A look at how the two disciplines intersect, and how to best approach them as educators and professionals

For several decades now, architecture and interior design have struggled with how and where they intersect as professions and as academic disciplines. To the extent that this struggle continues to be defined by two opposing and irreconcilable points of view, it promises to continue into the foreseeable future with little meaningful change.

As the professional world becomes increasingly connected and interdisciplinary, however, and as more colleges and universities align these academic majors, the topic has seen renewed interest. A recent series of faculty exchanges labeled “Inside/Out — Architecture and Interior Design Curricula” endorsed by the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) and the Interior Design Educators Council (IDEC), as well as recent efforts from an ACSA subcommittee to rethink accreditation standards, suggest that this disciplinary relationship remains, to some extent, in flux, and that we should continue to look to define a working relationship that will support the disciplinary distinction of both groups as well as their inherent connection. I suggest herein such a possible definition of how these disciplines might intersect, and — by extension — how a reconceived and more broadly defined profession might better engage the array of allied design disciplines in academic and professional settings.


The commercial interiors industry has evolved largely since the middle of the last century for a variety of reasons. Historically, architects have held responsibility for completing the architectural interior of buildings, although artisans, craftsmen, furniture makers and — more recently — interior decorators have played a role. Beginning in the mid-1900s, the idea of the speculative building and a shift from corporate ownership to leasing began to separate the design of the building from the design of its interior. Urban cores have aged, prompting the need for interior renovation of still viable building shells. More importantly, an increasing complexity associated with the building interior — in workplace, healthcare, institutional and other types of environments — required an increased expertise and an increased level of specialization in professional services. This trend toward specialization continues, as evidenced by such things as LEED-certification and similar credentialing, which continue to fragment expertise across the range of architectural and design services.

The immergence of a commercial interiors market has brought with it an extensive support structure of professional organizations (IIDA, ASID, IDC, IFI), academic accreditors (CIDA), and regulatory agencies (NCIDQ) — along with some success in the licensing arena — which have helped to professionalize the discipline. Academic programs previously focused on home economics and the design of the residential interior began to adjust to accommodate this new commercial interiors market. Architectural education, it’s worth noting, did not, likely given its longer history and somewhat more entrenched position.

What this debate is not about is the viability of the interiors industry, which includes about 70,000 businesses in the U.S. with combined annual revenue of $11 billion. Although a significant segment of this market includes sole practitioners engaged in smaller- or residential-scale work, it is the burgeoning commercial interiors market (much of it composed of architects) that is up for grabs. But this industry is here to stay. The debate is also not about who will do the work. The marketplace insures that those who possess both the skills and the interest in working at the interior scale will do so. This is apparent in any multidisciplinary commercial practice where work assignments are made mostly on the basis of interest and ability, rather than academic background or professional credentials.

So it is not the existence of the commercial interior design profession but rather its ownership that is being challenged. Which academic programs, accreditors and regulators should have jurisdiction? How should this group of emerging professionals be licensed, and what should they be called? The market share at stake insures that both legal and ideological battles will continue. Unfortunately, these battles fail to advance the dialogue or to suggest new models for collaborative practice that can advance the collective profession. So where do we go from here?

Opposing Perspectives

Architects continue to argue that the design of interior space falls under their jurisdiction; that the architect is qualified by education and experience to design the interior; and that they’ve always had this responsibility. So this doesn’t need to change. But things have changed. Increased complexity in the design of interior environments has demanded a more focused expertise and skill set related to sustainable interior materials, ergonomics, design for multiple populations, ADA compliance, workplace design, facilities management, interior lighting and other aspects of the built environment focused at the interior scale. This is clearly evidenced by the growth of the separate, parallel career track in interior design. Architectural education, given its inherent breadth, has failed to provide the focused experience at the interior scale needed to support an evolving and high level interior design practice. Thus, many talented college-bound students have chosen to pursue an interior design education more directly aligned with their passions and interests, even if this might ultimately place them at a disadvantage in the professional and licensing arenas.

A different argument posited by architects suggests that even if one acknowledges the need for a more focused interior scale education, those interior design programs that currently exist lack the conceptual and technical rigor, and theoretical base, needed to adequately prepare future professionals. This argument, I suggest, fails as well, because it only critiques the status quo at a point in time. What if interior design education met all quality benchmarks that one might construct? Would it then be justified? Further, the quality of interior design education has improved significantly as the accreditation process has evolved and as more programs have aligned with architecture and other allied design disciplines and bolstered the level of academic and theoretical rigor.

The most compelling argument for why the career tracks in architecture and interior design need to remain connected is actually a simple one: it is impossible to separate the design of a building from the design of its interior. The interior evolves directly from the formal and conceptual ideas of the building, and the building is (or should be) directly impacted by programmatic and human behavioral constraints of the interior. This connection is particularly obvious in the curricula of aligned academic programs. Foundational courses addressing beginning design principles, history, theory, graphic communication or building technology are fundamentally the same for the beginning student in architecture or in interior design. As the knowledge base diverges, and the student develops more specialized knowledge, so too do the academic tracks diverge. Students must increasingly rely on each others’ expertise. In practice, complex projects are designed by teams of specialists. Team members contribute specific talents and abilities that relate to the scale at which they work, but they continue to share common knowledge. The connection between building and interior remains critical. Thus, the study of architecture and the study of the architectural interior in the academic setting need to appropriately model the collaborative and integrated way of working that graduates will encounter in the professional setting.

The Medical Model

If one acknowledges both the distinction of an emergent interior design profession — with its own unique knowledge base — and its integral and important connection with architecture, we can arrive at a more nuanced understanding of how these disciplines might intersect. Arguably, architecture and interior design are both distinct and connected.

Current discourse argues for both breadth (shared knowledge) and depth (specialized knowledge) in the educational curriculum. This is exemplified in the medical profession, where a core education precedes a focus in one or more sub-specialties. Students complete a medical degree (and ultimately become licensed physicians) but subsequently earn certification in a specialty area. A pediatrician and brain surgeon possess very different types of knowledge, but both are doctors. The medical profession can serve as a model for how we might rethink the relationship between architecture and interior design.

Although the intent here is not to propose a specific model, one might envision a 3+2+1 educational track that delivers a three-year shared undergraduate core of liberal and foundational design education, a two-year shared accredited professional core leading to licensure, and a one-year specialization in interior design — or in any of a variety of sub-specializations under the broader umbrella of the built environment. Just as we should support specialization in interior design, a more expansive model could support specialization in sustainable environments, digital practices, construction management, material science, structural systems, or any of a number of focus areas that would position our graduates for meaningful practice. Such a model would allow existing four-year programs to remain viable as feeder schools while recognizing the current trend to reduce time-to-graduation at the undergraduate level. Such a model would also need to incorporate a “leveling component” (as occurs now) to insure that students who begin their education in another field are adequately equipped for graduate study.

At six years of total study, a 3+2+1 educational track would more than replicate current NAAB and CIDA requirements for time to degree. The only challenge would be to align those educational standards that are shared (core) and to separate those that are specialized. Initially, such an accreditation model would be driven by the need to support aligned academic programs and to recognize their integrated pedagogy. This model could be developed jointly by NAAB and CIDA and might need to exist for some period of time in test mode, not replacing but paralleling current standards. Testing and licensing requirements would follow suit, as deemed appropriate. Over time, the marketplace would prove (or disprove) the wisdom of such an aligned academic model.

How to Get There

Many educators and practitioners in both disciplinary camps support the argument for an integrated professional track. The more challenging problem, however, may be to actually make this happen given that the existing relationship between disciplines is more combative and protectionist than it is collaborative. To some extent, an integrated model is already being explored in the schools, where architecture and interior design programs are administratively aligned and share core curricula, or where single “hybrid” programs, accredited by NAAB but focusing on interiors, straddle the boundaries of each discipline. And yet, currently, the schools must make the decision to conform (or not) to the guidelines of the accrediting organizations. NAAB and CIDA allow little latitude for a more shared or expansive practice. So where programs are administratively aligned, the accreditation process remains distinct. And any hybrid program must choose to align with one accreditor or the other (or neither one), ultimately compromising the educational program.

The professional organizations are least likely to take the lead in promoting a more integrated professional track. By definition, professional organizations promote and preserve the status quo and are unlikely to propose any changes that would threaten their livelihood. It is likely, then, that the accrediting organizations along with educators, may be best suited to explore new relationships with the sister discipline. Although both NAAB and CIDA serve at the pleasure of the professions and the schools, they are also smaller and more flexible, and engage continually in the process of examining and revising academic standards.

A more expansive and inclusive architectural profession that recognizes disciplinary specialty as a complement to core knowledge will not evolve overnight. It will require significant dialogue and time. Most certainly, this idea will challenge the inclusion of those interior design practitioners who focus exclusively on the furnishing or decoration of interior space rather than the design of its architecture, or who have minimal involvement with issues of health, safety and welfare. But again, just as with the medical profession, this subset of the profession would pursue educational and examination levels consistent with the work being performed. Nurses, technicians and others are important contributors in the medical system, but they are credentialed at levels appropriate to the work. There is flexibility in the system.

A more integrated professional model would also challenge the fact that, currently, the time to degree in architecture required for accreditation and licensure (five to six years) differs from that required in interior design (four years). This poses a very real impediment to alignment within a single academic model. If interior design accreditation were to shift to the graduate level (a position currently being advocated by several design educators), this would place both disciplines on an even playing field and facilitate the dialogue. While such a shift, on the surface, threatens existing four-year degree programs, these programs would continue to exist and to make valuable contributions to the education of future design practitioners. They would only need to rethink their mission.

Similarly, a more integrated professional model would challenge the various collateral organizations in each profession to rethink their mission and affiliations. And yet this does not necessarily need to threaten their existence; it would only redefine how they work and with whom they work. Interior design professionals matriculating through a more integrated educational, testing and licensing system would still need to be educated, tested and licensed by those with expertise in interior design, and they would continue to demand organizational support defined by a common interest and expertise in interior design.

How this plays out may ultimately be dictated by the marketplace. The newly created hybrid programs (NAAB-accredited but with an interiors focus) will ultimately succeed or fail. To succeed, I believe that the focus on an interiors education cannot be token. It will need to be real and meaningful. And this will only occur if NAAB recognizes the need to broaden standards to allow for flexibility and specialization tied to a core competency. If these hybrid programs do succeed, though, it is logical to think that other interior design degree programs would follow — especially those aligned with NAAB-accredited programs in architecture. The efficiencies and economic advantages of working with a single accreditor would be compelling.

If one believes that a more aligned and collaborative practice is in our future, then the process for getting there can either be unilateral or collaborative. As the older and more established profession, architecture may need to lead this dialogue or at least publicly endorse it. Should architecture (and its collateral organizations) choose to expand its professional definition to accommodate and legally recognize interior design (a unilateral approach), then interior design programs and practitioners could realign with this more inclusively defined profession. Such a strategy, although potentially efficient initially, could be slowed by a lengthy and divisive battle over the longer term. Such a unilateral action by the architectural profession would pit programs, accreditors, and associations against each other, likely delaying any meaningful development of a new model and continuing to confuse the public. To the extent that it’s possible, it may be more productive in the long run to promote a dialogue between the two professions in pursuit of a new collaborative model that does a better job of supporting disciplinary specialty. The end goal would be the same, but both parties would come to the table to hammer out the details.

On the heels of the Inside-Out conferences, it is time for the architecture and interior design establishment to make this a priority. It is time to give serious attention to the idea of an expanded and inclusive educational model more closely aligned with the medical profession, a model that allows for both shared and distinct knowledge reflective of contemporary practice. Many of the best academic programs in the country are asking for it. In the end, a more inclusive, diverse and unified profession is a win for all involved. One can only imagine how such a re-envisioned profession might impact our collective potential and influence in the world.

John Weigand is a professor and chair for the Department of Architecture and Interior Design at Miami University. Weigand earned architectural degrees at Miami and at the University of Illinois, and he worked professionally in Chicago from 1980 to 1991 prior to teaching. At Miami, Weigand developed the B.F.A. in interior design (1995) and directed the B.F.A. program until 2006. In 2001, he was awarded the NCARB Prize for creative integration of practice and education in the academy, for his work with collaborative, Internet-based design.