Young Professionals: The Future of Design

May 1, 2006
By Robert Nieminen • Cover and portrait photography by Andy Goodwin
How does the next generation of designers feel about the current state and future of the industry? What topics and trends are important to this emerging group of professionals? Interiors & Sources recently sat down with a roundtable of 10 young design professionals from across the United States to answer these and other questions to determine what’s in store for the future of design.

This year marked the beginning of a major change in the U.S. labor force. With the first members of the Baby Boomer generation turning 60, the demographics of the workforce will change dramatically in the coming years. Specifically, there will be a larger percentage of older workers in the workplace, and perhaps more importantly, there will be a smaller pool of younger workers available to replace these older workers upon retirement due to a generational gap in the population after 1964, the AARP reports.

What exactly does this mean to A&D firms? It suggests that there will be greater competition to attract, recruit and retain young professionals to fill the vacancies left by senior members of design firms as they transition into retirement. Without educated, experienced designers to fill leadership positions, what would come of the interior design profession?

Recognizing this trend and the implications it carries, Interiors & Sources recently held a roundtable discussion with 10 young design professionals from some of the largest firms throughout the United States to determine how these practitioners view the current state of the industry and to get a glimpse into what the future holds for the profession. You'll be relieved to discover that, if this group is any indication of what's to come, the industry will be in the capable hands of creative, knowledgeable and passionate designers who are committed to advancing the profession to which they belong.

One of the first topics discussed among the group was how well prepared they felt they were entering the workforce upon graduation. While a few felt a "shock to the system" after realizing some of the "harsh realities" in dealing with the business of design, the majority of the group were either participants in internship programs or co-ops and were familiar with the expectations and day-to-day activities they would be facing once employed by a design firm. Katherine Galpin, an interior designer with Gensler, said the best thing she did while in college was take an internship that let her see what practice was actually like. "Because school was really based on theory, getting out there and actually seeing what practicing was like really made me more secure in my decision to become an interior designer," she said.

Also contributing to their preparation for the workforce was the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) exam, which a majority of participants took or planned to take in the near future. When asked why they felt the NCIDQ exam was so important, Viveca Bissonnette, an interior designer with Carrier Johnson responded, "I think that as a profession we really need to be focusing on putting ourselves forth as professionals, and that can only be done with licensing and certification." Others agreed and added that it gives strength and validity to the profession.

The group felt that a common denominator that is working contrary to the validity of the profession was the proliferation of reality TV shows about "design." While the group agreed that there is a heightened awareness about design in the general public, when costs are calculated on these so-called "reality" TV shows, they never add in the cost of the designer, and they fail to provide a value to what the designer is bringing to the project. As Galpin points out, "It creates a misconception in society that there's no value to what that person has done, and that, in turn, affects how our clients see us, and they don't find the value in what we do. And I think that so many of the shows wouldn't be possible without the work of those designers."

Who inspires you? Who do you consider to be your mentors?

KATHERINE GALPIN: Having a coach and mentor program when I started at Gensler as an intern, I was set up with a woman who was just a few years older than I was, and being able to become friends with her and having that person as a mentor has really been great for me personally and professionally. But as I've been through my career I find that there's not usually just one person that I look up to—it's multiple people in the office that I look to and for different reasons.BONNY WILSON: NBBJ has a similar (program) where you have a mentor that you're assigned to and they show you the ropes. My mentor is senior to me in the office, and she's been really great. She's showed me where I've made mistakes and helped me not (to) make the same mistakes. But then there are so many very experienced people that are really deep in specific knowledge that I can go and ask for specific questions. I know who the healthcare genius is. I know who the technology genius is. I know who the planning genius is. I'll always know exactly who to go to.JIGNA LAGIN: I think a really great mentor is someone you can learn from—(who) is also willing to learn from you as well and bump off ideas. And I feel like where I'm at right now at Cubellis Associates, I'm getting that. There are several people that are senior to me, and the really great thing is that we work in team environments; when we're on a project, it's like we are all at the same level. VIVECA BISSONNETTE: I'd like to say Carrier Johnson operates very much in the same way. I'd have to say I'd be very hard-pressed to select one person as a mentor. I'm lucky to have so many people around me, not only in my firm, but I think there's so many people at so many different levels that you can learn from that I see them all as mentors, and hope that I can return that favor to others as well.JACY HERENDEEN: At HOK, we also have a coaching program. We have different departments in our office—architecture, urban planning and advanced strategies. So, you get partnered with someone in another department, which is great because they can really look at (a problem) from a different perspective. And I think that learning from their end of (the process) and how they interact in the design room is really beneficial. And I would recommend that to firms. I think it's just a great program. KEVIN KENNEY: I feel very lucky that I ended up at a firm with two strong mentors: Ken Wilson and Diana Horbatt. I think that's what I would recommend (to someone) coming out of school or just getting into the industry—figure out where you're going to learn the most and who you're going to learn the most from, and that's probably (the) firm you want to work for.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing designers and the industry as a whole?

BONNY WILSON: We have come so far from what people thought of interior design 20 years ago. There's still, in the general population, a misunderstanding of what an interior designer is, and how they are compared to a decorator or to an architect. For example, to call yourself an architect, you have to be certified. There are laws at the state level, and we don't have that (across the board) yet. I think that's our most immediate challenge, but I think it's very achievable in the near future.VIVECA BISSONNETTE: I absolutely agree with Bonny. I think that there are deeper problems in our profession we need to overcome before we'll ever get there. One of the things I think is absolutely unbelievable is that we have two professional organizations. The fact that they can't get together and become one—I don't think we'll ever get to where we need to be or where we all see ourselves without coming together and really being a force of one. We're dividing ourselves. Even between commercial and residential, and that doesn't happen among architects, as an example, but it certainly does among interior designers. I think that that hurts us, not only internally, but also the general public's perception of what we do. If we could somehow overcome that and become a cohesive group, then I think we will suddenly be light-years ahead of where we are now. But how we get there, I'm not 100 percent sure. I know that ASID and IIDA have tried to come together in the past, but they just can't do it. And I don't understand why that can't be accomplished. I think it would be a catalyst to having us achieve the recognition, or even the licensing issue at the state level. It's one of the things that's holding us back. I think that's the biggest thing we need to overcome is that division that we all feel.JIGNA LAGIN: I completely agree with Viveca. In Philadelphia, I know the people in the ASID. I go to their events, and they come to our events. But we, for some reason, can't come to an agreement on holding an event together. Why there are conflicts, I'm not sure, because we're all trying to achieve the same exact goal, and both organizations have members that are a part of the IDLCPA, which is the Interior Design Licensing Coalition of Pennsylvania. We're all trying to get to the same place; it's just kind of unfortunate that we don't have it together just yet.VIVECA BISSONNETTE: I'm not sure what we need to (do)— it's almost as if we know what it is that has to be done, but for whatever reason there's opposition to get there.

What ideas or suggestions would you have for the associations?

CYANNA GOOLD: When I was a campus director for IIDA in Washington, a lot of campuses decided as students to have a dual-campus organization. You could join either one, but it was the same organization doing the same kind of fundraisers together as a group—even if you were a member of ASID or if you were a member of IIDA, in hopes that in some way they'll see that we can be a cohesive group, at least at the student level. So why can't we at the professional level? And then also in the State of Washington, the legislation—we try to come together as one organization with ASID and IIDA, both making a big push trying to get legislation in our state. So, that's kind of a stepping stone as well.BONNY WILSON: I know New York has a big move called "New York 11" to get legislation, and I assume that most states have that. Maybe there's a way for all of those organizations to come together and push on ASID and IIDA. They're at the state every year, and they're pushing. And it's something that I know in New York keeps getting so close to being passed and then just doesn't. Maybe just going one state at a time isn't the way to go.JIGNA LAGIN: I know in Pennsylvania they have presented a bill for licensing and one of the reasons why we were declined is we have two organizations that can't agree on anything.

How important is sustainability to your firms? Are your clients requesting it or is it coming from the top down?

KEVIN KENNEY: For my firm, it's huge. Our standard spec could be a LEED-rated project and whether we go for the LEED- rating depends on whether our client wants to pay the U.S. Green Building Council and pay us to put that documentation together. I think anyone that comes to (Envision Design) knows that they're automatically going to get it, and I think with flooring and all the other (green products), a lot of times it's really important to know that it's going to have a manufacturer stand behind it. CYANNA GOOLD: Because of the popularity of sustainability in Seattle, any government building that's being built has to be (LEED) Silver, and so because of that, a lot of firms and a lot of people in general are really getting interested and involved and the clients come to us and say, "Such and such building had LEED certification. What is that and how can we put that into our building?" So, it's really great that the city is actually taking over saying, "We need to start doing this," and because of that process people are hearing about it, and more clients are coming to us asking for it.

What are some of the challenges you face in designing green projects?

JACY HERENDEEN: Probably educating ourselves. All of the information is so overwhelming, and you want to do the right thing, and you want to spend the time and do research, but you can be heading down the wrong path. So, I think that's probably a goal a lot of us share—to figure out how to handle that better and not to be afraid of it.BONNY WILSON: For me, I tend to work on a lot of large healthcare projects and when you bring up "green" to the client, it's nice, they like it, but the number one concern is durability and cleanability. If (the product) happens to be green then that's fine, but knowing that they can't get certification right now, it sometimes can fall to the side.JIGNA LAGIN: I think the biggest challenge that I've had is just educating the client. Some of the projects that I've worked on have been in hospitality or retail, (or) residential, which are very fast paced. They're looking for something that looks great. For hospitality, it's all about the appeal, it's all about vision, and how it looks in the concept. So, for me, I try to push the client in that direction, but it is definitely harder to do it that way.

Do green products have the look and durability you're looking for?

KEVIN KENNEY: It's much better now than it has been previously. VIVECA BISSONNETTE: And being able to read through what really is sustainable and what isn't is getting better too. It seems to me that what a lot of manufacturers are focusing on is showing us exactly how this is a sustainable product, not just putting (a green label) on it or using whatever words they want to try to entice you. We're all becoming more educated about really what it means to have or incorporate sustainability into any of our projects, and the manufacturers realize now that they really need to put their money where their mouth is in terms of being able to give us a product that actually is sustainable and isn't just labeled as such. Because even now there isn't enough regulation behind the manufacturing of these products.KEVIN KENNEY: As designers, I feel like we're driving that. They're going to give us what we're asking for because we're writing the specifications and that's how you get business. So, I think it's really important for us to know the right questions to ask and always, when you ask the question, you need (the answer) documented.

What can suppliers do to provide more value to you as designers?

JACY HERENDEEN: I think that they, unfortunately for them, have to stay one step ahead of us as far as what we were talking about—green (design) and being certified—because they have to be ready to answer our questions. So, I would say staying educated and staying ahead of us.VIVECA BISSONNETTE: Helping us be educated. I think we need to be on top of our game, and the manufacturers' reps play a big part in helping us find out the latest information and the latest products, and the trends as well. They are an incredible resource.KATE TRANQUILLI: This was something that I completely did not grasp going through school—that a product rep was going to be (so involved). It helps feed your knowledge base as you're out in the field, and that's something I didn't grasp going through college.JACY HERENDEEN: Some of my friends (from school) are now A&D reps—who knew you were going to do that? Letting students know you don't have to just work in a firm.

What are your expectations of a firm in terms of helping you develop as a professional?

KATHERINE GALPIN: I know for me, part of the thing was that they would, in becoming licensed, help me with that. I'd pay them for the exam after I passed it, which I know that money shouldn't always be an obstacle, but a lot of times it can be, and they worked with that. They also bring in people to give you your continuing education credits, and that really takes a lot of the pressure off of us to have to go and seek those things out. They really encourage us to get our license and maintain it— they don't only give lip service to it; they have things to back it up.VIVECA BISSONNETTE: I would say Carrier Johnson is the same way. They're very active in terms of encouraging all of the employees to be licensed, certified and not only from the basic NCIDQ and Architect Registration Examination (ARE) exams, but also to become LEED accredited and to learn new software programs and go back and take a sketch class and do all those other things to really make us as whole as possible, and to be able to give back to the firm. The firm does support us financially, once you pass those exams, and they do go ahead and reimburse you. And I think by doing that they really show the value in having everybody be as educated and as knowledgeable as possible. And that can only help the firm and the profession. It's great to be with a group that sees the value in that and the value in you as a person in trying to better yourself.JIGNA LAGIN: When I was looking for a job, for instance, I looked to see how many people were certified and what associations and organizations those people are a part of. But I also looked at what kind of clients they had, and what the history with those particular clients (was). And a lot of times, some firms will not post it on their Web site while some do, and I like to look at what kind of clients they have and how many of them are repeat clients, and also what kind of markets they particularly have most of their clients in.KEVIN KENNEY: I guess my experience is different because I'm from a much smaller firm, Envision Design—we're 20 people—and where they've been really good with me is providing diversity in the projects that I work on. Working on a corporate interior on one job, and then moving to a retail product and working on some product design. I think you can be at a smaller firm and still get a similar kind of education as you're working in a different way.

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