Women Lead Design: Ronnie Belizaire, Rachel Rouse, Kia Weatherspoon
In this ongoing series, IIDA features women leading the design industry through change, innovation, and progress. Hear what they have to say on the importance of diversity in design, mentorship, inspiration, and the future of the profession.
The significance of design in our often-challenging and rapidly changing world cannot be overstated; it endows us with much-needed clarity, beauty, accessibility, and problem-solving. The women who are making design happen, at all stages in their careers, are the leaders of a better tomorrow. IIDA (virtually) connected with women making strides in design to discuss the urgency of this current moment, what’s next for design, and how a diversity of design thought is more crucial than ever.
Ronnie Belizaire, IIDA, Corporate Real Estate Manager, Americas, Daimler
IIDA: Throughout your career in design, how have you been a mentor to others? Has that been rewarding?
Ronnie Belizaire: I’ve had the opportunity to serve as a mentor, both formally and informally, on various occasions, and the one thing that always reigns true for me is the overwhelming feeling of gratitude I have for being trusted and able to pour into another person’s professional growth and development.
IIDA: What do you see as the role of women in design—particularly in light of our current times?
RB: It is simply good business to ensure that women are celebrated and elevated into leadership roles within the design industry. I remember being in design school over 15 years ago and the only woman I studied as a design savant was Florence Knoll in my textbooks and course curriculum. While Florence was brilliant, I’m pretty certain she wasn’t the only woman who did design work worthy to be celebrated. Women bring a certain ability to translate the needs of all into their designs all while leading with empathy, and the design industry could benefit from that type of energy.
IIDA: What or who inspires you in your life and work?
RB: I am inspired by the lives of everyday people from all walks of life who make the world we live in more interesting and meaningful. Before COVID-19 began, I was an avid traveler both personally and professionally. I was adamant about visiting and seeing parts of the world that gave me a different perspective on what it means to live a life. While I enjoyed the finer things all these places had to offer, I was also intentional about always including stops where everyday people of a place live and work so I could truly have an immersive experience that I knew would leave a lasting imprint on me. My interactions with everyday people in any place I visit are usually some of my favorite moments of any trip. One of my personal mottos is “See the world, and bring it back home with you through the memories made.”
Rachel Rouse, IIDA, Principal, Director of Interiors, HOK
IIDA: Who has been an important mentor to you over the course of your career and how?
Rachel Rouse: I try to remember that everyone I meet knows something that I don’t and has something to teach me. As a result, I have had many mentors throughout my career who pushed me to grow in different ways. The one that really sticks with me is Kim Hogan, my predecessor at HOK. She saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. She took the time to actively recruit me to come work for her and then she stretched my limits by providing me with opportunities to interview directly with clients and learn from my mistakes in real-time. She passed early this year, and I was never able to ask her why. In some ways, I think I continue to push myself for her.
IIDA: Have you mentored others? Has that been rewarding and how?
RR: I love working with my team to help them grow. I encourage my team members to reach for the next step and am a particular advocate for licensure. The best part of my job is growing with people and seeing someone you’ve worked with succeeding in their career feels like success for me too.
IIDA: What do you see as the role of women in design?
RR: We can be the change we wish to see in the world. I hope to see a more equitable society for my children. Our industry can be tough, particularly on parents and women of color. It’s the role of all women to lift each other up and do everything in our power to help each other grow and thrive.
IIDA: What or who inspires you?
RR: I draw inspiration from film and theater performance. Something about a form of creativity that is so different from my day job is not only inspiring but often brings me joy and refreshes my mind.
Kia Weatherspoon, Principal and Interior Design Advocate, Determined by Design
IIDA: Who has been an important mentor to you over the course of your career?
Kia Weatherspoon: As a woman of color, I never saw designers who looked like me in leadership roles early on in my career. I had to learn to be my own hero. While the landscape lacked diversity, it did teach me that no one is going to advocate better for me than me. Once you can advocate for yourself, then you can advocate for others.
IIDA: Throughout your career in design, how have you been a mentor to others? Has that been rewarding?
KW: Due to my early experiences in the industry, I decided to become the leader I wanted to see. I adamantly make myself available to support any emerging designer or student through the various stages of their careers. Currently, I am actively mentoring and sponsoring ten emerging designers. Whether working with individuals or speaking to audiences, I am committed to sharing all the “secrets” no one told or offered me.
When speaking at Virginia Commonwealth University in January 2020, a student of color said to me, “You are the first interior designer of color I’ve ever met. When I saw you and heard your story, I could see myself in you. I needed that because I was tired of being the only one!” This student was considering dropping out of the program. I believe my success, presence, and willingness to show up are how I mentor every day. It is because of stories like this that I have returned to teaching. It is a call to action. There is a need for more diverse design professionals in academia.
For me, mentoring is not about reaping personal rewards, it is what I am supposed to do—a calling if you will. There is work to be done, so I will show up to be there for the industry. It is about empowering designers, and it is long overdue. If we can empower individual designers, we will elevate the profession as a whole.
IIDA: What do you see as the role of women in design—particularly in light of our current times?
KW: Women can better position themselves by acknowledging that our innate level of empathy and understanding make us an asset to a team and/or deal. We can position ourselves for greater success by using empathy as a value add. We put others first, which is a strength. This allows us to take into consideration the whole person or team experience as it relates to the end-user as well as for relationship and team building. I think we need to use our empathetic lens to create more intentional, inclusive design outcomes and teams.
IIDA: What or who inspires you?
KW: Dawn Myers, Founder of THE MOST! She’s not in the A&D space, but she is an entrepreneur disrupting and innovating technology in the beauty industry. I love a disrupter who will pull the curtain back so you can see where change needs to happen. She’s tackling venture capitalist spaces and their inequities head-on. Simultaneously, she is creating a technology infrastructure that doesn’t exist in the beauty market for women of color. Also, Damon Lawrence of Homage Hospitality Group. He’s building a Black-centric boutique hotel brand. It pays homage to all things Black and African culture in the hospitality space—down to the products in his hotels. Another disrupter and founder!
Omnipresent, Invisible, On-Demand Technology
The following is an excerpt from IIDA’s annual Industry Roundtable report, Industry Roundtable 23: The Future of Place, Experience, and Worklife. The roundtable took place at BMW Designworks in California. Read the full report here.
The modern workplace runs on technology: Wi-Fi, video conferencing, biometric security systems, motion-activated lighting, app-controlled climate zones, Slack, AutoCAD, etc. Technology is essential. Yet the cumbersome wires, cables, power cords, switches, sensors, and gadgets that enable it can make technology feel like a burden. As a result, the seamless integration of technology into the work environment—both physically and psychologically—is one of the greatest challenges designers and manufacturers face.
The wave of the future is to create spaces in which technology is omnipresent but invisible until the very moment it’s needed—out of sight, yet right at arm’s reach. BMW realizes this fantasy with its Interaction Ease technology for iNext, a fully electric autonomous vehicle that will be introduced to the market in 2021. In rethinking the SUV interior for the self-driving era, Holger Hampf and team sought to emulate the feeling and experience consumers have in their happy places, whether that happens to be a remote mountaintop or a buzzy bar/ lounge hanging out with friends. In short, they envisioned iNext as a destination in its own right.
Accordingly, the iNext interior features residentially styled chairs and surfaces that have the appearance of freestanding furniture, a palette that takes cues from boutique hotels, and a seating arrangement that encourages conviviality. Glass on all sides switches from transparent to opaque at the wave of a hand. The vehicle has an eclectic, cocooning, unexpected quality. These attributes abet a driving experience that’s “ultimately human,” says Hampf, and that allows for “natural, multimodal, and social interaction” between passengers.
A key to creating such a space was an approach to technology dubbed “shy tech,” whereby elements like GPS navigation and audio controls are hidden from view but reveal themselves where and when the driver or occupant needs them. Adjustment mechanisms for the zero- gravity chairs are hidden beneath the seat upholstery; the door handle appears, as a glowing icon, only when you reach out for it. “In iNext, the tech is all around you: alive, reactive, and abstract,” Hampf explains.
Shy Tech at the Office
Shy tech is an apt model for the next-gen workspace. “We have to make sure the right technology is there to enable human experience, and yet design it away since it creates a lot of visual noise,” says Hampf. One way to reduce said noise is to embed technological capabilities into finishes and materials. For instance, iNext features high-tech textiles embedded with haptic controls, and the windshield glass transforms into a flat- screen on demand. “We have to ask what experiences we want to create in a space, and then drive them under the surface of that space,” Hampf explains.
This vision aligns with where corporate interiors are heading. “By 2050, no one will have a computer, because everything will be computerized,” Jennifer Ruckel, Ind. IIDA, predicted. “Computers will be small and cheap, embedded in everything, and rituals like swiping to get into an office will not require a card.” Unobtrusive sensors have already rendered offices technologically capable of providing real-time feedback on end-user productivity, wellness, happiness, and other success metrics. The next frontier is for the space to somehow self-adjust immediately to that feedback.
In the interest of sustainability, designers and manufacturers will need to figure out ways to incorporate technology into materials and furniture in a manner that allows for continuous upgrades. “Furniture with embedded technology becomes obsolete more quickly since the technology often becomes outdated before the furniture itself does,” says Elizabeth Christopher. Companies are already designing or retooling their products to address this consideration. For instance, “our pieces are designed to accommodate rather than integrate technology,” Kirt Martin notes.
The real world is about 10 years behind everyone in this room, and that’s a challenge.– Kirt Martin, Landscape Forms
The Path to Seamless Distance Learning Opportunities
Distance learning, while already popular prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, has become even more attractive as our ability to gather en masse and meet for face-to-face educational offerings has halted. Organizations that have historically offered in-person or live programming have transitioned to virtual models involving distance learning in order to continue to provide credentialing and continuing education for professionals seeking to maintain their professional designations or accreditations.
Firms, IIDA chapters, and organizations that typically offer in-person educational programming may find that moving their courses online can offer many benefits aside from overhead cost. Distance learning allows organizations to expand their geographic reach, often accommodating a much larger student base than would be possible in a classroom setting, and offering accessibility to more people. It is also a more cost-effective option that allows for more timely feedback, and a more personalized and targeted training experience through data capture of students. Both the attendee and the organization benefit from coursework that is more accessible, flexible, convenient, and may be accessed at any time from any place.
While historically distance learning involved snail mail correspondence courses, it has grown into a robust virtual experience taking advantage of the opportunity for interactive participation through webinars, virtual seminars, and other methodologies. Today, distance learning employs six primary methodologies for delivering virtual education. The two options most viable, and likely easiest for chapter rollout are video conferencing and synchronous and asynchronous distance education.
Synchronous and Asynchronous Distance Education
Synchronous indicates “at the same time” and similarly asynchronous indicates “not at the same time.” Synchronous distance education is usually less flexible as it facilitates live interaction between educators and participants and requires both to be available during the scheduled sessions. Asynchronous distance education provides participants with the freedom to work at their own pace by using pre-recorded materials that can be accessed at the convenience of each student. Participants can have more interaction with other students in this modality.
Video conferencing, or webinars, for educating participants requires software like Zoom, GoToMeeting, Google Meet, or Microsoft Teams to provide an interactive setting which enhances the experience for both participants and educators. Video conferencing or webinars can enhance one-on-one interaction with educators and paves a way for these instructors to plan their courses. Participants can also attend missed classes via archived webinars making this modality either synchronous or asynchronous.
Open Schedule Online Courses
This is an asynchronous learning method where participants are given online textbooks for use in conjunction with email and a classroom message board or forum. Participants have the greatest amount of freedom with open schedule online courses, but online course creators carry a much heavier burden in their development. Participants are usually provided deadlines, but may complete their work within those parameters. These are ideal for participants who like to work independently.
Hybrid Distance Education
Hybrid distance education is a combination of asynchronous and synchronous learning in which the participants adhere to a specific deadline to complete their work. Participants can be permitted to complete assignments at their own pace and submit those assignments via an online forum.
Computer Based Distance Education
This is a synchronous methodology where participants are required to meet in a classroom or computer lab at a specified time every week to complete their virtual lessons. Participants are not provided with an open schedule in this type of distance education, and must complete their sessions on-site.
Fixed Time Online Course
This is a synchronous modality where participants need to log-in to their learning site at a designated time. These courses require mandatory live chats in some cases, and are currently the most common type of distance education.
So, you’ve made the decision to move forward with a distance learning program for your chapter, firm, or organization Now what? We know many of your educational offerings were also revenue generators—this shouldn’t change. You should however adjust your pricing model because many large overhead expenses, like venue and catering, no longer need to be built into your budget. You might also consider presenting specific member-only sessions to demonstrate the value of membership. These could also be sold to non-members for additional revenue. Your sponsors are also still seeking ways to connect and network with your community. Sponsorship opportunities should be made available with virtual offerings as well. Again, you will want to adjust your pricing model for these.
We at IIDA Headquarters also want to know what education offerings you’re presenting. As there are no geographic boundaries with virtual learning, you can open your education offerings to the entire IIDA membership base through our events calendar and newsletters. We are here to support your efforts and can help promote your distance education programs. Information on your offerings can be sent to email@example.com.
Campus Center Spotlight: Arizona State University
IIDA Campus Centers are an invaluable part of the design community that offer students, educators, and design professionals an opportunity to work together on different projects and initiatives. The exchange of ideas and creative development between young and emerging designers as well as established industry leaders is essential to driving innovation and shaping the future of interior design.
For students, IIDA membership also offers the opportunity to gain leadership and professional development experience outside of the classroom, in the association, on their campus, and with their peers. This can include everything from program development, budgeting, marketing, and event planning, to learning how to navigate within the structure of an organization.
Every spring, IIDA recognizes a campus center through the IIDA Campus Center Awards, sponsored by OFS, for exceptional achievement in program development that contributes to the local interior design community and profession. Each center that applies for the Best Thing Ever Award is considered for the Campus Center of the Year award and is recognized by their local chapter at a local event, featured on IIDA.org and in the student newsletter QUAD, and is eligible for the $1,000 prize.
Our 2020 Campus Center of the Year and winner of the Best Thing Ever submission is Arizona State University, part of the IIDA Southwest Chapter. Their hard work and dedication towards the annual Light for Hope event raised funds for Free Arts, a nonprofit organization in Arizona, and serves as an example that organizing and working with the larger design community moves the industry forward. We reached out to the student members at Arizona State that contributed to the process to offer insights and tips for campus centers to start planning to enter for next year’s award.
Alia Sugarman, Student IIDA, IIDA Co-President, Arizona State University Campus Center
Rachel Frail, Student IIDA, Philanthropy Aficionado, Arizona State University Campus Center
Fayrooz Sweis, Student IIDA, Membership Guru, Arizona State University Campus Center
Kiana Taie, Associate IIDA, VP of Student Affairs, IIDA Southwest Chapter
Callie Elsner, Associate IIDA, Director of Student Affairs, Southwest Chapter
IIDA: Why should Campus Centers apply for the Best Thing Ever, and what does the award help you to accomplish going forward?
Alia Sugarman: Campus centers should apply for the IIDA Best Thing Ever award to get recognition for the hard work and dedication they put into making their event possible. The Interiors Students Alliance (ISA) at ASU spends months preparing all the moving parts that go into making Light for Hope come to life. This award helps us promote this philanthropic event to become as big as our parent chapter’s events. We take inspiration from the IIDA Southwest events like Couture and PRIDE. These industry events provide background and a sense of what is possible. We hope to grow Light for Hope to be a distinguishing event for Arizona State University and to attract more professionals.
IIDA: Can you walk us through the submission process?
Alia Sugarman: I took the lead in the submission process with the help of my cabinet members. I wanted to highlight in our presentation that each of the cabinet members has a personal passion for our organization and efforts. As the IIDA campus center co-president, I worked on professional development in partnership with IIDA Southwest. Rachel Frail is our philanthropy aficionado who is in charge of the Light for Hope event, and she helped me with the Best Thing Ever Award section of the submission. Fayrooz Sweis is our membership guru and she assisted me with our membership portion of the submission. Collaborating on the submission will not only save time but will provide a better perspective from experts from those parts of your organization. It should be fun to share what your campus has done and not stressful!
IIDA: What should other IIDA campus centers know about the Interiors Student Alliance (ISA) at the Arizona State University Campus Center, which combines IIDA, ASID (Association of Interior Designers), and NEWH (The Hospitality Industry Network) chapters on campus? How did it form, and what are the overlaps?
Alia Sugarman: This is my favorite part of the Interiors Student Alliance at Arizona State University! We saw how the industry collaborates with different professionals and we wanted to create an organization to bring all three parent chapters together for our interior design students. Our goal was to create a professional network hub for design students so that students like myself who have felt overwhelmed with choosing an organization to join can be involved in all three. Attending separate meetings for the parent chapters conflicts with busy student schedules, so we developed ISA at ASU as a place for all the interior parent chapters to come together for the students. This was a way to show students how the commercial, residential, and hospitality design have a world for students to explore at Arizona State University. Exposure to all three helps build a great foundation.
IIDA: How did your campus center become involved with/connected to Free Arts Arizona, and how long have you had this relationship for? What is the chapter’s role in the relationship (if any)?
Rachel Frail: ISA’s relationship with Free Arts began in 2017. The organization was selected for its mission which promotes growth and healing for children through the arts. The relationship began with a donation of proceeds from ISA’s first Light for Hope event. This year, ISA was able to expand upon this relationship with a visit to the newly renovated Free Arts Arizona facility and participation in Free Arts’ annual Flutterfest event at the Desert Botanical Gardens. The hope is this relationship will continue to grow over time and allow ISA members to volunteer more consistently throughout the school year.
IIDA: Why is it important for campus centers to find or work with a philanthropy partner, and what do you recommend to campus leaders that are looking to make that connection?
Fayrooz Sweis: Working with a philanthropy partner is important because it provides campus centers an opportunity to engage with and give back to their local community. It also allows students to come together for a common cause and to positively impact the lives of others in their community—an ethical responsibility that is inherent in our work as designers. Here at ASU, the interior design program offers students several opportunities to engage with philanthropy partners and the local community through projects that are part of the program curriculum. The partnership we have with Free Arts is not only a continuation of this philanthropy culture within our program but also an expansion of our efforts to provide students with meaningful opportunities beyond the classroom to learn and have a positive impact on their communities which is what makes this connection successful.
IIDA: What about for individual students—how does producing or supporting volunteer and philanthropic events contribute to their personal and career growth?
Rachel Frail: Experiencing the gift of art and design is invaluable, and supporting an organization that gives this gift so freely to children is priceless. Specifically in supporting Free Arts through Light for Hope, students were able to share their talents and passion while developing new skills. Students gain professional exposure and are able to develop an entirely new skill set of event design, marketing, venue booking, contest creation, etc. We were able to see the direct results of our contributions when we quadrupled our donation this year.—and it wasn’t easy! The committee really pushed themselves, and I don’t think that would have been the case if there wasn’t growth occurring at the individual level.
Moreover, being able to produce and support philanthropic events helps students realize their potential in positively impacting their community. I think so often in this world we feel helpless in creating change as an individual, but this experience really proved students can make an impact. There is power in the knowledge that we. can not only envision a different way of doing things, but we can design and execute it. There is power in the confidence gained from this experience, and I would highly suggest philanthropic involvement for all students.
IIDA: Why is it important to highlight campus center activities and projects to the greater IIDA membership community?
Fayrooz Sweis: By highlighting campus center activities and projects to the greater IIDA membership community we contribute to the collective success of our community by sharing the capabilities of individual campus centers to provide opportunities for academic and professional growth and development. Showcasing the many successes and inspirations that we could draw on from within our IIDA community also allows us to celebrate our successes and efforts. It also demonstrates to prospective members the value of membership and involvement with the campus centers and the many ways in which they can distinguish themselves professionally.
IIDA: What is most exciting about working with the ASU Campus Center now and looking to the future, and how does the professional community support this program/event?
Alia Sugarman: The most exciting part about being involved with ISA at ASU is how much growth we’ve achieved in three years and the plans we have to continue that growth. As a recent graduate, I’ve realized that my goal with the ASU Campus Center was to bring the professional community to our students—professionals have always been excited to collaborate with ISA by hosting firm tours and professional development workshops, but since ISA brings together IIDA, ASID, and NEWH, we must encourage all three organizations as a whole.
Rachel Frail: ISA has so many benefits for students from professional development to the community we are building within the walls of ASU’s Design School. I think for me the most exciting part about working with ISA is getting to see our potential for impact in our community and in our school. As a graduate student, I often get caught thinking I don’t have enough time in my schedule to add extracurriculars. But truth be told, my experiences in ISA and giving back to the community have been the most rewarding experience of my graduate education. In the future, I would love to see an increase in professional involvement at our Light for Hope event in addition to attending the event and assisting in marketing, we would like to open up another layer of involvement and invite professionals to donate their own light creations!
Fayrooz Sweis: Our ASU Campus Center is unique in that it brings together IIDA, ASID, and NEWH in such a collaborative community for interior design students on campus. It was most exciting for me to see our chapter grow this past year offering more opportunities to connect, learn, and create through our bi-monthly Lunch Breaks and software tutorials, our Light for Hope event, and through chapter events with IIDA, ASID, and NEWH. As we continue to create events and projects to serve our campus community, I think it will be important to expand on the support of the professional communities of each of our parent organizations, extending the invitation to professionals to engage more directly with our students and campus events allowing students to draw on the professionals’ experience, and expand their professional network.
Kiana + Callii: The ASU students have a consistently strong presence in all things IIDA. Their eagerness to promote membership and the design industry over the years has been inspiring to watch. Our Southwest professional community not only attends Light for Hope every year but supports this event by bidding and purchasing the student-made lights. We are excited to see this event grow and are grateful that IIDA allows our students the opportunity to highlight their ambition and this unique initiative.
View the 2020 Campus Center Awards entry projects, and learn more about submitting your own project here.
2020 Advocacy Symposium Keynote Speaker Bill Grant
Bill Grant, mayor of Canton, Georgia, and president and chief creative officer of the award-winning Grant Design Collaborative, shares insight into how the skills that designers possess can drive advocacy.
Bill Grant, the 2020 IIDA Advocacy Symposium keynote speaker, has a career that is a testament of his commitment to exemplary design, as well as his dedication to service, both in the design and public sector. He is the founder, president, and chief creative officer of the award-winning Grant Design Collaborative, as well as halfway through the first of his four-year term of Canton, Georgia.
Grant is a leader and influential designer whose firm’s cross-discipline work includes communication design, brand strategy, advertising, product development, branded interiors, and experience design; and he has recently been named One of the 50 Most Influential Designers Working Today by Graphic Design Magazine.
His work earned him the honor of being named AIGA Fellow in 2005 and AIGA National President from 2005-2007, and his expertise saw him assist in curriculum development for the Harvard Business School’s program “Business Perspectives for Design Leaders.” Bill is also an advocate for public service—he was elected to Canton City Council in 2013 and 2017, served as Mayor Pro Tempore from 2014-2019, and was elected to a four-year term as the City of Canton Mayor from 2020-2024.
IIDA: Why did you pursue a career in design and what has kept you in design?
Bill Grant: I began my career at Shaw Industries as a copywriter in 1984 after graduating from Berry College, a liberal arts school, with a BA in both English and Psychology. Within a year, Shaw started their contract division, and I was promoted to marketing manager for the commercial division where I built an in-house design team. I left Shaw in 1989 and started my own multi-disciplinary design firm—over the years, a lot of my clients have been in the commercial furnishings sector including Interface, Mohawk Group, Herman Miller, Steelcase, CF Stinson, Association for Contract Textiles (ACT), Contract Magazine, Decca, and others.
My design education has been a work in progress, developing with the needs of my clients—everything from brand strategy, marketing, and identity, to showroom design and product development. I have had my own design firm for over 30 years because I keep learning and growing as a designer and individual. There is no other profession that offers such a creative outlet for personal growth.
IIDA: How did serving in leadership positions at a professional organization change your career and perspective?
Bill Grant: When I attended my first AIGA Design Conference over 30 years ago, my recently departed mentor, Milton Glaser, closed the event by saying, “Never underestimate the power of design to change the world.” From that moment on, I knew clearly that design was the profession for me, and I wanted to surround myself with the brightest minds in the industry. Without a formal design education, I took the opportunity to learn and grow as much as possible while also striving to maintain my unique perspective. I was asked to join the AIGA Atlanta Chapter Board in 1994 and was elected president in 1997. Through various national leadership events and programs, I was asked to join the AIGA National Board in 2001. While serving as a board member, I co-authored and launched the first Design and Business Ethics Guide, chaired the 2002 GAIN Business Design Conference, and assisted in the curriculum development for the inaugural AIGA Harvard Business School program, “Business Perspectives for Design Professionals.”
After my board term ended in 2004, I received a call from Michael Bierut at Pentagram asking me if I would serve as the AIGA National President. I was extremely honored to be trusted by the designers I admired most to lead and advance our profession. My tenure as national president gave me new confidence that my atypical career path was justified and respected. While serving, I visited and spoke at over 38 chapters across the country, and gave lectures internationally in China and Taiwan, as well as other countries. I also championed for change within the industry and organization with AIGA’s first diversity initiative, something I am very proud of. My experience changed me in dramatic ways, allowing me again to grow, gain added confidence as a designer and leader and, most of all taught me the value of not only serving to advance your career but to give back and serve to increase the value of the entire profession.
IIDA: What’s your town of Canton like? Why did you run?
Bill Grant: Canton is a suburb in the rapidly growing North Metro Atlanta region. When I moved Grant Design Collaborative here in 1976, the population was 7,500, and today it is around 35,000 and growing. I have described the city in the past as “Mayberry meets Twin Peaks!” It has a small-town character but is warm and welcoming. Like most southern towns, our downtown district became abandoned when the interstate came through the region, but our historic buildings were left intact. I purchased one of those buildings for my studio in 1996 but noticed there were no restaurants or shops downtown. I worked with the mayor at that time to start the Main Street program which helped to revitalize downtown Canton. We now have great restaurants, shops, and beautiful parks—it was basically a redesign project. In 1997, I purchased a home a few blocks away in the historic residential district that was zoned for single-family residential only. After meeting with the current mayor to confirm the zoning was permanent, I completely renovated the 100-year-old home in 2004.
A couple of years later, a local doctor acquired a home two blocks away on Main Street and decided he wanted to relocate his office thereby applying for commercial zoning. This began a yearlong zoning battle, one we were told was futile and “a done deal” due to a zoning map error. I organized our neighborhood, and we fought City Hall, eventually winning the litigation a year later. This made me realize I needed to be more cognizant of the actions our City Council were taking, and how much they impacted my daily life. During the zoning conflict, I was stunned by the lack of respect or responsiveness our elected officials had for their constituents.
As the same Council members continued to be reelected without opposition, I decided to run against an incumbent hometown councilman in 2011— I lost but got 42% of the vote in a three-way race. I didn’t give up and ran again in 2014, winning with 67% of the vote and after that ran for re-election in 2018 and won with 72% of the vote. I stepped down from my council seat in August of 2019 to run for mayor and I won by a landslide with 75% of the vote. For me, serving as mayor is an extension of my design career, and an opportunity to learn even more about the transformational powers of design. I have always advocated the importance of design on the local level, and I lead the effort to create a new strategic master plan for downtown Canton.
It has been very successful, with tangible results— I chaired efforts to create a new brand identity campaign for the City of Canton which our citizen’s love, and I have worked to preserve local historic assets through public and private partnerships finding adaptive reuses for our former schools, cotton mill facilities, and other historic buildings. As mayor, my current efforts are designing a new citywide master plan or road map that will strategically inform our growth and future development. Good design and design strategy are at the core of all of my leadership efforts to help create what we are calling the “Coolest Small Town in America.”
IIDA: Why should designers be involved in local government?
Bill Grant: Because designers need a seat at the table. Local decisions have far more impact on your daily quality of life than anything else. In addition, your participation and advocacy for great design can produce tangible, measurable results in your community. I became extremely frustrated with national politics many years ago, feeling like my contributions did not make any difference. However, on the local level, they are extremely important not only for improving the visual aesthetics of space and place but more so because local ordinances and codes impact every decision from building standards and historic preservation to signage and landscaping.
And let’s not forget zoning, one of the reasons I got involved on the local level. Good zoning practices are basically great design strategies. Never has it been more critical for designers to serve their local communities as the importance of proper placemaking impacts everything: quality of life, sustainability, economic development, transportation, diversity and so much more. Designers and design thinkers can help lead the way in increasing the value and potential of their communities by engaging with their local governments, or better yet, running and getting elected to office!
Registration for the 2020 Virtual Advocacy Symposium will be opening soon, follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram for the official announcement, and sign up to get involved in advocacy work in your region.
Advocacy News: Deregulation Bill Passes in Florida
On June 30, advocacy work done in partnership with IIDA and ASID on behalf of interior designers, saw great success in the state of Florida as Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law the Deregulation of Professions & Occupations Bill. This achievement is made possible through the advocacy work from IIDA and ASID, as well as the support and hard work of the Florida design community and colleague organizations such as the Council for Interior Design Qualification (CIDQ).
The deregulation bill ensures the integrity of the interior design profession and public safety through the formation of a voluntary state interior design registry. Interior designers in Florida will benefit from the law maintaining the title “Registered Interior Designer” for qualified designers, the interior design positions on the Board of Architecture & Interior Design, the interior design construction document stamp for plan review, and that “Registered Interior Designers” will fall within the statutory definition of “registered design professional.”
Read more about the bill in our FAQ above, and sign up to get involved in advocacy work in your region.