Equitable design amplifies the human experience

When Cheryl Durst, Executive Vice President and CEO of the International Interior Design Association (IIDA), was six years old she visited a museum with her parents. Turning a corner and coming across two divergent pathways, she asked how people know which direction to take –– and was thus introduced to the concept of design.

“That was such a phenomenal moment, because it later helped me understand that design isn’t accidental. That it is intentional, it is a power, it is a force, it is a thought process,” Durst says. For her, this power is imbued with a sacred trust to craft moments that amplify the human experience of a space.

Thanks to her long-standing leadership role at the IIDA, Durst has honed unique insights on the impact of design. “Design inherently has the power to make something better,” she says. Creating deep meaning for people is what space stands for. That is its purpose, or its “why.”

“The more that design can craft adaptable spaces, but also spaces where the purpose is clear, the better.”

– Cheryl Durst

When she talks to designers, she asks: “Is your consideration of space broad enough so that the built environment is inclusive of purpose, inclusive of the people who will encounter that space?” 

Inclusivity begins with an investment in the diversity and training of designers themselves, says Durst. Then, armed with a broader understanding of the world, designers should invite multidisciplinary voices to take a seat at their table –– working together to create spaces with meaning that reflect the people using them.

Ultimately, design teams can function as community activists, explaining to others why an environment was designed a certain way and amplifying their experience with it.

Equitable design starts from the inside out

“In the realm of design, there has always been the desire to create equitable spaces,” says Durst. But the industry has to face some internal discomfort to access a wider and deeper understanding of how people from a variety of backgrounds and lived experiences regard and engage with built environments.

Diversity should begin within the profession itself, she explains. 

As social justice movements shine a spotlight on the need for widespread equality, design firms are looking inward and taking stock of who their professionals are, asking, “Are there people of color? Are there people of different abilities? Are there people from different disciplines who are part of that team?” she says. 

This responsibility extends beyond diverse identities and perspectives to formal education as well, says Durst.

Designers should be trained to be culturally competent and coherent and to seek a more expansive view of the world. “I’m sure there are some design programs that incorporate a “worldview”, but there is an urgent need for more. An inclusive design curriculum should involve key learnings about how all cultures — not just the traditional majority — but all Black, Indigenous and people of color’s cultures craft and express their lives through the physical environment,” she says.

Durst refers to this broader expertise as “life literacy.” She believes that in addition to design skills, young professionals must understand time and money, become strong visual and verbal communicators, and even “certified sensualists.” Essentially, they need to understand all aspects of human behavior.

“You can’t design for the world if you’re not of the world.”

– Cheryl Durst

Crafting more inclusive environments should not be the burden of design alone, though. Durst believes that design needs to look beyond its own borders and studios to bring in experts that will help maximize and amplify the people who are set to inhabit a space. 

Inclusion is inherently multidisciplinary

“There is a larger awareness among designers that they aren’t just designing for, but they’re designing with,” says Durst. Experts with diverse perspectives must be invited to join the design process early on, so they can open multiple “windows” through which to view and understand humanity.

“Designers shouldn’t just be sitting in a room with their C-suite client. HR should be in that room. If it is a public project, community activists and members of the community should be in the room as well,” says Durst. 

She provides examples of how this multidisciplinary approach could play out in the real world. For example, on a healthcare project, social workers, experts in nursing or in critical care, can be invited to voice their knowledge of the experiential needs a space might fulfill.

“To be an active participant of design doesn’t mean that you’re only a practitioner of design. It’s anyone who is invested in amplifying the human condition.”

– Cheryl Durst

So what about the end users of a built environment? They develop connection and appreciation of a space not just by understanding its function, but also the ingrained purpose as it relates directly to them. 

Durst says that is when they realize “I was considered in the design of this place, and this place has made me better, or this place has made me comfortable, or this place has amplified who I am or what I’m doing.”

Through education, design is activism

Making people aware of why a space was designed a certain way is actually community activism, says Durst. “Design is just as powerful an educator as it is anything else,” she explains.

Durst believes her industry is obligated to communicate the goal of design –– explaining to a community not just the facts of a new structure, like a library, workspace, or health center –– but the purpose a space fulfills, and the meaning they can create through engagement of that environment. Because when someone realizes a place was crafted with them in mind, it changes their relationship with it, says Durst.

“Human beings are innately hardwired for a sense of place. When we can’t quite figure out what a place is supposed to be, or what we’re supposed to do in that place, we are inherently uncomfortable. And so, the ability for design to … clearly articulate what is supposed to happen in that place, that is all part of inclusion,” she says.

Design is often regarded as a luxury by the general public and some clients and end-users, says Durst. But an inclusive design process can reveal to people –– designers and inhabitants of a space alike –– how it is a necessary, vital, and essential element of being human.

Cheryl Durst, Executive Vice President and CEO of the International Interior Design Association, is one of six design Iconoclasts DIRTT interviewed on why adaptable design matters.
Cheryl Durst, Executive Vice President and CEO of the International Interior Design Association, is one of six design Iconoclasts DIRTT interviewed on why adaptable design matters.

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