Archive for the ‘Being a Design Student’ Category

Thesis, at last

Saturday, April 12th, 2008

My graduate thesis is finally finished. Here’s what it’s about:


The competitiveness of a business providing services rather than goods rests on whether its customers perceive the services to be of good quality. Among the factors that strongly influence the perception of service quality is the interior environment of the place in which services are received.
The author reviews several lines of business-based research that examine how the interior environment affects customers’ perceptions of service quality, proposes a model synthesizing this research into seven primary influences on the perception of service quality – functional, temporal, physical, ambient, psychological, indicative, and social – and discusses the role that design of the interior environment plays in each of these influences. The concepts discussed in this paper are of significance to business because they demonstrate the value of design in a business setting and to the interior design profession because they expand the interior design body of knowledge beyond the confines of design-based research.

Click here to read it.


Thursday, June 28th, 2007

I had a recent experience that’s left a funny taste in my mouth. I did an on-site study for a design class I’m taking. The assignment was to test a design theory by directly observing a design firm. I got permission to do my small study at a large firm in my locality.

I thought the somewhat unexpected results of the study would be of use to the organization I studied and of interest to the design field at large, since they involved a topic that is much discussed in current literature. Although the results presented an opportunity for learning and a great jumping off place for further research and discovery, I was asked not to reveal the results – not even to the firm’s own employees. My findings were, apparently, too close to a topic that was controversial within the firm, for reasons I don’t know and didn’t discover in the survey.

While I can respect that organization’s desire to avoid stirring up a controversial issue, the whole notion of suppressing information makes me uneasy. It always has. I used to be a litigator, but I hated the way everyone kept secrets just so their side could win – I believed in figuring out the truth. I used to have a marriage, but my husband kept himself secret – I believed in communication and working things out. I now have a notion that design, based on collaboration and sharing information, can make the world a better place – I don’t want this to become another “used to.”

The Summer 2007 issue of Perspective, the International Interior Design Association’s magazine, calls itself the “Power of Design issue.” Pamela Light, IIDA’s president, prefaces the issue with a challenge to designers to use design to “influence human behavior” by embracing the idea that “design has the power to change the world.” I believe this is possible, but it can only happen if information is shared and learning opportunities are embraced. Secrecy cannot be part of the equation.

I can’t tell at this point if my experience with this study was just a bit of insignificant political wrangling or if it’s an indication that the design field, like many, is just another field where politics trumps the truth. Is the notion that design can make a difference just another pipe dream, like justice and trust? I truly hope not, but this little taste of secrecy has made me wonder.

Model 2

Wednesday, April 11th, 2007

I’m taking a studio in my interior design program. Our assignment is to design a restaurant. I built a model.

Here are some pictures.

Design studios: a proposal

Saturday, March 10th, 2007

Much is written about design education and I have to admit I’ve read none of it. However, I’m in my last year of an Interior Design graduate program and in the 7th week of my first design job and I have some from-the-ground observations on the scope of design curriculum. This post presents a proposal for an interior design studio curriculum. My bet is that some schools already do this (I haven’t researched it), but my school doesn’t and, as a result, I am feeling a distinct lack of knowledge and experience as I struggle to catch up in my new job – a lack that I believe could have been avoided with a more structured studio program.

As background, here’s a rundown of my coursework. Because this degree is my first design degree, I first completed several pre-requisites – Current Issues, Drafting/Rendering, Textiles, and a residential studio. Once in the graduate program proper, I completed coursework in CAD, Lighting (2 courses), History of Architecture and Design (ancient to modern, 3 courses), Business Procedures, Furniture Design, Building Technology, Project Management (an elective in the business school), and three design studios. This semester I’m in the fourth studio and beginning work for my thesis project. I have another elective to fulfill, which will be a practicum.

This curriculum touches a lot of ground and I learned a lot. Now that I’m working, however, I see a need for improvement, particularly in how studios are taught. In my curriculum, each studio introduced a new project and covered only the design development phase of the design process. For the most part, we were either given design programs or allowed to make them up (we did no empirical research) and we learned very little about how to go about developing and applying a concept. We never got to construction documents or beyond.

[For those of you who are not in the design business, the process generally involves (1) programming, where you gather facts about your client’s needs and desires and the building they will occupy, (2) schematic design, where you work out your general ideas and concepts and explore options, (3) design development, where you figure out how your client will fit into the space and then detail how the space will be built, finished, and furnished, (4) construction documentation, where you develop the detailed drawings that guide the construction and finishing of the new space, (5) construction administration, where you work with contractors during actual construction, and (6) post-occupancy evaluation, where you review how well your design actually works in real life.]

Design development is good stuff, but if I were organizing a studio curriculum, I’d provide students with in-depth exposure to all the phases of a design project, not just design development. Without a full-project perspective, design solutions not only run the risk of lacking depth and coherence, but often bear only a tenuous relationship with real-life functionality, sometimes bordering on the fantastical and impossible. Because a semester is too short to encompass the entire design process for any project, I’d link the four studios, carrying a single project through the various steps, allowing more in-depth exposure to all aspects of design and thus better equiping students for design careers. Here’s my proposal.

  • Studio 1 would be a research studio and deal with the beginning phases of a project, covering programming, research, and concept development. Students would be given a hypothetical project (with a choice among various types – workplace, education, hospitality, residential, etc.) linked to an actual client. This project would carry throughout all studios. Students would begin by conducting a literature review and doing general research on their industry/area to learn what considerations are involved in their type of project, the current trends, and what scholarly research has been done. Then students would research their particular client using the internet and published material, site visits, and interviews. Professors would make arrangements with actual companies or homeowners to make this possible (or set up mock client interviews if actual client interviews can’t be arranged). Design theory would be introduced and studied, then, analyzing the data they’ve collected, students would formulate concepts for their projects and create a statement of the design problem to be solved. Students would learn (in a hands-on way) how to create presentation boards and process books in this studio as well.
  • Studio 2 be a creativity studio and would continue concept development and take students through the beginnings of design development. First, students would experiment with their concepts, using diagrams, models, and materials, to learn how to translate their concepts into physical form. Then they would develop test fits and alternatives, which they’d refine into informal plans, elevations, sections, and details. Teaming would be introduced at this level. Students would continue to work on their own projects independently, but would be formed into teams for idea exchange and studio time would be allowed for informal team charettes. Teams would shift from class-to-class to allow maximum idea generation. This studio would have a practical side as well, introducing building code requirements and budgeting. Students would also be taught more advanced presentation techniques.
  • Studio 3 would be a practical studio during which students would complete the design development process. Students would finalize their plans, elevations, sections, and details, create perspectives, learn how to locate and choose materials, finishes, and furnishings, learn how to create details, and perfect their presentation skills. In-class team charettes would continue for idea generation. This studio would also include design charettes with outside designers at the mid-semester mark to provide higher-level ideation. Professors would enlist these designers.
  • Studio 4 would be a nuts-and-bolts studio, teaching the construction document, bidding, contracting, and construction phases of the process. Students would create a full sheet set of construction documents and specifications; learn how to create formal specifications for materials, equipment, and furnishings; learn about working with permitting authorities, consultants and contractors; gain a solid exposure to standard project management skills such as staffing, scheduling, budgeting, and dealing with changes and problems; and be exposed to various legal considerations involved in a project such as contracting, approvals, and liability. Students would either take a field trip to an actual construction site or be shown a presentation walking them through an actual project.

This four-studio process covers much more ground than does a series of four studios with separate projects. Students would be exposed to nearly all phases of a project in great depth, making them much better equipped to step into the design marketplace. The key to success, however, would be in the way the studios are taught. Professors would have to offer in-depth practical information on the how-to of design, arrange for meaningful projects and contacts, ensure that students are doing hands-on work and not just listening to 15-minute lectures or reading about the design phases in a textbook, and coordinate with one another to ensure that nothing is overlooked. The disadvantage of this system from the student point-of-view is that students are stuck with one project for four classes. However, the process of designing is the same regardless of the type of project and in the real world, junior designers seldom have much choice on what projects they work on. Students would, of course, learn about other practice areas by interacting with their classmates and observing their projects. On balance, the benefits to students of providing a complete exposure to the full design process outweigh the risk that students’ topical interests might change over the course of the four studios and justify any extra work on the part of professors.

So, design educators, this post is for you. Perhaps this proposal is nothing new, but it does offer a student/new designer perspective that you, as seasoned educators, may have lost sight of. If your goal is to equip your students to be good designers and to get great jobs, your students need a thorough studio experience.

Studio 508 – week 5

Thursday, February 22nd, 2007

For my current studio in my graduate interior design program, I’ve been asked to design a restaurant. Although I struggled with developing a concept for this project (see previous posts about the beginning and third week of the studio), I’ve finally settled on something and am now on to design development. Whether it’s a concept that would hold up under professional scrutiny, I don’t know, but it seems to be reasonable and workable. Here is the gist of the story I developed.

My hypothetical client is a classically-trained chef who wants to open a restaurant on San Antonio’s River Walk that will create an interactive experience for her patrons – both among patrons and between patrons and the work staff. She wants patrons to participate in the food preparation process in some way. The concept for the project, then, is to create an interactive environment where the boundaries between patron and work staff are blurred. Here’s a concept diagram:

The concept was informed in part by an article by David A. Hollinger, called From identity to solidarity, in the Fall 2006 issue of Daedalus, the American Academy of Arts and Science’s journal. Hollinger’s inquiry is into why and how people form affiliations in the 21st century. He is especially interested in willful affiliations, which he refers to as “solidarity”, and asserts that the “accelerating integration of the global capitalist economy and its accompanying communications systems” is making solidarity the “problem of the twenty-first century.” He states that “to come to grips with one’s true identity is to ground, on a presumptively primordial basis, vital connections to other people beyond the family.” My idea, then is to explore Hollinger’s notion of solidarity in my restaurant design – to encourage patrons to form “willful affiliations” with each other and with staff.

The building we were given to work with is rather strange, but I’m beginning to make some sense of it. I did some research on San Antonio history and created a story for the building (not actually in San Antonio so far as I know). I named it the Dwyer Building after a mayor of the city who lived in the 19th century. In my story, the building undergoes a number of additions over the years, shown on the following plan:

So, now I’m putting this project into Revit (which I’m learning) and am beginning to develop some ideas about the space. My first idea was to have chefs bring cooking carts out into the dining room (where patrons would be seated at sofas, chairs, and communal tables in addition to the traditional private tables) and negotiate what they’d prepare directly with clients. No menu. After hearing my professor’s comments, I am now thinking of having the patron-staff interaction occur in a more controlled setting at demonstration tables where seated patrons would watch the chef work, help out with the prep, and eat the results – much like a cooking academy. The menu might be a take-home recipe.

Now to translate this story into a designed space. More later.


Sunday, February 4th, 2007

On an intellectual level, I understand the notion of concept in design, but when it comes to applying a concept to an actual project, I just don’t get it. I can read a text and write about the topic like a champ and I can learn how to do something by watching and trying it out, but if I’m asked to translate between verbal thinking and visual/kinesthetic thinking, I run up against a blank wall. But this translation – between words and images – seems to be exactly what’s required with applying a concept to a project and I’m struggling to make sense of it.

My current studio teacher’s design education was more grounded in theory and, as a result, she does get it. She can start with an intellectual notion and create the loveliest diagrams expressing her ideas, then seemingly effortlessly turn these ideas into an architectural design. Now she is trying to lead us through this theoretical process of translating ideas into images. I still haven’t gotten it, but I am beginning to feel a glimmer of understanding.

Our project is a restaurant and here is the process so far. First translation: looking at drawings from the Imaginary Prison series by Giovanni Batista Piranesi, we developed a list of words. Second translation: we associated architectural terms with these words. Third translation: from these words and architectural terms, we are developing diagrams that show our concept. Fourth translation: use our concept to develop the restaurant’s design.

Ok. First, I took a stab at the drawings and came up with a list of words. They were generic and insipid. I worked on them some more and began to see some patterns, but nothing emerged that felt like a concept. Second, I took the words and associated them with design principles and elements. Not so hard, but each word could reasonably be associated with a lot of elements and principles so the whole exercise felt overly broad and undefined and got me no closer to feeling that I was approaching a concept. Third, I started in on the most literal type of diagram, the adjacency diagram, and at least came up with a sense of the functional needs in a restaurant, but still had little sense of what my concept might be.

So I went back to the drawings and the words and let my thoughts free-flow through them, purposefully abandoning anything literal, just to see what would happen. What happened is that ideas started to flow. Not images of what my restaurant project might look like, but what could perhaps be the beginnings of a concept. A concept still expressed in words, but at least it is bordering on being a real concept.

Now I have to turn this notion into something visual, and this is probably where I will have the most difficulty. How do you make words into forms, shapes, volumes? My guess is that I can’t reason through this exercise in my usual problem-solving mathematical way. So I’m sketching and reading and sketching some more and it is starting to make some sense. I still don’t have a fully-developed concept, but at least I may be on the right track.

Studio 508 – week 1

Saturday, January 20th, 2007

I just started my new semester and am taking an advanced design studio. The professor is new. She was apparently hired the afternoon our class was to begin, so class didn’t get underway until nearly 45 minutes after it was scheduled and the new professor hadn’t had much opportunity to prepare. So she laid out a few thoughts she’d had on what the studio might address for the semester.

The professor related that she’d read a quote from a study done by the US Department of Justice that stated: “If recent incarceration rates remain unchanged, an estimated 1 out of every 20 persons (5.1%) will serve time in a prison during their lifetime.” She said it struck her as an interesting basis for our term project. The silence was pretty dense as we all thought – We’re going to design a jail? – – OMG. Visions of concrete and steel cellblocks and Andy Griffin. Class ended. I went home.

Two days later, I came back. The professor had pinned up 15 etchings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, an Italian printmaker and architect who lived during the 18th century. These prints, his Imaginary Prison series done in 1745 and 1761, were amazing. Each print depicted monumental architecture with stark contrasts of light and darkness, figures lost in the vastness and complexity of the spaces, and strong portrayals of emotion. We talked about the prints for a while, then each picked one to study.

Before we set in, we read an article from the Harvard Design Magazine by Marshal Berman entitled “Notes From Underground – Plato’s Cave, Piranesi’s Prison, and the Subway.” The author compares the experience of a city subway system to the philosophical lessons of Plato’s cave allegory and Piranesi’s drawings. In Plato’s allegory, prisoners chained in a black cave suffer because their restricted sensory experience blinds them to the clarity and beauty of the world outside. To Plato, human potential is in striving toward the light. Piranesi’s prints depict prison-like stone structures with no apparent way in or out, where shrouded figures trudge in darkness seemingly helpless to reach the light that floods in through ambiguously open windows at great heights. But some figures do seem to have managed to climb up toward the light, suggesting that perhaps Piranesi shared to some extent Plato’s belief that human endeavor can overcome seemingly impenetrable barriers.

The print I chose is called “The Smoking Fire.” It shows massive stone columns, bridges, and arches with light streaming through what appear to be openings to the outside, but which on closer look, lead to more architecture and endlessly climbing staircases. In the center of this landscape is a massive bridge, swarming with dark and indistinct figures, on which burns a billowing white smoky fire. Now, Berman writes of the terror and dread conveyed by these prints, but the more I looked at my print the less I saw it as a depiction of physical and moral hopelessness and the more I saw it as a representation of exploration and discovery, hope, and even as a yearning for knowledge.

I thought about this more after class and decided that this exercise probably spoke less about what Piranesi meant to depict and more about what my attitude about life might be. Perhaps this is what’s so fabulous about art – that it can help us to see ourselves. Perhaps this is what may be fabulous about this class – that it may help me to better explore the designer within me.

But what an unexpected leap, from a flat initial impression to a much more complex experience. Whether we design a jail, or whether the Justice Department quote turns out to be simply an inspiration, this class promises to be terrific.

Research I

Sunday, December 31st, 2006

This spring semester, I’m beginning the work on my graduate thesis project. Because the project is a design research project, over the holiday break I’m reading several books on research to get a head start on what I’ll be doing over the next year. So far, it’s a bit overwhelming. The sort of research needed for a design project is quite different from the research needed for a law brief or a topical paper or article, the two types of research/writing with which I’m most familiar. Legal research involves reading laws, regulations, case law (written opinions handed down by courts on particular cases), and at times legislative history (committee reports and other documents that are part of the history of the writing and enactment of a law). It’s simply a matter of reading carefully and thoroughly to understand the salient points, then using those points to craft an argument. Research for a topical paper or article requires enough reading to learn about the topic in sufficient depth to discuss it intelligently. The extent of the research depends in large part on who will be reading the piece.

The research needed for this design project, however, is quite different. This type of research, known as behavioral-environmental research, requires a direct gathering of quantitative and qualitative data through field observation, questionnaires, experiments, or other empirical means. Data are organized and analyzed and the findings used to inform the design project. From the descriptions of these data-gathering processes, they appear to be quite time consuming. Now, if I could accomplish this as part of my everyday job, it would be a lot of fun, but I have no idea how I’ll manage it with only nights and weekends available. Hopefully, after I’ve plowed through a few books I’ll have a better idea of how to organize my time and structure my course of action.

Here are some of the how-to-research books I’m making my way through:

Revit, first take

Tuesday, December 26th, 2006

I have just downloaded a 30-day trial of Revit Building 9, the building information modeling software from Autodesk, and have set about learning it. So far, the tutorials are going well – it seems to be easier to use than AutoCAD. Like all tutorials, however, the instructions lead you thorough a series of steps that accomplish some task, but don’t bother to explain why you use a particular command or what that command is actually doing. I can follow the steps and create the great-looking house or office that the tutorial builds, but at the end I have only a cursory understanding of what I did. This method of teaching software doesn’t make a lot of sense to me – without knowing what each command is actually doing and why it is doing what it is doing, how can I learn what to do in other situations? I do better if I can access a manual that explains each command in depth.

Nevertheless, building information modeling seems to be the latest and greatest thing in the AEC industry. In a nutshell, this software keeps all building information in a single file – from structure to finishes to furnishings. Changes in any place in the file are instantly updated in all other places. For example, changing the placement and type of a window in an elevation causes the change to show up on the corresponding floor plan and in the window schedule. This helps prevent mistakes and speeds up the design process. The software contains pre-defined building elements and components too. For example, a door type can be selected from a list and simply clicked into the model. I’m looking forward to becoming expert at this program.

Students can get Revit at reasonable prices from educational software vendors such as Academic Superstore, Campus Tech, Journey Ed, Software Express, Studica, and others. Check all the sites because the prices vary.

Wedding project

Wednesday, November 22nd, 2006

This semester I am enrolled in a Project Management class in the business school as an elective for my Interior Design master’s program. This is a very useful and informative class and one that I would urge all design students to arrange to take, even if it has to be done through another department or school. Design work is project work and these skills are invaluable for all design positions.

Our term project was to plan a multi-cultural wedding where the bride and groom were of two different religions (neither could be Christian). The wedding was to be high-society, it was to be held in DC, we could only bring 10 relatives from other countries, and we had to spend $1,000,000. Our deliverables were a business case, statement of assumptions and constraints, work breakdown structure, project network/schedule, risk and change management processes, metrics, and lessons learned. The work breakdown structure identified a range of wedding-related tasks, including guests, stationery, site, transportation, hotel, decor, food, media, security, and honeymoon. Our team of 8 divided up these deliverables and activities and each contributed to the final Powerpoint slideshow and notebook. The slideshow stressed the cultural aspects of the wedding and summarized the business deliverables; the notebook contained the full text of the business deliverables.

Our team choose a Nigerian bride of the Igbo people who follows traditional worship practices and a Muslim groom from the northern part of Sudan. We did a lot of research to learn about the very interesting wedding traditions of these two cultures. In both cultures, weddings go on for several days and festivities are usually held in tents, so we decided to plan for two days of wedding events – the first for the Nigerian ceremonies and the second for the Sudanese ceremonies. We would install three large tents in the meadow at the National Arboretum in DC – one tent to represent the groom’s family compound, another for the bride’s family, and the third for dancing. Both events would be held in the evening. (Links to websites that discuss Nigerian weddings: BBC News, article by Utibe Uko, Motherland Nigeria, Top Wedding Links, Chicken Bones: A Journal, African Wedding Traditions. Links to websites that discuss Sudanese weddings: Nile Kids, African Wedding Traditions, Al-Ahram Weekly.)

My particular area was the interior design, which included the tents, tent decor, lighting, flooring, equipment, furniture, linens, plants, and flowers. Because this was a business class, I wasn’t expected to go beyond listing activities, obtaining budget information, and developing a schedule, so I didn’t develop my design beyond the concept stage.

For the Nigerian ceremonies, my design concept was to create a lush tropical garden with dappled sunlight shining through the leaves. I envisioned filling the tents with tall coconut palms to create a canopy over the guests and using other tropical plants to create borders and dividers as needed to demark the family seating and guest dining areas, covering the ground with natural raffia or palm woven mats, and draping the tables with neutral but lush table linens. Because the guests and wedding party in Nigerian weddings typically wear very colorful traditional clothing, color would be provided by the clothing and by tropical flowers on the tables. Lighting would be a combination of accent lights shining through the palms to create dappled light and shadow, tiny sparkle lights in the palms and on the tent perimeters, and unobtrusive direct lighting as needed for dining, food service, and other tasks.

For the Sudanese ceremonies, my concept was to create the feel of an exotic and ancient bazaar with rich colors and textures and dramatic lighting. My plan was to drape the ceilings and walls with rich red silks and cover the floors with deep red carpets. Diners would sit on floor cushions of gold and black silk around low, custom-made square tables of dark wood. Palms would create boundaries and intimacy as needed. Lighting would be a combination of dramatic uplighting through the palms, sparkle lights around the perimeters, gentle downlighting as needed for food service and dining, and a profusion of warmly-glowing copper lanterns of all sizes hung from the ceilings, lining the pathways, and lighting the tables and seating areas. Food service would be on copper trays.

I pulled the slideshow together after each team member had provided input on her or his part of the project. Because this was a business class presentation and not a design presentation, my decor slides showed only the basic concepts. The slide show as a whole is interesting because it has lots of pictures and explains the wedding traditions of these two cultures. Click here to see the show in PDF format.

This was a good project – it was fascinating to learn about the wedding traditions of these two cultures, weddings are happy occasions so planning them is fun, I learned the various stages involved in the business side of managing a project, and I had a chance to experience team dynamics.