ASID Update: The Evolving Nature of Interior Design

June 1, 2008

While not always recognized by clients and the public, historical changes to the field of interior design have been considerable.

By Rita Carson Guest, FASID

In our modern world, we spend most of our time indoors—up to 90 percent, according to various studies referenced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). We all love being outside in the fresh air for the escape it offers from life inside, yet we live, work, learn, heal, worship, and play in interior spaces. They provide comfort and safety, as well as allow us to create surroundings that are pleasing, meaningful and inspiring.

More than 2,000 years ago, wealthy Romans used frescoes and refined mosaics to decorate their homes and public buildings. Many are still visible today in the ruins at Pompeii, Herculaneum and throughout all of the areas where Roman culture thrived. For centuries since, talented individuals have engaged in interior decoration to make rooms attractive and functional within the existing architecture of the space. About 100 years ago, individuals began offering interior decorating services as a trade separate from construction or architecture.

Although its roots reach farther back, interior design really came into its own as a practice during the commercial building boom that followed the second World War. Interior designers' work went far beyond decoration and space planning.

Today, interior designers envision, define, and document the shape, layout and materials that form complete interior environments. Interior designers must design spaces that are safe and functional while meeting all public health, safety, and welfare requirements, including code, accessibility, environmental, and sustainability guidelines. Decoration is still the most noticed part of an interior designer's work but it entails only about 20 percent of the scope of work full-service interior designers provide. For example, at our firm, we spend more time designing space, preparing construction documents and specifications, and handling construction administration of the contract than we do on the decoration of the space.

In order to understand the continuing complexity of interior spaces and their requirements, codes, computer-aided design, contract administration, sustainability, accessibility, and lighting are all taught in today's accredited interior design programs. Yet, with the complexity of the practice of interior design today, young designers need to work under the mentorship of a practicing interior design professional for several years before gaining the experience and knowledge needed to work independently.

Technology and growing public concern about the health and safety of buildings place greater demands on today's interior designers. Energy codes have changed over the last year, so firms must approach lighting design differently. For example, we can specify more LED and CFL lamps. Wattage for bulbs and ballasts has to be calculated and documented in Comchek reports which have to be submitted for permit along with reflected ceiling plans in order to provide proof of meeting current energy codes.

The widespread adoption of sustainable and "green" design practices in response to climate change, energy costs and other environmental issues has added a whole new technical area to interior design's ever-growing body of knowledge. The materials interior designers specify have a huge impact on our natural environment, economy, health, and productivity. The following statistics, for example, can be found on the USGBC Web site:

  • According to the 2003 U.S. Department of Energy Buildings Energy Data Book, buildings represent 70 percent of U.S consumption of electricity.
  • The EPA estimates that 136 million tons of building-related construction and demolition (C&D) debris was generated in the U.S. in a single year. *Source:, and U.S. EPA Characterization of Construction and Demolition Debris in the United States, 1997 Update.
  • The three largest segments for nonresidential green building construction-office, education and healthcare-will account for more than 80 percent of total nonresidential green construction in 2008. *Source: FMI's 2008 U.S. Construction Overview.

Given the growing complexity of today's buildings, interior design is likely to become increasingly technical, not less so, with health, safety, accessibility, and environmental quality requirements becoming more stringent.

Within the past 50 years the principles of good design have not altered much, but the changes in the practice of interior design have been enormous. Most of these changes are not visible to the client or the public. At the same time, design has entered the mainstream culture. Today, good design is not a luxury available only to the wealthy, as it was for the ancient Romans. Increased accessibility to design has led to a growing interest in the history and process of design, primarily in regards to fashion and decoration as forms of self-expression. Consequently, there is at present some confusion about what is popularly referred to as interior design and the scope of services that professional interior designers provide. That confusion can only be cleared away through ongoing education. Interior design organizations must join together to provide a clear, consistent message of what our profession is about and the unique contribution it makes to the spaces in which we live.

The value interior designers bring to society rests with their unique ability to design spaces that take into consideration all the ways human beings interact with and respond to a space. Although their work is often not credited, the benefits of good design abound. They are evident in media reports about the economic and social success of retail stores, libraries, clubs, hospitals, and offices when the design is led and conceived by interior designers. These success stories include:

  • People buy more merchandise when goods are displayed artfully based on research into how the retail environment affects buying behaviors.
  • Restaurants and clubs that incorporate visual cues to create inviting or exciting environments, quickly becoming the hot, go-to spots. 
  • Libraries that are comfortable and laid out to support after-school activities and encourage learning—and that have even been shown to change the lives of children in low-income neighborhoods by providing a supportive environment in which to study. 
  • Hospitals designed with healing in mind, speeding the recovery of patients and offering visiting family members comfortable surroundings that offer refuge in stressful situations.

Decoration and aesthetics will always be an important component of our work, but it is the many contributions we make to quality of life, productivity and the environment that truly define our profession. Until we are fully recognized for that, our evolution will not be complete.

ASID president Rita Carson Guest, FASID, is an award-winning interior designer and longtime advocate for the interior design profession. She is president and design director of Carson Guest, a law office and corporate design firm in Atlanta, GA. ASID can be reached at (202) 546-3480 or [email protected], and on the Web at

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