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Is Design Lacking Diversity?

Sept. 29, 2016
IIDA held a weekend-long summit earlier this year to discuss what diversity means and what industry leaders can do to help with inclusion.

The International Interior Design Association (IIDA) recently released its Industry Roundtable report tackling the topic of diversity and inclusion in the design industry. The report, “Diversity and Design: Why Gender, Equity, and Multidisciplinary Thinking are Essential to Business,” summarizes the discussion of 30 design industry leaders at the 19th annual IIDA Industry Roundtable last January, and provides a strategic roadmap for the newly formed IIDA Diversity Council, chaired by Stacy Walker, Ind. IIDA, director of customer experience, Milliken.  

“IIDA approached the subject of diversity in the design industry by taking stock of our association,” said IIDA executive vice president and CEO Cheryl S. Durst, Hon. FIIDA, LEED AP, who moderated the Roundtable. “From chapter events to continuing education programs, to the headquarters of our partners in manufacturing to our own board of directors—diversity, or the lack thereof, was apparent. This report and the formation of the IIDA Diversity Council are the first steps of many toward a more diverse industry—in race and gender, and thought and discipline.”

Because the meaning of diversity is “highly personal,” the Roundtable made sure to discuss the various definitions of the idea and how it is addressed and conveyed in different environments and segments in the design industry. As illustrated by figures compiled in the report, diverse companies perform better in terms of monetary success in addition to problem solving and innovations. Additionally, they “are more immune to the perils of groupthink,” according to the report.

George Bandy, Jr., now vice president of sustainability for Mohawk Group, noted, “As workplaces embrace diversity, they realize benefits that help improve their companies: more varied ideas, increased international opportunities, and new perspectives.”

According to Roundtable participants, which included industry members, IIDA international board members, design practitioners, and others, despite the awareness of lack of diversity, many firms are not doing everything they can to alleviate the issue, particularly with racial and ethnic diversity. In addition, within higher positions in interior design firms there is significant misrepresentation of women, with only 25 percent of firm leaders being female. However, according to a 2013 industry survey, 60 percent of the 87,000 industry practitioners in the U.S. are women. A bigger picture of the lack of diversity is reflected in the figures from a 2015 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics: 77 percent of architects are white and 25.7 percent women.

What’s interesting, however, is that when design industry members were asked if they thought their field was lacking in diversity, many initial comments reflected they did not believe so. Responses included broad objections: “I disagree with this statement [that design is considered one of the least diverse professions]. I would like to see the data backing it up,” and more personalized views: “This has not been my experience within my organization or team.”

The general sentiment is that the design community has more diversity when it comes to thought; dubbed “cognitive diversity,” this idea encompasses the mix of backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives from people who all think differently. According to a recent Fast Company article cited in the IIDA report, millennials define diversity as this idea of cognitive diversity, while baby boomers and Gen Xers think of diversity in terms of gender, race and, sometimes, age.

While the numbers show that the industry of design is, in fact, lacking diversity, the A&D world prides itself on its creativity and overall broad-minded way of thinking. “The design profession seems extremely open and inclusive and willing to embrace what makes individuals or groups unique,” said Alan Almasy, Ind. IIDA, director, A&D programs and marketing, Herman Miller.


With these different definitions of, opinions on, and views of diversity, the IIDA report addresses the ideas of inherent and acquired diversity traits. Inherent includes those characteristics we are born with, like gender and race; acquired traits include qualities like worldviews shaped by life experiences and varying work styles. According to a number of different studies, organizations are at peak performance—“operating at maximum creativity and critical thinking”—when both types of diversity are present. As noted in the report, achieving inherent and acquired diversity takes some time and effort: “It may be obvious to determine a job candidate’s race or gender, but figuring out what type of thinker they are will involve a protracted interview process.”  

Some Roundtable participants got more personal and shared their experiences of feeling marginalized over the course of their careers in design. “We all know what it’s like to be the ‘only’ in a room: designer, female, black, disabled, etc.,” Durst said. “Part of diversity is telling our stories, sharing our full selves.”

One of the most important ideas to consider when discussing diversity in design is the wide variety of end users and clients who connect designers to those who will eventually occupy a space. According to Forbes, the top most racially diverse industries are hospitality, healthcare, transport and communications, and public administration. The most diverse industries in terms of female employment are healthcare, hospitality, education, and business/financial services. “Without diversity, design will lack the necessary input to develop products, environments, and tools for our ever-changing multicultural future,” noted Scott Dannenfelser, Ind. IIDA, commercial design lead, Formica.

To help increase diversity in the design industry going forward, the IIDA report suggests firms conduct due diligence during the recruiting process. According to recent figures, the incoming generation of talent “more closely mirrors the U.S. populace.” Minority percentages—calculating the amount of Asian, Hispanic, and black students—of the 10,000 individuals enrolled in NASAD-accredited interior design and interior architecture programs have all doubled over the last 15 years. One-third of the 21,000 students enrolled in the CIDA-certified interiors programs will graduate this year; this means 7,000 new designers will soon be on the job hunt. And, as the report reads, those “firms that don’t represent diversity will have a hard time recruiting and retaining minority talent. If we don’t collectively and concertedly pursue measures to make all ethnicities feel that there’s a place for them, there is a strong chance of attrition.”

Taking a step further in considering future generations of A&D professionals, IIDA is working with the National Association of Elementary School Guidance Counselors to help explain and expose what these careers entail. The IIDA is making an effort to inform education professionals in the K-12 levels about interior design and architecture so they can describe and suggest employment in these industries when applicable. The goal is to present unrecognized opportunities to younger students and minorities, and ultimately open up design-related careers to a more diverse pool of prospects.

“There’s a misunderstanding that design is only accessible to a privileged few,” said Edwin Beltran, IIDA, Assoc. AIA, principal and designer, NBBJ. “Because of the lack of exposure at the early educational level, many minority groups do not choose design as a professional path.”
Ultimately, it is up to every firm to engage in and implement diversity efforts. Geography and the available talent will, of course, always have an effect on the range of professionals represented at a company, but through ongoing discussion and initiatives every organization can help in taking the steps required to increase diversity in the A&D world.

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