Jon Otis Gets Real About the Future of Interior Design Education

Many of us can name the first teacher who made us feel truly heard or inspired us to pursue a longtime passion. We don’t always get the opportunity to thank these teachers the way we want to, but sometimes we do: In 2017 Jon Otis, IIDA, tenured professor at Pratt Institute and founder and principal of Object Agency (O|A), was recognized as the IIDA Educator of the Year.

Jon’s clients are varied, from the Sundance Channel to the National Basketball Players Association, and his credentials impressive (he is both a Fulbright and Lusk Fellowship recipient). He has had a distinguished teaching career with over 20 years at Pratt and a 2009 Most Admired Educator award from Design Intelligence.

We checked in with Jon to get his thoughts on what drives him as a design educator, how the IIDA award has helped him start his new diversity in design foundation, and his hopes for the future of interior design education.

IIDA: What do you see as your primary purpose as a design educator?

Jon Otis: Our primary purpose as design educators is to connect and to inspire. To install a passion for learning, to prepare our students as best we possibly can for a career in design, and to encourage them to think, to be discerning, to be critical and even, perhaps, to be humble.

Digital technology has been the most radical change since I started teaching in the late 1990’s. That has been the most critical innovation, and for the most part it has facilitated many things, but it has also impacted education in many negative ways. With that being said, it means that I’ve got to try and fill the gaps that technology has created, while staying abreast of the things that I can’t control so that my teaching remains relevant and interesting to my students.

IIDA: Can you tell us what it meant to you to be named the recipient of last year’s Educator of the Year Award?

JO: It was an amazing feelingan acknowledgement that is largely overlooked in our culture. Educators are most often the forgotten heroes. I say that not because of how I view my own abilities, but because of how my teachers have been the most important people in my life and how they have shaped it more than anyone, other than my parents. To be part of that heritage and to be honored for it is a dream come true.

IIDA: Has being named an IIDA Educator of the Year influenced your career? 

JO: Something that I’ve learnedand it has taken many years to do sois that a lot of teaching is about accepting humility. You must let go of the ego if you really want to reach your students. [Since winning the IIDA award] I’ve continued along this path feeling good about the acknowledgment and the honor. It’s perhaps instilled more self-confidence that I’m doing something right.

IIDA: You mentioned in your acceptance speech that you intend to dedicate part of your award to a diversity in design education initiative. Can you tell us more about that?

JO: We’ve been moving forward with the diversity in design initiative, dubbing it “dxdf” for “Diversity by Design Foundation.” The purpose of dxdf is to foster more diverse and inclusive environments in the field of design. dxdf will ultimately focus its efforts on targeting the pipeline from early education to practice, funding initiatives that encourage people of all backgrounds to see a career in design as a viable path for their lives. We recently incorporated as a nonprofit and are awaiting our tax ID for fundraising purposes. For now, we are working to raise awareness.

IIDA: If you had to choose the next Educator of the Year, what qualities would you look for in a candidate?

JO: I would want that person to be aware of, and interested in, helping our field to be more diverse. Whether that happens in the community or in the university, I do believe that it should be on any candidate’s agenda.

In terms of teaching interior design, I’d look for someone who is truly committed to the field, passionate about how critical it is to improve peoples’ lives, and having a diverse pedagogical approach.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about is how design curricula needs to evolve and how we must devise new curricula because, from a design education perspective, we’re teaching the same way since I was in school (aside from the use of new technologies, materials, etc.). A young Hispanic interior design student expressed frustration that nothing discussed in her classes is geared towards her culture or her economic strata. Another student from India indicated how Eurocentric the “canon” of design is, as if no design exists outside of Europe and the United States. I believe that design curricula need to broaden and consider other cultures that have quite a lot to contribute to a more comprehensive view of design.

My former mentor, Ettore Sottsass, was deeply engaged in exploring different cultures. He spent a lot of time in India and Africa, traveled around the world, and brought back what influenced him, which is what shaped his work. He lived life fully, and in living life that way, he expressed a global view of design rather than a “studied” one. We should all be asking: What’s happening in India? Vietnam? Ghana? Chile? What are they doing that’s a response to their culture, or a response to global culture and re-informed by their local cultures? The new paradigm ought to be a reevaluation of how we teach design and what we emphasize.


Learn more about Jon and his work by visiting the O|A website. Applications for the 2019 IIDA Educator of the Year Award are open. Nominate yourself or thank an educator you know and nominate them.

Connecting the Dots in Experience Design and Community Engagement

This year’s IIDA Power Lunch at the Healthcare Design Conference revolved around the idea of “community” and the design of healthcare settings. The event, hosted by IIDA and sponsored by Construction Specialties, featured an industry roundtable, which explored the intersections of design, patient outcomes, and community experiences.

Healthcare environments are evolving to keep up with shifting paradigms of comfort, wellness, and corporate humanity. This means that healthcare systems are reconsidering how their spaces look and feel and what they offer the communities they serve.

Here’s what the experts had to say:

Healthcare Design and Community

Organizations are fast becoming more community-driven, and healthcare facilities can be designed as community hubs. “Through intentional engagement with a broader audience of community representatives and stakeholders during the design process, as well as enhanced program offerings, healthcare facilities can become destinations for health, wellness, culture, and education,” said Edwin Beltran, IIDA, Associate AIA, IIDA International Board vice president and design principal at NBBJ.

To ensure the complementary nature of the different programs and their successful viability as destination hubs, healthcare spaces need a balanced combination of civic, sports, cultural, and health offerings. Programmatic amenities could include locally-focused retail outlets, meeting rooms for community groups and civic organizations, wellness centers, healthy-eating demonstration kitchens, food outlets, and farmers markets.

Integration can also take on the form of “blurred boundaries” between patient communities and host town communities. Environments that are developed to embody the unique cultural identity of a community are those that provide true belonging and a sense of place. An example of this could be a healthcare facility with playgrounds and parks as part of its campus design. This helps present the paradigm of healthcare spaces as favoring socialization instead of isolation.

Wayfinding and Messaging
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In order for a community to feel comfortable inside of a healthcare space and become truly integrated into its built environment, designers should consider how wayfinding and messaging affect visitor experiences. Sensory elements can be utilized to make a healthcare space feel inviting and welcoming: Pictures and symbols to assist with language barriers, calming colors that take into considering visual impairment, sounds that consider the hearing impaired, and words that are easy to understand and visually accessible.

Clinical spaces should also be committed to reducing the fear and anxiety that can often accompany a healthcare visit. “Community events and use of the facilities when the community is not in need of medical assistance is one way to make members of the community feel more comfortable in the space,” said Richelle Cellini, visualization specialist at Construction Specialties. “Retail spaces, yoga classes, or coffee shops within the medical space can also help reduce fear and disorientation.”

Humanizing Space

Healthcare architects and designers must walk in the shoes of patients, families, and caregivers with empathy, though this can be challenging in a world where schedules and budgets rule our frame of thinking. To create more humane, civilized healthcare spaces, designers should remember that a clinical environment does not have to look clinical. “Designing for the senses is one of the first steps to humanizing a healthcare space,” explained Suzen L. Heeley, IIDA, executive director of design and construction at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. “Through the integration of sound domes, holistic fragrances, tactile materials, and specific colors, clinical environments can become more comfortable and healing-driven.”

Integrating Community

Embracing community means taking on new approaches to delivering services, such as working directly with members of the wider community. “Creating partnerships between health service organizations and health professionals, clinicians, patients, families, caregivers, and consumers is viewed as a fundamental precondition for effective delivery of healthcare,” said Amy Sickeler, IIDA, design principal at Perkins+Will. “Studies have demonstrated significant benefits from such partnerships in clinical quality and outcomes, the experience of care, and the business and operations of delivering care,” Sickeler explained.

The clinical benefits that have been associated with better patient experience and patient-centered care can include decreased mortality and readmission rates, and improved adherence to treatment regimes. Partnerships could look like free public health screenings, public health forums, free literature and written information, and health and wellness programs.

Facility Resources

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Rethinking the standards of a healthcare facility and the kinds of resources it can provide is important in understanding how medical spaces can better serve their communities. Healthcare facilities should be designed to provide top-notch security and function while maintaining external approachability, comfort, and visual appeal.

Healthcare designers should ask themselves: How is a healthcare facility equipped to deal with unforeseen emergencies like natural disasters? Does the facility have communal, family spaces? Does it have multiple accessible entrances? Do places that allow for relaxation and breathing room beyond the waiting room exist? “Facility resources should be closer to the point of care for the patient and not just in the lobby,” said Stasia Czech Suleiman, IIDA, principal/senior project interior designer at HOK.

2018 Leaders Breakfast Series in Review

Long before the popularity of TED Talks, IIDA Leaders Breakfast, an international, early-morning event series across 8 cities in the U.S. and Canada, has hosted top speakers, entertained thousands of guests, and honored individuals making significant contributions to the world of design for the last 29 years.

With the support of international benefactors Herman Miller and Interior Design magazine, committees in chosen host cities, and additional companies within the design community that sponsor these events, Leaders Breakfasts are consistently raising the bar by encouraging collaboration and engaging new ideas.

Here is everything you missed, and then some, from this year’s successful series:

1. We went to Wakanda

IIDA  Leaders Breakfast 2018 held at the InterContinental Los Angeles Downtown Hotel in Los Angeles on Thursday, September 13, 2018.

© Chris Hatcher Photography, Courtesy of IIDA Southern California Chapter

We know Los Angeles sees its fair share of celebrities, but this September, members of the Southern California Chapter got the opportunity to have breakfast with one. Oscar-nominated costume designer Ruth E. Carter took to the stage to discuss her most recent work as the lead costumer on Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther and Reginald Hudlin’s Marshall. Carter’s presentation mapped out her process of extensive research and how she aims to tell authentic stories with her designs.

2. We saw the World’s Largest Connect the Dots

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© Denmark Phan Photography, Courtesy of IIDA TX/OK Chapter

After developing a hand tremor and being diagnosed with nerve damage as an art student, multimedia artist Phil Hansen decided to embrace his limitations and develop new approaches to art making. “Become limited to the limitless,” Hansen told the Dallas Leaders Breakfast audience. Recently, Hansen made it into the Guinness Book of World Records by creating the world’s largest Connect the Dots, of which a handful of audience members took a print home.

3. We heard this 17-minute acceptance speech

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© Linda Dove Photography, Courtesy of IIDA Illinois Chapter

While accepting the Leadership Award of Excellence in Chicago, Fred Schmidt, FIIDA, managing principal of Perkins+Will, not only acknowledged the people who have been a large part of his journey, but described their leadership lessons. Schmidt named the numerous principals, designers, and even members of the younger generation, who were instrumental in his success and urged the audience to “reject the notion that leadership is based on your DNA.”

4. We saw a famous hat

IIDA  Leaders Breakfast 2018 held at the InterContinental Los Angeles Downtown Hotel in Los Angeles on Thursday, September 13, 2018.

© Chris Hatcher Photography, Courtesy of IIDA Southern California Chapter

The Los Angeles audience was introduced to the word “craftivism” after Jayna Zweiman,  co-founder of the Pussyhat Project, took to the stage. Her now-famous design became a worldwide phenomenon at the 2017 Women’s Marches as one of the largest crowd-sourced art advocacy projects ever.  What began as a simple conversation in a California knit shop has turned into an iconic symbol of the modern-day women’s movement.

5. We watched a tech entrepreneur jump rope in heels

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© IIDA

Not only does Jessica O. Matthews, founder and CEO of Uncharted Power, know how to inspire a crowd of almost 600, she also knows how to put on a show. At the Chicago Leaders Breakfast, Matthews demonstrated her invention of a jump rope that uses kinetic energy to generate electricity. This small example comes nowhere close to the scale of Matthews’ larger projects, which use harnessed energy to power facilities and underprivileged communities. Her patents and designs are used globally, and she recently announced an undisclosed deal with Disney’s power grid system.

6. We made New Yorkers happier

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© Johnny Wolf Photography, Courtesy of IIDA New York Chapter

“770 New Yorkers can use a little happiness,” joked Carol Cisco, publisher of Interior Design magazine, as she introduced Nataly Kogan, “happiness expert” and founder of wellness app Happier to the largest New York audience to date. Happier promotes Kogan’s values of “mindful awareness” in order to improve happiness and reduce stress, and reminds us of the big and small things in life we can be grateful for.

7. We met the designer of the Microsoft Windows key

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© Sam Breach, Courtesy of IIDA Northern California Chapter

While limited in his physical mobility (a hospital mistake left him confined to a wheelchair), there is nothing that August de los Reyes has not been able to accomplish within the UEX tech world, having worked for huge names like Microsoft, X-Box, Pinterest, and now Google. The San Francisco audience was taken on a visual journey of de los Reyes’s presentation about designing for well-being and the importance of inclusive design. With the utmost generosity, de los Reyes donated his entire speaking honorarium to Project Color Corps, an organization he proudly supports.

8. We learned that building exteriors aren’t always brick or stone

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© Sly Works Photography, Courtesy of IIDA TX/OK Chapter

Socio-ecological architect and designer Mitchell Joachim visualized a new kind of building: a large-scale, double-skinned structure equipped with open plantings of milkweed and nectar flowers, serving as a breeding ground and sanctuary for the monarch butterfly, a threatened species. This project, shown to the Houston audience, is one of hundreds that Joachim’s design group Terreform ONE, a non-profit that promotes smart design and environmental planning, develops.

9. We met the CEO of Waffle House, y’all

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© Chuckyfoto, Courtesy of IIDA Atlanta Chapter

At the Atlanta Leaders Breakfast, Walt Ehmer, president and CEO of Waffle House, Inc. treated the audience with true Southern hospitality. Standing on stage in a Waffle House uniform, his everyday attire, the leader of the Southern staple discussed how maintaining company culture is key to keeping a business that is open 365 days a year running consistently and successfully for 63 years.

10. We caught a glimpse of Art Gensler in the audience

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© Sam Breach, Courtesy of IIDA Northern California Chapter

“Thank you, Art Gensler, for being so awesome so I can retire,” crowd favorite Bill Van Erp, a now-retired resource director and senior associate at Gensler, stated during his Leadership Award of Excellence speech. Van Erp’s humorous and meaningful speech had the sold-out San Francisco audience of 500 cheering and laughing, but he got serious when thanking all of the reps and designers for giving depth to his profession and allowing him to work with the best of the best.

Leaders Breakfasts will begin again in May 2019 and continue throughout the year in New York, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Toronto. For more information, please contact Anastasia Gedman, director of outreach, at agedman@iida.org.

One Interior Design Student’s Success Story: A Timeline

Cultivate your personal brand.  Flex your storytelling skills during the interview. Introduce yourself to one new person at a networking event. While the list of career advice interior design students hear regularly sounds fairly straightforward, in practice, it can be difficult to execute. That’s why we’re excited to share IIDA Member Samantha Wurzbacher’s story, an example of how one designer navigated her way through oft heard insights as a design student and catapulted herself to success early on in her career.

Samantha’s path to interior designer at The Verve Partnership began as an IIDA Student Member attending the IIDA Career Bootcamp Panel at NeoCon East in 2016. The program introduces students, recent graduates, and career shifters to a panel of design industry experts where they share their advice, insight, and expertise on how best to set yourself up for success in the design industry.

While there, Samantha met and connected with students and design professionals whose views aligned with her own. “It was an amazing experience that really opened my eyes to the benefits of IIDA,” she said. One of the people she introduced herself to that day was bootcamp panelist Kelly Ennis, an IIDA Member who joined the association as a third-year design student at Maryland Institute College of Art in 1990. Today, Kelly is founding principal of The Verve Partnership, a design and strategy firm based in Baltimore, Maryland.

November 2016: IIDA Career Bootcamp Panel at NeoCon East

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IIDA: Samantha, what was your big takeaway from the event?

Samantha Wurzbacher: I remember [Kelly] being surrounded by three or four students that were all trying to make an impression and I knew I wouldn’t have much time to do the same. I waited for a break in the conversation, immediately introduced myself, mentioned that I was looking for a position in the Baltimore area, and handed her a business card. The next day I looked up Kelly on LinkedIn and sent a message to connect.

IIDA: Kelly, did Samantha make an impression on you during the event?

Kelly Ennis: Sam was impressive because she marched right up to the stage, had a good presence, and gave me a business card. I kept it on my desk as a reminder that ­– when our then existing intern, Shelby, left ­– Sam would be the first person I reach out to.

March 2017: The Internship

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We create human centered design for the built environment. We study people, place and are driven to design space to maximize impact and experience with and for unique cultures, imbued with brand.

-The Verve Partnership mission statement

IIDA: What drew you to The Verve Partnership?

SW: Two months after my LinkedIn message, Kelly responded with an invitation to apply for an internship position at The Verve. I loved the projects the firm was working on, but what really sold me was the mission statement. It instantly resonated and cemented my desire to work for the company. The position was 30 minutes further away from my house and a small pay decrease, but with it came the opportunity to work in the corporate design field and mentor under Kelly. It was one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made.

IIDA: Did you do anything to enhance your personal brand prior to interviewing?

SW: While I was a student, I placed a small order for business cards from an online company. They were square, said “Hello” on the back, and made from recycled cotton t-shirts. Thanks to their irregular size, my cards stood out from the rest and became a conversation starter. In addition, following up with a connection is also important. After interviewing for the internship position, I hand wrote Kelly a note thanking her for the opportunity. I was so excited and hopeful that I took a picture to remember it!

October 2017: The Job Offer and the First Few Weeks

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Once I started working on drawings, I understood how much more I had to learn about construction documents. Kelly suggested I look at past projects in my spare time to become familiar with the level of detail required to meet The Verve’s standards.

-Samantha

IIDA: Samantha, what made you successful early on at Verve?

SW: Right around the time I was hired as a part-time designer, the firm decided to switch from AutoCAD to Revit. I had always wanted to learn the program, but the course wasn’t offered at my school, so it was a little intimidating. I signed up for a Lynda account and spent every day learning all I could about Revit. Afterhours training was later offered at work and I participated in that as well.

IIDA: Kelly, what made Samantha someone you had to keep at Verve?

KE: Sam took control of our library, researched an online platform, executed and really helped us understand our needs. There was never a thought not to keep her.

IIDA: What other qualities helped Samantha stand out?

KE: I really believe that younger designers should be exposed to as much as possible and as quickly as possible. Sam joined both me and one of our senior design principals at a design presentation. While waiting, we were small talking around the table and one of my consultants mentioned this 1984 MK1 Red VW Rabbit restoration at a car show in Vegas. I have a VW Rabbit and am a VW brand crazy person, however Sam’s husband was actually part of the restoration and the conversation continued from there.

The takeaways from witnessing this conversation:

  • Sam was able to carry on an independent conversation in front of a client with a consultant she had never met. This would intimidate most but she jumped right in.
  • This effort built trust with me pretty quickly because from there I knew I could send her to a networking event and she’d be able to hold her own.
  • Applying knowledge of running a business in her “past life” and understanding the intricacies of how an interior of a car can be reupholstered and redesigned has put Samantha in a special place in all of our hearts here at The Verve Partnership.
  • Also, having a woman in the office who knows more about cars than most men is pretty cool.

IIDA student membership provides opportunities to network and connect with other design students and successful professionals in the interior design community. See the other benefits of being an IIDA Student Member.

Diversity in Architecture: A Promise for the Future

It is 2018 and only 36 percent of newly licensed architects in the U.S. are women and only two percent are Black. But those numbers are changing. With the benefits and necessities of diversity in the workplace undeniable, firms big and small are setting new goals for themselves and having active, sometimes uncomfortable, conversations about diversifying the field.

But what does “workplace diversity” really mean when the leaders of these discussions are often not the ones who directly face discrimination? The 46th Annual NOMA Conference attempted to pose, answer, and challenge the questions around diversity from the personal perspectives of people of color. Through a series of events, lectures, and panels, “NOMA UNBOUNDED – The Convergence of a Legacy” was a weekend devoted to celebrating and defining diversity within the architecture and design fields.

IIDA hosted NOMA participants and members at IIDA Headquarters on Saturday, October 20, for the panel discussion “Because…Design,” sponsored by Mohawk and moderated by IIDA Executive Vice President and CEO, Cheryl S. Durst, FIIDA and IIDA International Board President Gabrielle Bullock, IIDA, FAIA, NOMA. The panelists present were George Bandy, vice president of sustainability and commercial marketing at Mohawk Group; and Dina Griffin, IIDA, FAIA, NOMA, owner of Interactive Design Architects (IDEA).

The event positioned itself as less a formal discussion and more an intimate exchange among four people on racism, equity, culture, and loving their jobs. “We’re not going to have images, you’re not going to look at a PowerPoint,” Durst announced to the audience members. “We’re just going to have a conversation. The power of conversation is underrated and we need it now more than ever.”

Bandy began the discussion with how he perceived a growing importance of sustainability and well-being going hand-in-hand with a push for diversity within design, architecture, and manufacturing. Communities of color often bare the brunt of unsustainable, cost-cutting development practices, and now the conversations around helping those communities are being led by a diverse crowd. “There has been an influx of people being able to express themselves more freely as it relates to the importance of design,” Bandy said.

Bullock echoed the notion that diversifying the workplace is critical for bettering the lives of diverse communities. “I wanted to become an architect because I wanted to improve how people live,” she said.

Architects are thinking about the environment on a personal, micro level, and in turn, discovering how important a diverse workplace is for generating and maintaining sustainable practices. It seems that the A&D industry is actively rediscovering the workplace as a microcosm for society, and as Durst noted, “You can’t design for the world if you are not of the world.”

“I’ve had clients that have given us work because we are diverse,” expressed Bullock, “and that’s been happening more and more.” Many Perkins+Will projects focus on communities; this necessitates diversifying those working on community projects and helping improve the quality of life for a broad range of people. Diversity is a “spoken strategy” in the Perkins+Will offices.

The panelists also described the ways in which their firms are taking the initiative to ensure diverse hires, which range from overhauling the hiring process to having ongoing dialogues about racism and inclusion. 

“Because…Design” concluded with the question “Does architecture still excite you?” (an unequivocal ‘yes’), along with advice from the panelists: “Bring the voice of your culture and your ancestors to work with you every day, ” Bandy stressed. “Don’t leave your street sense at home; bring it to work with you. Bring your true self to the table.”


Visit NOMA Unbounded for more information about the conference.

*An earlier version of this post cited that only 36 percent of licensed architects in the U.S. are women and only two percent are Black. It should be only 36 percent of newly licensed architects in the U.S. are women and only two percent are Black (as of 2016). 

What’s New at Greenbuild 2018

This post was contributed by Greenbuild.

Greenbuild is enhancing the attendee experience and bringing you new ways to engage and learn.

  • The mindful MATERIALS Pavilion. It’s a new area in the expo hall. We’re shining a light on materials transparency and product certification in an all-new pavilion in the expo hall. See the pavilion.
  • Journey Maps. See this new way to explore the event. These attendee experiences will guide your three-day journey through Greenbuild on topics that are of specific interest to you. Journey Maps include education sessions, distinctive products, solutions and technology, and experiential learning opportunities. See them here.
  • The latest education and a new track. Discover three days of sessions – strategically planned to educate, motivate, and inspire you. This year, we’ve added “The People’s Voice” – a new education track voted into Greenbuild by the public. Additional tracks include Smart & Sustainable Design, Wellness From Within, and Building a Green Economy.

Ready to register? Learn more about why you should attend, and then register for a four-day or three-day conference pass. Or, explore the floor, courtesy of IIDA! Use code 4DINCOMPE10 at registration to claim your complimentary expo hall pass.


IIDA is a sector partner for the event.