Cultivating a More Diverse Design Profession

This post was contributed by Krista Sykes, a writer and editor with a background in architecture and design. She has worked with many practitioners, institutions, and publications in the industry, including Contract magazine. 


The 2018 IIDA Student Roundtable series looked to the future of design with a focus on diversity. Interior design students and key speakers, including some IIDA International Board Members, participated in conversations that took place in New York and Los Angeles. The following is a summary of those discussions. A full in-depth report about the series will be released by IIDA in March.

As the world becomes increasingly diverse in terms of culture and ethnicity, the interior design profession faces a distinct challenge: how can practitioners create environments that support and celebrate these rich differences? And how can the design profession better reflect a more diverse world? In fall 2018, IIDA presented the IIDA Future of Design Roundtable Series—two roundtable events in New York and Los Angeles—where a total of 35 interior design students and 11 educators and practitioners gathered to discuss this issue. What emerged in the series, sponsored by OFS, was an unqualified call for change. Specifically, to successfully design for diverse audiences, there must first be a push to cultivate diversity within the interior design profession. For this to happen, it is up to all, in every level of the profession, to take action.

Diversity itself is a complex issue, encompassing different expressions of race, religion, sexual preference, income level, cultural background, generational affiliation, and one’s stage in life as well as geographic location. As expected, the conversations in New York City and Los Angeles sounded quite different, as would those in any other city. Nevertheless, both roundtable discussions echoed common themes that offer broader lessons about diversity’s essential role in the future of the interior design profession.

Promoting Change

The many advantages of diversity in the workplace—including greater innovation, better decision making, and increased financial performance—have been well documented and, on the whole, widely embraced within the design community. Yet, many individuals and organizations remain unclear on how to cultivate and fully utilize diversity. Here, the presentations by renowned practitioners and educators proved invaluable.

At the Los Angeles discussion, Gabrielle Bullock, IIDA, FAIA, NOMA, principal and director of Global Diversity at Perkins+Will, and 2018–2019 IIDA International Board President, highlighted Perkins+Will’s Diversity, Inclusion, and Engagement program, an initiative she spearheaded and now directs across the firm’s 2,200 employees. Annie Chu, FIIDA, FAIA, 2018–2019 IIDA International Board Vice President, principal at Chu-Gooding Architects, and professor at Woodbury University’s interior architecture program, emphasized the current need within the profession to making different voices heard and underscored each designer’s personal duty to position themselves as a leader.

In New York, Jon Otis, IIDA, 2018–2019 IIDA International Board Vice President, Pratt Institute professor of interior design, and the founder and principal of multidisciplinary design studio Object Agency, discussed his recently launched Diversity By Design Foundation (dxdf), a nonprofit initiative dedicated to increasing awareness of design careers among people of all backgrounds.

The ensuing rich discussions with the roundtable participants generated concrete and manageable ideas to guide all students, educators, and practitioners on the crucial path toward achieving greater diversity within the profession. These practical next steps as well as additional insights regarding diversity in the interior design profession will be described in the detailed report about the discussions.

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Participants of the IIDA Student Roundtable in Los Angeles.

Moving Forward with an “Activist Mindset”

With rising frequency, design firm clients are younger, more diverse, and demanding design teams that echo the demographics of their own organizations. Likewise, firms are seeing more community-related projects, which require designers who reflect and understand these communities’ specific cultural and socioeconomic issues. Bullock notes that all practitioners have a role in cultivating these designers. Professionals have a duty to inspire individuals with different backgrounds to enter the profession, engage with global content and society’s shifting demographics, and to foster diverse workplaces where all contributions are valued.

The roundtable participants—students, educators, and practitioners—agreed that, while discussion is encouraging and must continue, action must happen now. “We are currently in an advocacy role. And it’s time now to shift into an activist mindset,” said Angie Lee, IIDA, AIA, 2018–2019 IIDA International Board Vice President and principal and design director of interiors at FXCollaborative in New York. “Advocacy works within the established structure and rules, and we do everything possible to leverage the power we have. But when we adopt an activist attitude, we start to rewrite the rules. The work we do along established paths is important, but we also need to break out of the comfort zone and just do what’s right.”


The Student Roundtable series brings together interior design students and local practitioners to engage in informal discussions on both the current state of the profession and the future of design. Learn more about other topics discussed from the previous roundtable report.

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.