Defining a "Body of Knowledge"

Sept. 1, 2003
John Weigand and Beth Harmon-Vaughan

Defining a "Body of Knowledge"

Twenty-five interior design practitioners, educators and industry representatives from across the U.S. and Canada were invited to Washington, DC for a long weekend in May. The task at hand: to debate, and hopefully begin to define, a body of knowledge for the profession. The "BOK Conference," as it came to be called, was jointly sponsored by ASID, IIDA, FIDER, NCIDQ and AICAD, and was positioned as the first of a series of programs designed to wrestle with key issues impacting the profession.As session facilitators, our initial reaction was that it should not be too tough a challenge to get our hands around a "body of knowledge" for interior design. Do we not, in fact, know what we know and what we do? FIDER, in its efforts to continually develop and refine accreditation guidelines, enumerates very specifically the content knowledge that must be addressed in an accredited program. Likewise NCIDQ, in its efforts to gauge professional competency, continually defines and redefines professional knowledge and skill sets. And so it was with some level of expectation for consensus that we began the program.It soon became apparent, however, that our challenge would be both simple and complex at the same time, and that the topic is, in fact, layered with multiple sub-texts. How do we know what we know? With whom do we share our knowledge? How does knowledge equate to value? In what ways might knowledge differ in education and in practice? And how is our knowledge base changing?By the final day of the conference, we made the decision to propose a document created for the Association of Registered Interior Designers of Ontario (ARIDO) as a "best effort to date" to summarize a body of knowledge for the profession. This document, crafted by Denise Guerin and Caren Martin of the University of Minnesota, was commissioned specifically to support ARIDO's licensing efforts and more generally to begin to define a body of knowledge for the profession. By looking comprehensively at content knowledge across the spectrum of education and practice, the ARIDO document seemed to provide a thorough assessment of the profession's knowledge base.Our attempt to garner consensus around the ARIDO document proved valuable insofar as it forced conference attendees to articulate positions on how the profession can best define its knowledge base. Clearly, at this point in the program, there was a divergence of opinion. Although there did seem to be strong support for ARIDO as a "snapshot" of where the profession has been and has come in its efforts to define itself, concern was voiced by many that any position the group might take needed to be more forward-looking and needed to address the issues listed above.For several, interior design is distinguished through its underlying values, theories and cognitive processes; it is better defined in descriptive terms than by prescriptive skill sets. A designer's real contribution may be his or her ability to synthesize multiple problem requirements into effective design solutions. Recurring discussion also centered around the need to better emphasize or distinguish various content knowledge and ways of knowing; all knowledge is not "created equal." Another topic that was center-stage during much of the weekend was that of "boundaries." What interior design knowledge is proprietary (unique to interior design) and what is shared with other allied professions such as architecture? To what extent do we "own" a body of knowledge? If interior design knowledge is both shared and unique, then what is the process for gaining this knowledge and for generating new knowledge? And how might a shift toward graduate education strengthen interior design's claim that it possesses both professional status and a unique knowledge base? Under this topic of boundaries, several participants articulated the need to further distinguish "design" from "decoration" in the career track.For some attendees, a central issue was the need to define "value-added" by interior designers in the eyes of the consuming public, and to take on inaccurate stereotypes about the design profession perpetuated by the media. It may be far more important to spend our time and energy communicating our legitimacy to others than attempting to define it among ourselves. It was noted that interior design can learn important lessons about how to do this by looking at other professions.By quitting time, it was clear that we would not walk away with any clear consensus about what constitutes a body of knowledge for the interior design profession. It became especially obvious to the two of us that a body of knowledge is multi-faceted; how one defines a body of knowledge depends on one's perspective. The definition likely changes when we use it to regulate academic programs, or to assess professional competency via testing, or to gain professional recognition in the legal arena, or to communicate value to the public. And it is likely something different altogether when we use it to define boundaries between interior design and related disciplines, or when we look at how design knowledge may be changing. The objectives for defining a body of knowledge are different in each case.Sometimes a discourse is advanced not by answering a question, but by better defining that question. At this level, the BOK Conference was most successful. As a concluding step, several strategies were suggested for follow-up sessions. These included defining the topic more narrowly, predefining outcomes, including participants outside the discipline, and including representatives from both education and practice identified as demonstrating "best practices."Hats off to each of the five co-sponsoring organizations for their investment of time and resources in underwriting the BOK Conference. This is clearly a group invested in the future of the profession! John Weigand, IDEC, IIDA, is associate professor of interior design in the Department of Architecture and Interior Design at Miami University in Oxford, OH. Beth Harmon-Vaughan, FIIDA, is currently serving as chair of the FIDER Board of Directors. Weigand and Harmon-Vaughan were co-facilitators of the Body of Knowledge Conference held May 16 to 18 in Washington, DC.

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