DESIGN in the Service of People
Good, responsible design considers its effect on people and the planet.
by Anita Baltimore
Recently, as a participant in a discussion involving furniture designers, architects, textile designers and other design professionals, I was challenged by a noted journalist who asserted that contrary to how they may view themselves, interior designers were not
problem solvers. Once designers had solved the "problem" of sitting by inventing the chair, he contended, there were no other basic human problems for them to solve-—dilemmas maybe, but not problems.
Of course, this was an oversimplification intended to provoke a response. When I added that designers were concerned with many issues affecting people's lives, such as sustainability, he challenged that idea, arguing that in construction only the architect could affect the green design of a building. I guessed he was thinking in terms of new construction and LEED building requirements. As I pondered how I should respond, an architect present interjected that he believed interior designers do impact indoor air quality with the carpet and other materials they specify; that interior designers can choose lighting and daylighting to conserve energy and reduce glare; and that interior designers identify furniture and panel systems that can have a huge impact on the environment in their manufacturing and life cycle. The rescue was swift and welcome. I was doubly relieved to have my position defended and to know that our role and responsibility is beginning to be understood and valued.
Some of you may think I should have been a bit more resolute. After all, our professionalism was being questioned, even if the intent was to elicit dialogue among the participants. But there was a lesson to be learned from this exchange. As interior designers, we have not done enough to promote the welfare aspect of our profession. When we talk among ourselves, we relate stories of how we have helped this or that client by addressing a real need, but what we show to the rest of the world are pretty pictures of rooms that have no people in them. To much of the world, interior design is about creating rooms that are works of art, not about creating interior environments that are safe and healthy and that enable and support human interaction. We must accept some responsibility that this is so, and we must actively begin to change these perceptions.
The ability to enhance the human condition through the environments we inhabit is the special province of interior design. Architecture has a shared responsibility in this role of providing safe, comfortable and inspirational spaces, but the function and use of a building is greatly enhanced by a carefully planned interior. Design that enables people to move through spaces without barriers and without adjustments for age, height or physical ability; that facilitates the ways the space is used and the activities that occur within it; and that does so in a way that is transparent and enriching to the occupants is powerful design. That is the business we are in. But how many people, including our clients, know that?
You may be thinking, "But clients don't want to hear all that." They will if we package the message properly. I was fortunate to be in the audience when Kathy Ford Montgomery, FASID, made a presentation on wellness in the workplace at IFMA World Workplace in October. Addressing a standing-room-only crowd, Kathy discussed research she has done on the impact of design in the workplace. She made a compelling case for the positive effect good design has on the wellness of any company's No. 1 asset, its employees. Virtually every decision in office design effects the health, safety and/or well-being of the occupants. Her findings provide solid evidence that good design is good for employees and for the bottom line. What corporate client wouldn't be pleased with that message? (Note: You can catch Kathy's presentation at Interiors '05: The ASID Conference on Design, March 17-20, in San Diego.)
The workplace is only one of many arenas, of course, in which good design safeguards the public and contributes to improved quality of life. Designers touch hundreds—and in the case of hospitality and other commercial forms of design, literally thousands—of lives each year. The services we provide our clients should go beyond responding to the problems they present to us. We serve our clients best when we integrate into our designs the benefits that they don't even know to ask from us—things like optimal way finding in public spaces, comfortable seating, slip-resistant flooring, materials that don't contaminate the surroundings with toxic off-gassing, and rooms that reduce noise and facilitate conversation because the acoustics have been properly addressed.
Serving people is at the very core of the values of the responsible interior designer. And there is much more that we can do in the near term and for future occupants of this planet. We can design interiors that serve the health and safety for not only the aging boomers, but also the babies who are developing asthma in increasing numbers due to an ever-more-toxic environment. We can help reduce infection and mortality rates in
hospitals. We can demand products made from sustainable materials that can be
recycled, reused or reclaimed. We can make good design more accessible to everyone.
Design has the power to change people's lives. We designers have the power to change people's perceptions of design. The next time your client requests an attractive, affordable space, offer to deliver more: a design that lifts the spirit, accommodates all users, improves functionality and is good to Mother Earth. The next generation of designers will be glad you did.
ASID president Anita Baltimore has served as an ASID volunteer at both the chapter and society levels for more than 25 years. She is a founder of Interior Design Services, Inc., located in Nashville, TN. ASID can be reached at (202) 546-3480; fax: (202) 546-3240; www.asid.org.