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.

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). 

Turning a Conversation About Diversity Into a Movement

In January 2016, IIDA hosted its 19th annual Industry Roundtable. The two-day event held a mirror up to the design industry, showing us that while we are well-intentioned about increasing diversity – as a whole, across racial, gender, generational, etc., lines – in our workforce, we must be assertive about transforming our discussions about diversity into an action plan.

To that end, IIDA is excited and proud to share the executive report from that day. Tackling the topic of diversity and inclusion in the design industry, the report, “Diversity and Design: Why Gender, Equity, and Multidisciplinary Thinking are Essential to Business,” summarizes the lively and productive discussion of 30 design industry leaders from the Roundtable and provides a strategic roadmap for the newly formed IIDA Diversity Council, chaired by Stacy Walker, Ind. IIDA, Director of Customer Experience at Milliken.

“IIDA approached the subject of diversity in the design industry by taking stock of our Association. From chapter events to continuing education programs, to the headquarters of our partners in manufacturing to our own board of directors—diversity, or the lack thereof, was apparent,” said IIDA Executive Vice President and CEO Cheryl S. Durst, Hon. FIIDA, LEED AP, who moderated the Roundtable. “This report and the formation of the IIDA Diversity Council are the first steps of many toward a more diverse industry—in race and gender, and thought and discipline.”

The Industry Roundtable report features research highlighting the myriad benefits of diversity in business, statistics illustrating the current state of diversity in the design industry, and personal accounts from industry leaders who shared their experiences as African-Americans creating opportunities for cultural awareness and inclusiveness both in their own firms and across the profession.

HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE REPORT

By the numbers

69 percent of the 87,000 practitioners in the interior design industry are women. Yet, female design firm leadership is only 25 percent.

There are 347 total licensed women architects in the United States. Of this, 0.3 percent are African-American. (Correction: There are 347 total licensed African-American women architects in the United States, representing 0.3 percent of all registered architects.)

What’s one of the top five least diverse professions? Architecture.

By the stories

“Designers have a powerful impact on the environment, and I want more people who look like me to have a say in that. Growing up, I had seen what architecture does to our communities; they suck. I wanted to change how my people live.”

-Gabrielle Bullock, IIDA, FAIA, NOMA, LEED AP BD+C, Director of Global Diversity, Perkins+Will

“There was a group of us in D.C.; we used to see each other around and at meetings, and do the ‘black nod.’ One day we were like, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to meet up?’ So we created an informal group for black designers—interior designers, architects, and manufacturers. The size went from 20 to 35 to 75. Then brokers wanted to come, people from the periphery of the industry. Last time, we even had students. It was nice. You don’t realize the impact of just being there together.”

-Jeffrey Gay, Ind. IIDA, Architecture + Design Representative, Herman Miller

Looking forward

“There’s a misunderstanding that design is only accessible to a privileged few. Because of the lack of exposure at the early educational level, many minority groups do not choose design as a professional path.”

-Edwin Beltran, IIDA, Assoc. AIA, Principal/Designer, NBBJ

Targeting the talent pipeline – the next generation of interior design professionals – is key to an inclusive industry. It is our responsibility as professionals in the field to become more involved in schools in disadvantaged communities and introduce them to career options in design. Inspiring role models and mentors representative of minority groups also need to be more visible.

You can download and read the full report on the IIDA website.


How has your company addressed diversity in the workplace? Tell us and share your feedback about the report in the comments.

How do we tackle diversity in the Interior Design industry?

Bringing together a group of 30 interior designers and manufacturer representatives, the 19th International Interior Design Association (IIDA) Industry Roundtable, held Friday, Jan. 8 through Sunday, Jan. 10 in Chicago, tackled the often-personal, sometimes uncomfortable topic of diversity in the Interior Design industry.

“Diversity is not only about race and gender, but also diversity of thought and discipline. It is in that spirit that IIDA brings together a group of interior designers, architects, and manufacturers to discuss a topic that can be difficult to address in a way that is productive,” said IIDA Executive Vice President and CEO Cheryl Durst, Hon. FIIDA, LEED AP, who moderated the lively group discussion. “As industry professionals, we talk to clients about how to live beyond definition and expectation, and that is why this topic is so germane to who we are and what we do.”

Durst set the tone for the Roundtable by playing Mellody Hobson’s TED talk, Color Brave.

Speakers Gabrielle Bullock, FAIA, NOMA, LEED AP BD+C, Director of Global Diversity, Perkins+Will, and Shauna Stallworth, IIDA, Principal, LUHF & LUMM LLC, shared their experiences as African-American women in interior design who are creating opportunities for cultural awareness and inclusiveness both in their own firms and across the industry.

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“I’m used to being the only one in the room,” said Bullock. “I want more people who look like me to have the opportunity to be in the room. I see myself as a change agent and an advocate of diversity.”

“Race enters every single equation so if we’re not comfortable talking about it we’re never going to get to a solution,” said Stallworth.

Both Stallworth and Bullock highlighted the need not just for diversity, but also inclusion.

“Diversity is the mix. Inclusion is what you do with the mix,” said Bullock.

Participants were inspired to go beyond conversation with the 30 designers and manufacturer representatives forming the Interior Design industry’s first-ever Diversity Council on the final day of the Roundtable. The newly formed Council, chaired by Stacy Walker, Ind. IIDA, Director of Customer Experience at Milliken, has been charged with creating a diversity policy statement for the Interior Design profession and will tackle goals ranging from funding diversity research and promoting diversity resources to creating a curriculum that encourages students of diverse backgrounds to pursue careers in design.

An executive report on the 19th IIDA Industry Roundtable will be released in March 2016.