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.

A Visit to the Dynamic New Gensler San Francisco Workplace

For interior designers and architects, designing a firm’s own workspace is a heady task. And when it is the flagship office for the largest firm in the country, with a practice in a city of limited commercial real estate inventory and increasing leasing costs, the assignment is even more arduous. But the Gensler design team in San Francisco took on the complicated challenge, and essentially reinvented its own office with a move to a new workplace. Earlier this month, I enjoyed a tour of the new Gensler San Francisco office with two of the firm’s design leaders, Collin Burry, FIIDA, and Kelly Dubisar, IIDA. An internal team of Gensler management, operations, and design leaders had input on the relocation process and the interior design, which was overseen by Dubisar.

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Seating areas, defined by shelves and a red lattice structure overhead, allow for casual conversations. The furniture can be easily moved or swapped out to essentially give new seating a test run in a real setting. Photographer: Rafael Gamo.

For 15 years, Gensler was located at 2 Harrison Street, with views of San Francisco Bay. But as the city’s real estate market and demand for tech office space evolved—in particular, Google’s footprint increased within that address—Gensler needed to find a new San Francisco home. After an extensive search in a city where the amount of available large-scale office space has decreased, Gensler selected three floors within the 34-floor 45 Fremont Street tower downtown. Burry points out that this office is a short-term solution, likely no more than a few years, and the firm will then select a more permanent home.

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With a variety of places to sit, designers have options for individual work or conversations without the need for booking more formal meeting rooms. Photographer: Rafael Gamo.

With that in mind, the interior design is agile and adaptable, enabling the Gensler architects and designers to have a workplace that also reflects the changing nature of office design. In San Francisco specifically, where startups and established tech companies alike are flourishing, this workplace demonstrates how a large creative company with a half-century history can be nimble and dynamic. After all, Gensler is designing many of the tech company offices, so the firm orchestrated its own space to echo the way work is accomplished today across both tech and creative industries.

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The firm implemented a system of display boards hung on pegs, allowing for presentations to easily be moved around the office. Photographer: Rafael Gamo.

The majority of employees work on the upper and lower of the three floors. The workplace floors are conceived as design labs—workshop-like environments in which teams are seated at a variety of desks adjacent to meeting rooms. With a mix of programming on the middle floor, Dubisar aptly draws an analogy to an Oreo cookie when describing the office. Amenities on the middle floor (all photos shown here) include a well-equipped kitchen and a number of soft seating arrangements that allow for casual conversations.

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A well-designed kitchen is a central hub for staff. Photographer: Rafael Gamo.

The adaptable seating spaces serve double duty—designers can place new and different seating and tables here, essentially giving the furniture a test run before specifying in a design project. Near the seating areas, a number of large boards displaying design work and concepts can be hung on pegs. The boards are easily movable from a design studio to this display area for presentations, whether it be internal discussions or meetings with clients.

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A model-making area adjacent to the resource library enables the workspace to be akin to a maker space for designers. Photographer: Rafael Gamo.

“The entire office could be considered a continuously running lab,” Dubisar says, “We love to try new things in order to better understand the challenges our clients face. We’re testing things that don’t exist in any other Gensler office, and it’s great to see the impact of our ideas.”


John Czarnecki, Hon. IIDA, Assoc. AIA, is the deputy director and senior vice president of IIDA. He is the former editor in chief of Contract magazine.

IIDA Pennsylvania/New Jersey/Delaware Chapter: Why We Advocate

In July, the IIDA Pennsylvania/New Jersey/Delaware Chapter hosted “Why We Advocate,” a roundtable series where attendees engaged in a moderated panel discussion about what it means to be an interior design advocate, what issues the profession faces, and where members could learn more about IIDA’s advocacy efforts. The roundtable featured five panelists with a wide range of expertise in the architecture, interior design, and legislative professions. We chatted with Jessie Santini, IIDA, vice president of advocacy of the Pennsylvania/New Jersey/Delaware Chapter to learn about what sparked the idea to start this series.

IIDA: What motivated the chapter to plan advocacy panels throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey?

Jessie Santini: Pennsylvania has active legislation in need of support and New Jersey has title regulation that is vulnerable to deregulation efforts. In seeking support for this legislation, the chapter board realized a lot of our members have a limited knowledge of interior design regulation and what it means to be an advocate. We determined that grassroots advocacy is critical for making headway with future legislative effort, and so we planned a three-city advocacy roundtable with the intent of educating and activating members throughout our chapter.

IIDA: How and why did you choose the panelists and questions you did?

JS: The goal for the “Why We Advocate” roundtable series was to have a diverse group of professionals that represent all aspects of commercial interior design. Panelists included NCIDQ-certified interior designers, including those who are business owners, firm leaders, educators, and coalition leaders, as well as individuals with government relations and lobbying backgrounds.

Emily Kluczynski, director of advocacy, legislative affairs, and public policy at IIDA Headquarters, was present for all roundtables and was able to provide insight into the bigger picture of what’s happening legislatively around the country, while Carrie Hillman of Milliron Goodman was able to speak to the legislative climate in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. We were even fortunate enough to be joined by an accomplished Philadelphia-based architect whose thoughts and perspectives were a welcome addition to the panel’s robust discourse.

As we developed the list of panel questions, we looked at this as being an “Advocacy 101” course for many attendees. The first several questions touched on the basic concepts of advocacy and interior design regulation, and as the list progresses, the questions delved into more complex issues that specific panelists could speak to. We had the same list of questions for all three events to serve as a foundation for the dialogue, yet each event had its own unique and vibrant conversations.

IIDA: Do you feel as though attendees walked away having learned something about advocacy?

JS: Most definitely! Whether new to advocacy or long-time supporters, we feel that attendees walked away feeling energized, enlightened, and ready to advocate for commercial interior design! Stay tuned for videos in which attendees share their takeaways. We hope these videos, once complete, will help to keep the advocacy energy high throughout the Pennsylvania/New Jersey/Delaware Chapter!


To learn more about the outstanding advocacy campaigns the IIDA Pennsylvania/New Jersey/Delaware Chapter is doing, visit iida-panjde.org/advocacy.

2018 IIDA Advocacy Symposium Speakers Challenge Interior Design Licensing Opponents from Another Angle

Professional and occupational regulation has been a hot topic of conversation in Washington, D.C., and across state houses, but are we looking at the full picture? Opponents of occupational regulation argue that it hurts workers when in fact, research has shown that the opposite is true.

This year, we’re proud to bring inspiring and motivating speakers who can talk more on that perspective, and arm interior designers across the nation with updated knowledge and tools to advocate for themselves and the profession at the fourth annual IIDA Advocacy Symposium.

Representative Ray Dehn of the Minnesota State Legislature graduated with a master’s degree in architecture at age 39. Rarely, do we get an opportunity to hear from a legislator with a strong professional understanding of the built environment. So, it comes as no surprise that we’re excited to welcome Rep. Dehn as this year’s keynote. Rep. Dehn will offer insight on organizing, advocating, and staying engaged.

In her series of papers entitled New Closed Shop: Inequality, Diversity, and the Rise of Occupational Licensure, Dr. Beth Redbird, assistant professor of sociology at Northwestern University, looks at the impact of regulation and formal procedures, particularly for women and racial minorities. Dr. Redbird brings a fresh outlook to occupational regulation that will help advocates understand that there are always multiple sides of the same issue. Dr. Redbird’s research focuses on occupations, social class, and inequality, particularly within Native American communities.

Since late 2017, the #MeToo movement has become a very visible, impactful movement that has made waves in some of the most powerful institutions today – and the state house is no different. Multiple states have had elected officials resign or removed from office for sexual harassment, sexual assault, and retaliation. Four IIDA lobbyists from three states — Haley Blood of A&A Advocates, Melanie Layton and Zoey Wolfe of Colorado Legislative Services, and Christina Marcellus of Capital Advisors — will share the advantages and challenges of being a female lobbyist in the #MeToo era. Additionally, they will discuss how to approach interior design as a gender issue, new ideas and tactics on how to advocate, and what they’ve learned from lobbying.


Registration to the 2018 IIDA Advocacy Symposium is open until Sept. 7. Learn more about this year’s program and reserve your spot at iida.org.

Peer to Peer: Practical Advice on Jumpstarting Your Interior Design Career from 4 IIDA Students of the Year

Whether you’re a recent graduate or career shifter, embarking on a new design career can be a daunting task. Polishing your resume and portfolio, asking meaningful questions during the interview, tackling the job search at multiple angles – we all know it’s hard work that takes time, patience, and confidence. But what exactly does that look like? We reached out to this year’s IIDA Career Bootcamp panelists — four IIDA Student of the Year recipients, including the 2018 Student of the Year — for their practical advice on what has helped them navigate their careers so far. Read on for part one of our interview.

Meet the Panelists

Tara Headley, Associate IIDA, is the 2015 IIDA Student of the Year and recipient of the inaugural award. She is an interior designer at Hendrick, Inc., currently specializing in corporate workplace environments. Tara was born and raised in Barbados and proudly represents her Caribbean heritage through her cooking skills and love of bright colors in her fashion choices. For Tara, designing is a privilege and a means to change the way we see the world.

Amy Leigh Hufford, Associate IIDA, is the 2016 IIDA Student of the Year and is a corporate workplace interior designer at NELSON’s Philadelphia office. When she isn’t working, she’s an active member of the IIDA Philadelphia City Center and PhilaU’s First Five alumni association.

Lindzey Duval, Student IIDA, is the 2017 IIDA Student of the Year and is working as an interior design coordinator at HDR in Chicago where she currently focuses on corporate and healthcare environments. Lindzey moved to Chicago in July of 2017 after completing her bachelor’s degree at Texas State University. She is a passionate designer who is dedicated to creating memorable, human-centered designs that have a positive and lasting impact.

Allison Brown, Student IIDA, is the 2018 IIDA Student of the Year and graduate of Utah State University. Allison’s dedication and eagerness to learn have helped her to graduate magna cum laude and become LEED Green Associate. She starts her career as a professional designer at the New York office of Perkins + Will in September.

Approaching the Interview

Tara: The most important thing to me is to be genuinely interested in the job. I know sometimes we need to take positions that aren’t our top picks, but if that’s the case, find something about the position or firm that you can get behind. If you can’t find anything, chances are you wouldn’t thrive there anyway and should maybe look elsewhere.

That said, if you can go into the interview with a sense of the company, it’s values and what they expect of you for your position, you are at an advantage to further the conversation beyond a typical interview. Definitely use this information to tailor your responses. One surefire way to show them that you’re the right candidate is to relate your portfolio/skills to how you can help the firm. For example, if you find out that the firm does renderings by hand and you have that skill, be sure to highlight that and mention how you can be an asset in that regard.

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Lindzey: Research information about the firm in advance of the interview. I’m not just talking about looking on their “About Us” page on their website. You can tell a lot about a firm from their graphics and how they showcase their work and themselves online. Find something that connects with your interests and have it in your back pocket to discuss during your interview. People can talk about themselves all day long in an interview, but a successful interview is when it turns into more of a conversation.

Amy: I’ve always felt that a good approach here is by tailoring your questions, conversation topics, and personal information (resume, portfolio, cover sheet) to that particular position at that company. That way you’ll be prepared before you arrive – there’s no need to only show an employer at a hospitality firm only hospitality-based projects, you can show them a breadth of work that you feel can drive a conversation about your varied skills that would make you an asset to that employer, doing that type of work.

Networking When You’re An Introvert

Allison: I think going with a friend or coworker or student can really alleviate the stress and nervousness of attending a networking event. Then, you know someone there and you can branch out little by little and network with other people at the event. I would agree that it’s scary, but you’ve just got to do it because it’s so important for your future! 

Amy: I personally feel like introversion and shyness are two different things, and you can tackle them both in specific ways. I’m an introvert, but I’m not shy. I feel that introverts are typically people who, by choice, spend a lot of time alone and don’t reveal a lot about themselves to others. Shy individuals are often uncertain of how to start conversations and sometimes keep them going once they’ve begun out of nervousness! For both, I’d suggest starting out by attending more “intimate” events. For example, in Philadelphia, we have events that draw crowds of nearly 300 and events with only 10 people. I think starting small helps to make connections and relationships, so at larger events you already know some people to talk to. General advice for introverts might be to come up with some talking points before attending events, so if the conversation begins to run out, you have a follow-up. “Have you read any good books lately?” is just an example and people often run with it.

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Lindzey: I have come to realize that many people in our industry are more introverted like myself, which may seem surprising because it is a very social industry. I found it easy to just start with a few people. Find people that have similar interests and that you enjoy being around. Then start branching out to meet more people to expand your network. There is no rush to know everyone. Developing your network connections is just as important has growing it.

Tara: As an introvert, I relate to this on a personal level. Introversion is only a setback if you let it be. I get mentally drained by being in social settings, meeting people, etc., which is true for most introverts. But what you need to tell yourself is that networking is for the betterment of your career. I started out by forcing myself to attend as many events as possible. I found that once I got over that initial hurdle, it became easier as time went on. The more you go, the more connections you make. And the industry is one where you can make friends and acquaintances easily. By the fourth or fifth time, you will walk into a room and know at least one other person you’ve met before. Volunteering at organizations like IIDA is also a great way to give back as well as meet people in a more casual way.

Cultivating Your Brand

Lindzey: Branding yourself on paper is a challenge! Our resumes and portfolios are the most important tangible items that we have to showcase ourselves and our work. Something I like to keep in the back of my head is less is more. Over branding yourself from a visualization perspective can be distracting to someone who is looking at your work. It is okay to have a little fun and embed your personality, though! Just be careful not to overdo it.

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Amy: I recently had a conversation with some professionals with 15+ years of experience that are also in a position to hire. They were saying they feel that students straight out of school brand themselves too much, which I thought was fascinating! A simple resume with a small touch of personality, as well as a matching portfolio and cover letter, are plenty. Photos on resumes and cover letters were discouraged, as well as a large amount of color and script fonts.

Tara: I feel like good graphic design goes hand in hand with what we do as interior designers. Understanding placement, alignment, and hierarchy is important in any presentation, and this is what I look for in a good portfolio package. A common element that ties the portfolio, resume, cover letter, and business card together is key, but what is also of equal importance is to not get carried away with creating a cool design that ends up taking away from your actual work. Keeping things simple is always good. Allow your work to take center stage instead of any bold graphics.


Stay tuned for part two of our interview coming soon. For more resources on starting your interior design career, visit the IIDA Career Bootcamp page.

New Beginnings: A Message from John Czarnecki, Hon. IIDA, as He Starts His Role as IIDA Deputy Director and Senior Vice President

Change is, many times, a good thing. I’m thrilled to begin my work as Deputy Director and Senior Vice President of the International Interior Design Association (IIDA). After 18 years in editorial positions in New York related to the architecture and design profession, I am a few weeks into the work at the IIDA headquarters in Chicago—getting to know the headquarters staff and getting up to speed on every aspect of IIDA’s programming, events, communication efforts, and advocacy initiatives. I am focusing my work on a few key areas prior to NeoCon, with a broadening scope to follow as the months proceed. Working closely with IIDA EVP/CEO Cheryl Durst, Hon. FIIDA, the headquarters staff, and IIDA chapter leaders, my initial focus is on industry relations, membership communications, and expanded programming efforts for the organization. And I am ramping up my work just as we prepare for spring events and NeoCon!

Members should know: In the near term, besides the forthcoming announcements of award winners, you’re going to see a few exciting new things from IIDA in the coming weeks and months. Some are subtle, and some are more bold. How’s that for a tease? Saying nothing and yet leaving you curious for more: That’s where my years of editorial experience come in to play.

Deadlines to Keep in Mind

With the spring season here, here are a few things to keep in mind for your calendars: Chapters have until April 20 to enter the IIDA Chapter Awards at this link. The Chapter Awards have been fully redesigned, and now include two components: a chapter benchmarking assessment and the Best Thing Ever (BTE) Award. The deadline for the IIDA Campus Center Awards is also April 20, and all entry information is at this IIDA Campus Center Awards link.

For firms that have completed recent projects in Latin America or the Caribbean, know that the deadline for the IIDA Latin America Design Awards is April 20. The design projects must be located in Latin America or the Caribbean, but the design firm may be based anywhere, including the U.S.

IIDA During NeoCon Week

Are you already planning your time for NeoCon week in Chicago? Be sure to include the IIDA Annual Meeting, COOL Gala, and IIDA headquarters reception in your plans.

The IIDA Annual Meeting is at 1 p.m. on Sunday, June 10, at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Admission is free and open to all in the industry. But we will reach capacity, so get there early to get a seat to see honorees such as the Star Award and Titan Award winners, and Chapter of the Year and Member of the Year. Gabrielle Bullock, IIDA, FAIA, NOMA, Principal at Perkins+Will Los Angeles, will give her inaugural address as the 2018-2019 International President of IIDA.

Tickets are available for the IIDA COOL Gala to be held on the evening of Sunday, June 10, at The Ritz-Carlton, Chicago, which was beautifully renovated this past year. Reserve your tickets at this link for COOL.

On the opening day of NeoCon, after you’ve had a full day within the friendly confines of theMART, join the IIDA team for a reception at our IIDA headquarters office. The reception is from 3 to 6 p.m. on Monday June 11, at 111 East Wacker Drive, Suite 222.

Reports with Insights from Practitioners and Students

At headquarters, we are busy putting the final touches on a few key resources. Later this month, we will be releasing both the IIDA Industry Roundtable Report and the IIDA Student Roundtable Report online. The IIDA Industry Roundtable Report will summarize high-level discussions held at the IIDA headquarters in January. And the IIDA Student Roundtable Report is a summary of four gatherings of students and professionals, sponsored by OFS, held in the past six months in various cities across the country. The findings in both reports will be enlightening as we have a meaningful, continued dialogue about the future of the design profession.

And in case you may have missed it: You will find the results of the IIDA Interior Design Compensation Report to be informative. Released just two months ago, the report is an analysis of salary and benefit information that enables design leaders to monitor the health of the industry. According to the report, design professionals’ salaries are on the rise: 69 percent of respondents report receiving a raise in 2017. And, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the profession will grow an additional five percent over the next decade. Learn more about the report—and the IIDA compensation calculator—at this link.

That’s all I have for now. Please visit me and the IIDA team in Chicago (in our fantastic office designed by Todd Heiser, IIDA, and his team at Gensler). And you’ll see me on the road, too, at HD Expo in Las Vegas in early May and at the AIA Conference on Architecture in late June in New York. Contact me at jczarnecki@iida.org, and I look forward to seeing you all soon!

Johnscard