, principal and global education practice area leader, Gensler

What is the best advice for new graduates looking for employment with incredible uncertainty?

Rebekah Matheny: First, know that this is temporary, this too shall pass, and we will bounce back. Secondly, know that every experience contributes towards your career development and your personal development. You may have an ideal career path that you had charted out, and right now you may have to take a detour, take a position in an area of practice that wasn’t your first choice, but that experience can be a great stepping stone, add to your skill and knowledge set, and it will lead you back to where you wanted to head. Or maybe it will reveal something new about yourself and set you on a new, and possibly better trajectory. As designers, experiences are cumulative, and every experience is valuable—even if it’s not a “designer” experience — after all, we are designers for and with people.

So let’s say you find a temporary job at a grocery store since that’s in high demand during this pandemic. This will allow you to understand what it’s like to be a worker in that environment, and could lead you to be a more empathetic retail designer in the future. It’s all about how you look at the experiences you are gaining.

Should students still look for fall internships, or wait until the pandemic clears?

Rebekah Matheny: It never hurts to inquire, so I would certainly be reaching out to firms that you are interested in. It’s a great opportunity to establish a connection and to keep the line of communication going. You can express your concern for how the pandemic is impacting the industry and the world, and use this as an opportunity to ask specific questions about how it is impacting their work, their area of practice, and how designers are tackling this issue.

How do you deal with the multiple hand drawn iterations of ideas when learning online?

Jon Otis: My graduate design studio has been more challenging, and no matter what we resolve, it is unlikely to change my belief that working on paper—marking-up, designing, sketching, pin-ups and seeing design at a larger scale off-screen—is better. Then of course there are maquettes, models, materials, textiles and those tactile elements that exponentially enhance the design learning process. That is a vitally missing part of what we do.

Do you think universities will be open starting in the fall?

Rebekah Matheny: I am hopeful that they will! But with all things, I like to hope for the best but plan for the contingency. I, and I’m sure many professors, will be using the summer to develop a plan for teaching on-ground and on-line. It’s a possibility that we may start the semester and then have to shift to virtual later if a second wave of the pandemic hits before there is a vaccine. No matter what, I will be evaluating what worked, what didn’t, and what could be improved from this past experience and looking for ways to bring the best of the experience into my on-ground instruction and seeing innovative ways to bring on-ground experiences into the virtual world.

What do I do about anxiety?

Rebekah Matheny: Mental health is an important issue we are all facing right now. This situation is causing a lot of new stressors we didn’t face before. The stress from the pandemic itself is compounded for many students by the stress of displacement, new working environments, loss of income, removal from their support system of peers and professors, etc. I would begin by looking into what resources your university offers. They may have online tools to help manage stress and anxiety, hotlines that you can call, and/or virtual workshops to help guide students through this. Personally, I would establish a routine that balances your workload with your mental health. This might mean carving out time for yoga or on-line workout classes, taking a nature walk, meditation and breathing exercises, or even just ensuring you get up from your desk every hour or two to stretch and briefly get a change of scenery. Working these actions into your day will also help with the mental and physical toll that being at your desk and in front of your computer all day causes. Having these moments at a dedicated time each day will help you have a rhythm, give you something to look forward to, and also make your mental and physical health a priority.

You can watch the full conversation, and the rest of our Collective D(esign) series here.

If you are a design student currently struggling or preparing for your next steps as you graduate in an uncertain time, reach out to IIDA for support. We’ve compiled a list of resources for students and educators here.

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