Learning by Design

It’s no secret that interior design schools are increasingly in demand. In fact, at the moment, there are more students of interior design in Canada than registered practitioners.

Interior Designers of Canada, an umbrella organization of the eight provincial interior design associations, listed 1,663 professionals and 1,766 students across the country last year. In Ontario, where most registered Canadian interior designers and students are concentrated, the ratio is even more striking: 1,068 registered professionals to 1,592 registered students. Sandra Knol, registrar at the Association of Registered Interior Designers of Ontario (ARIDO) points out that the student number may actually be low: it only reflects those who take ARIDO up on its offer of free student membership. She demurs when asked for the actual number of students in the province. “You’d have to check with each school to get that information.”

Given the wide range of programs in interior design education, to say this is a tricky task is to put it mildly. Unlike professional degree programs in architecture, which vary from school to school but which are bound by the thread of accreditation by the Canadian Architectural Certification Board (CACB), interior design programs are much more diverse.

College diploma courses in interior design, for instance, are not the same as university baccalaureate programs, and Ontario schools recognized by ARIDO are not necessarily the same as those accredited by the U.S.-based Foundation for Interior Design Education Research (FIDER). The same holds true for most other provinces. One thing is clear: each and every year, the many Canadian schools of interior design produce multitudes of fresh graduates, enough to completely restock the largest offices in the country and more.

What typifies the education of an interior designer? There are many similarities with contemporary architectural education, including increasing exposure to a mouse, a keyboard and the latest software package. Like architectural education, interior design seeks a balance of science, business and art. And many schools of interior design are stocked with teachers who were trained as architects.

But with interior design education, perhaps even more than architecture, the ultimate goal is to secure work in the industry upon graduation. This pragmatic orientation has resulted in interior design being taught, at least in Canada, in two- and three-year college diploma courses. Brad Culver, a Toronto architect and Coordinator of Sheridan College’s 350-student interior design diploma program, puts it this way: “The college mandate is to produce people to get jobs. We’re observers of society; we respond to it rather than alter it.”

Schools exist because society holds high the ideals of education, of course. But at another level, they function like any business, providing a service subject to the laws of supply and demand. Increasingly, students are viewed as consumers and educators are producers. In this model, producers must ensure the desirability of their product.

What can a school do to be desirable? “Get FIDER-accredited,” says Joyce O’Keefe, chair of the interior design program at Toronto’s International Academy of Design and Technology (IADT). “It’s the best advertising of all.” The IADT is one of 42 for-profit post-secondary institutions run by the Chicago-based Career Education Corporation. “Number one is to get the heads in,” as O’Keefe puts it. She denies the distinction between a for-profit school and a provincially funded one in this respect: “Even the province funds according to the number of bodies. Students were called ‘income-generating units’ at York University during the strike a little while ago, which raised a few eyebrows. But it’s true.” Nonetheless, O’Keefe makes clear that IADT’s extensive media-based advertising is not the main draw for the 400 students in her interior design program.

“FIDER accreditation generates requests for information from all over the world. Logging onto FIDER’s Web site brings up IADT, and anyone seeking a North American education will consider Toronto.” She stresses the Academy’s strong program, but its reputation in her mind is ensured by FIDER accreditation. What a school has to avoid, adds O’Keefe, is “getting a bad reputation as a place that is staid, not forward-thinking”–or worse, a place that will not get its graduates a job. “The worst thing that could happen would be to start turning out students who are not placeable in the industry because they lack skills. And a lot of that means learning new technology.”

To the industry, too, a labour pool of eager employable newcomers each spring is welcome. Thomas Fisher, now Dean of the College of Architecture and Planning at the University of Minnesota, pointed out in a Progressive Architecture editorial over 10 years ago (December, 1991) how Karl Marx correctly foresaw today’s situation: a “standing industrial reserve army” of workers who can be readily hired and fired acts to keep employees on their toes, and keep costs down. As Cynthia Henderson, a registered interior designer and partner in a small Toronto firm puts it, “you get resumes every day. You look at them as you need them.”

The fact is that there are simply not enough interior design office jobs to go around. Consequently, interior design graduates are working in areas such as designing sets for Hollywood movies, creating furniture on Canada Council grants, even teaching interior design. One lesson to take from this is that an education in interior design is broad enough to allow its possessor to get all kinds of work. Draughting and computer skills, knowledge of colour theory, an eye for materials and harmony: these can only improve the world. Interior designers doing “other things” is a given. Sandra Knol of ARIDO adds, “The same thing is true in architecture. The skills learned in interior design are transferable to many other kinds of work.”

Arguably, then, the system works for everyone. If it seems as though it isn’t broken, why are so many people trying to fix it? One reason is the increasing regulation of interior design as a profession. Wherever there is a professional association, it has called on the provincial government to enact “Titles Acts,” effectively raising the bar for those who wish to practice as registered interior designers. The benefits of such acts are clear: they help define and codify professional standards. Other moves to professionalize the practice include the growing role of FIDER accreditation and the U.S.-based National Council of Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) qualifying exam. All these initiatives have undeniable repercussions on the education of interior designers.

Like architecture, for most of its history interior design had been conducted as a trade, and, also like architecture, is a relative newcomer to formal professional education. Architecture has been taught in Canada at the university level since the first school was established at the University of Toronto in 1890, and today 10 Canadian universities have CACB-accredited schools of architecture. The first university degree program in interior design was launched at the University of Manitoba in 1949. Today, three university-level programs in interior design are offered in Canada–at the University of Manitoba, Toronto’s Ryerson University, and Kwantlen University College, in Richmond, B.C. These schools, along with another six diploma-granting institutions, are among the nine Canadian programs in interior design recognized by FIDER. While the universities offer a broad-based arts and sciences background similar to university programs in architecture, the diploma programs come out of a tradition of pragmatism and learning-by-doing.

Canada’s first provincial association of interior designers was founded in Ontario in 1934 (followed the next year in Quebec) to certify and register interior designers meeting industry standards. But back then there was no educational requirement; the profession was learned through apprenticeship. Today there are eight provincial assoc
iations (Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador are the exceptions), united under the auspices of the Interior Designers of Canada (the Northwest Territories has an association not affiliated with IDC; Nunavut and Yukon have no association). Each has its own standards for registering interior designers. Generally, the “seven-year rule” applies: a combination of education and experience adding up to six or seven years will enable one to take the NCIDQ exam, which in turn enables inter-provincial and cross-border reciprocity. Not just any seven-year combination will do, of course. The educational component must comprise a recognized two- to four-year college or university program. And what constitutes recognition? In most provinces, it is ultimately the U.S.-based FIDER. Some jurisdictions, including Ontario, have schools recognized by the provincial or state association that are not also accredited by FIDER.

“I cannot emphasize highly enough that there is no stigma attached to a school recognized by ARIDO that is not FIDER-accredited,” says ARIDO’s Sandra Knol. At the same time, she cites a growing trend to becoming FIDER-accredited, and compares the attainment of a FIDER-accredited degree to being a Harvard graduate. “Everyone will know you have met extremely high standards.”

The International Academy of Design’s Joyce O’Keefe elaborates: “FIDER makes no distinction between colleges and universities in its accreditation process, which means a two-year diploma can be as good as a four-year university degree.”

According to Kayem Dunn, Executive Director of FIDER, the Foundation’s accreditation standards are formulated in accordance with the “skills, knowledge and attributes required by the interior design profession.” FIDER has formulated 12 standards, the first eight of which describe the requirements of educational programs. While most FIDER-accredited interior design programs in the U.S. are baccalaureate degrees, this is not the case in Canada. FIDER is “concerned with the level of knowledge gained by the student;” they’re “looking at whether or not students learn what the profession requires, not necessarily the number of hours they spend in a program.”

What does this bode for the universities? According to Lennie Scott-Webber, Chair of Ryerson University’s Interior Design Department (260 students in a four-year degree program), “the heart of any philosophy of interior design education is to impart knowledge to solve problems regarding the health, safety and welfare of the public. Designers have a responsibility to develop creative solutions, but make sure they meet codes and user needs.” Is interior design therefore a science? “Yes: it requires critical thinking and problem solving.” Scott-Webber, who has a PhD in interior design, notes that “a bachelor’s degree offers students the opportunity to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills. A bachelor’s degree has a liberal arts component that enables students to dig deep and to explore philosophical issues. Potential employers will always want well-rounded employees. Interior design is a complex, critical thinking, problem-solving discipline. It’s more than nuts and bolts.” Like O’Keefe, Scott-Webber is adamant on the importance of FIDER accreditation. “As the interior design profession strives for greater credibility and responsibility, accreditation is pivotal. Make sure the degree is accredited.”

“It’s very expensive to invite the FIDER board to a school for accreditation,” acknowledges O’Keefe, “but more and more schools are doing it. They have to.” She likens FIDER to the interior design profession’s version of the College of Physicians and Surgeons: “an accrediting body independent of any provincial ministry.”

Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario, is one of the schools recognized by ARIDO that is not FIDER accredited. At least not yet.

Sheridan’s Interior Design Coordinator Brad Culver explains: “The competition is FIDER-accredited. Potential students are asking ‘why is that school accredited and Sheridan isn’t?’ It’s the way the system is going and we have to play along. Yes, it’s expensive–and the cost is two-fold. There’s the fee, and then there are the costs associated with getting organized for the accreditation panel. It’s a process we’ll be embarking on this fall.”

Is there a chance the Board of Trustees of some colleges could find these costs too high? Culver acknowledges this could happen. “They might look at the program and say, ‘Other schools are already FIDER-accredited. Why do we need to keep our interior design program, if it’s going to cost us so much to make it acceptable?’ But if the stuff you teach is pretty much what FIDER is asking for, and your Key Performance Indicators [a provincial Education Ministry measurement of student, employer and graduate satisfaction] are high, your program should be safe.”

Which is another way of saying: if your graduates can find jobs and perform at a high level, your school has nothing to fear. And ultimately, while maintaining FIDER accreditation may be the way to ensure those conditions are met, it still comes down to jobs. In an economy without enough work for interior designers, graduates may need to apply their skills in other directions, just as the recession of the 1990s resulted in many architecture graduates embarking on careers outside the profession, testament to the notion that a design education is transferable to many kinds of work.

Jacob Allderdice is a graduate architect currently enrolled in the Master of Urban Design program at the University of Toronto. He teaches interior design at the International Academy of Design.