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Fighting the Good Fight: Why Advocacy is Important

Sept. 29, 2016

Lobbying for Utah’s Interior Design Law illustrates the significance of an industry’s local and widespread support and regulation.

The art of authentic advocacy is not something taught in school. In my experience as a lobbyist and advocate for the interior design profession I am asked a lot of questions, the most common of late always being a variation of, “How did you get the architects to testify on your behalf?” followed by, “Why is legislation important and why should I care?”

Many of the great and talented interior designers on the Utah State Design Coalition working on legislation and professional advocacy expressed doubts in their ability to create change, but not without a desire to learn. Answering the question, “Why?” and discovering the “why” is an individual process where personal meaning develops from inquiry, investigation (data collection), action, and reflection (evaluation). The experience of working to pass Utah’s Commercial Interior Design Certification law earlier this year is an illustration of why interior designers should care about legislation and professional advocacy.

Background: Utah’s Interior Design Law

UT SB117 allows interior designers, who were prohibited from independently practicing above 3,000 square feet in commercial spaces, to do so. It formally recognizes commercial interior design as a profession. The expanded scope of practice enables qualified interior designers to practice in Occupancies B & M, removes prohibitions from bidding on state and government design work in these spaces, allows designers to claim credit and full liability for their work, maintain ownership of their designs, provides for a signature and number for permitting purposes, and designates a minimum standard for qualification as well as establishes continuing education.

Why does interior design legislation matter?

Advocating for the interior design profession means standing up for the right to practice independently. There are numerous ways to contribute that don’t require protesting or meeting with legislators. Practice rights in the case of interior design legislation means removing the burdensome requirements which define a “licensed design professional” as only an architect or engineer, and eliminating the requirement of their signatures to stamp and sign off on your work. That is the job of the building inspector.

Advocacy also means declaring that interior designers are qualified to bid on state and federal interior design projects, meet minimum competency standards, and contribute significantly to the economic well-being of the state through professional design work. Furthermore, advocates are asserting that interior designers should be permitted the opportunity to own a controlling interest in firms and are qualified to be the primary “designer in charge” of interior design projects, to hire sub-contractors, and to assume liability. Additional areas of concern worth investigating in relation to each state’s statistics are:

  • Issues with access to capital
  • Ownership and intellectual property
  • Bidding and contracting
  • Lack of diversity in governance and leadership
  • Higher education institutions, achievement, and value
  • Stakeholder monopolies


The Opportunity to Dispel Myths

Becoming an advocate for the practice of interior design also offers the opportunity to dispel myths, primarily educating others on what interior designers truly do, which goes far beyond pillows and paint, of course. In regulatory arguments, this disparity is evidence of information asymmetry, demonstrable of a considerable gap between what you do in your profession and the public’s understanding of it. This idea is one pillar on which legislators judge the merits of imposing regulations: Does the public know enough to make educated decisions that do not result in significant health and safety issues?

Interior designers are trained to understand and apply national, state, and local building codes and standards; fire codes; accessibility needs of disabled and elderly persons, and other special needs groups; lighting quality and quantity standards; and acoustics and sound transmission according to IIDA. Nine times out of 10, the public, including state and federal representatives, does not perceive that interior designers are often responsible for the application of safety codes in public interior spaces.

In addition to educating the public on what interior designers do, there are many opportunities to dispel myths about what interior design legislation does and does not do. In fact, interior design legislation does not restrict business for unregulated designers. Instead these laws are created to expand opportunities in previously restricted spaces for all designers who meet the state qualifications. This approach to legislation means that if a designer continues to practice as he or she always has, nothing is stopping lawful practice if an interior design law is passed. It is voluntary and created for those that desire to expand the choices of where they can work independently.


Educating about Inequalities

Significant inequities exist within the industry that are alarming regardless of your political affiliation. Developing an understanding of employment, education, and workplace issues in relation to economic and social factors on a local level provides an additional set of tools to ascribe meaning, urgency, and leverage to advocacy campaigns. Taking this extra step allows supporters to cast a wide net with their arguments. A little fact finding can result in the truth about significant inequalities that can be used to educate policy makers, potential partners, stakeholders, and the public, as well as to recruit common allies. These compelling findings include areas of pay gap and gender inequality, social stereotypes, and diversity.

Advocating for the industry is also an opportunity to promote industry values, which embrace inclusiveness, diversity, and creativity. However, the most impactful argument lies squarely in fair competition and economic freedom, and all issues are essentially tied back to economic fairness. For example, interior designers who value workplace equality have the opportunity to promote federal protections where no strong federal protections exist that “ensure that co-workers can talk about how much they make without being punished by their employer.” It is difficult to investigate your worth if you are being paid less than someone of equal level when you fear losing your job for inquiring. Interior designers make on average $25,490 less per year than the architects who legally are able to take credit for interior design work in states without established interior design practice rights (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014).

Standing Up for the Values of Interior Design

Just ask a group of school-age kids to informally identify female and male careers and you will find that “architects are male” and “interior designers are female.” That sentiment is exactly what is reflected in research on the two industries. It is not surprising, then, that a pay gap and overt and covert stereotypes impacting organizational policies still exist.

If policies and laws are found to be unlawful over time, it creates a sense of urgency for interior designers to advocate for fair competition, citing monopolies and anti-trust arguments to create an environment of fair competition. Furthermore, the industry should be pushing for laws which protect employees who talk about how much they make from being fired. Workplace discrimination is often so commonplace it becomes socially sanctioned as acceptable, leaving little hope for progress. As such, interior designers have an obligation to stand up for their values and truth by advocating for professional rights.

A professional working at an architectural firm as an interior designer may believe these disparities do not affect them in the same way as independent designers, and it is true that those at large firms are often shielded from the burden of unfair competition. But what happens when you want to branch out on your own, or you lose your job, or your firm hires new talent, or you are dissatisfied with the new projects you are assigned? What are your options for matching your salary as an independent if you choose to leave because you want more ownership of your drawings or find out that you can never be partner? What is infinitely important to the profession of interior design is that it can stand on its own and provide the rights of practice no matter where designers choose to work.   

Impact on the Industry as a Whole

If a designer is still wondering about the effects of these issues, or is already working under established laws that satisfy professional endeavors, he/she should consider the impact of knowledge, letters/e-mails, and advocacy as a contribution to help colleagues and peers in other states. This is an example of elevating the profession and exemplifying unity within the industry. If the collective efforts of design practitioners includes extra steps to follow the money and incorporate the history of gender socialization, gender inequities, and pay gaps into legislative and advocacy arguments, the current statistics combined with clear evidence of overlapping scope of work become satisfactory and compelling reasons to advocate for the interior design profession and a distinct motivation urging state legislative leaders to join the fight.  

Amy Coombs, MSW, is the executive director of Prestige Government Relations & Consulting Group.

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