We are privileged to be practitioners of a unique discipline that combines a demand for analytical thinking coupled with strong creative skills. One of our biggest challenges is to explain what we do to our clients in a way that helps them understand the value that interior designers provide.
Like hiring an accountant whose job is complete when the tax return is produced or a doctor whose work is finished after the kidney is transplanted, our clients retain us to deliver a completed project. They see our work as evidenced by a branded office environment that is ready to be occupied by their staff or by a finished kitchen … sparkling with the most accessible appliances.
Some clients may actively engage in a project by participating in most of the design decisions during the execution of the various phases. Those who do will gain a greater understanding of many of the considerations involved in the decision-making process. For those whose involvement is peripheral, the interior design process appears to be somewhat magical. Suddenly furnishings appear and environments come to life. In either case, the finished product is a space that looks beautiful. The exceptional ones are photographed, published and distributed for many to see, and the notion of interior design as largely confined to "F, F and E," and decoration is perpetuated.
Let's peel back the layers and shine some light on the less-apparent benefits of great design. We are practicing our profession in exciting times because we are experiencing an exploding cultural interest in interior design. We not only have an unprecedented opportunity to explain the value of interior design to our various publics, we also have an obligation. Our voices need to be leading the conversation about its true value because more people are participating in the discourse and conflicting messages abound. We are in a unique position to promote the magic and magnitude of the life-altering effects of our work. But first, we may need to do some homework.
In order to explain the value of our work, we need to document it, and there are several ways to do that. For example, we could conduct a post-occupancy survey of the aforementioned branded office to learn if the employees found their workstations conveniently located next to other team members or support services. Then we could measure all the other typical indicators of success in addressing adjacencies in the schematics phase. But what could we learn by measuring the impact of that branded space? How could it effect customer impressions—resulting in more sales or employee satisfaction by providing a sustainable environment that translates into job loyalty, fewer sick days and lower turnover rates? Perhaps we could ask the couple, whose newly designed kitchen is now much more efficient, how much time they save preparing meals. However, if we delved further to find they now spend more time together in the kitchen and feel their relationship is stronger and credit their weight loss to increased use of their new kitchen, we can begin to explain the profound effect good interior design has on people's lives and demonstrate its value.
Gathering evidence regarding the value of good design is not a new concept. The healthcare industry is an early adapter of so-called "evidence-based design," due in large part to medicine's historical practice of collecting evidence in all aspects of treatment. As the original and lead sponsor of InformeDesign® (www.informe design.umn.edu), an online repository of research summaries on design and human behavior, ASID has actively encouraged interior designers to use research tools, such as this site, to help formulate their design decisions.
Many interior design firms routinely offer the service of conducting post-occupancy surveys. However, if we approach measuring the value of interior design through the effect of the design on human behavior, establishing the baseline metrics would become the first step in the programming process. This indicates the need to expand our scope of services to incorporate this step.
Of course, the possibility of teaming with human behaviorists and investing in other processes that are designed to measure the results of an investment in interior design, raises the question of whether the client would be willing to pay for it. If, as a matter of course, "survey and document existing conditions" on our contracts extended beyond the physical conditions to encompass the human conditions, we could establish benchmarks by which to measure the success of our designs.
I have long thought that until we develop an "elevator definition" of interior design—an answer to the question, "what do you do?" that is short enough to be delivered to a stranger on an elevator ride—we will continue to have some public misconception. If we cannot succinctly explain what we do, we cannot expect our clients to understand and value our services. We need to work together to establish this definition which, I suspect, focuses less upon the process of design and more upon the effects of interior design.
If we begin to gather evidence and talk in terms of the effects of our work, we will create a better understanding of our profession.
ASID president Suzan Globus, FASID, is an award-winning interior designer with a focus on public, educational and museum libraries and select residential projects. She is a principal of Globus Design Associates in Red Bank, NJ. ASID can be reached at (202) 546-3480; [email protected]; and on the Web at www.asid.org.