Leadership in the Design Community: An Interview with IIDA Presidents‑Elect

Emily Wright

August 31, 2022

Meaningful collaboration and partnership is foundational to SRG’s design DNA; as such, we are invested in breaking down barriers and setting the design table early with talented people who deserve a seat there. As an architecture, interiors, and planning firm, SRG is always looking to integrate our teams and our process with the unique skillsets across these disciplines, which results in invaluable perspectives and the generation of innovative ideas across our work. Commercial interior design is no exception; it is integral to creating sustainable, healthy spaces that elevate the human experience through cohesive design developed as one integrated team.

Two of SRG’s Interior Designers are set to be the next Presidents of their respective IIDA chapters’ boards—Sarah Larson as President-elect of the Northern Pacific Chapter and Emily Wright as President-elect of the Oregon Chapter. They sat down to discuss their previous roles as Vice Presidents of Advocacy, their work advancing the commercial interior design profession within their Advocacy Committees, and the futures they envision for interior designers.

Q:  You each have been Vice Presidents of Advocacy for your respective chapters of IIDA, and now each of you is President-elect. Can you share what have you accomplished during your time as Vice Presidents of Advocacy?

SL:  Advocacy can mean different things in interior design. It can be generally—for an active seat at the table during the design process. It can also be about legislation and advocating for interior design to become a regulated profession. Advocacy in the Northern Pacific Chapter needed to be re-built after a break over the last few years. Alongside three Advocacy Committees, we spent our time rebuilding and growing our grassroots campaign in the IIDA Northern Pacific Chapter (which includes Washington, Idaho, Alaska, British Columbia, and Alberta), by asking what advocacy means for us. The answer ultimately forged three committees: an internal committee that focused on commercial interior design identity and how we talk about ourselves; an external committee that interfaced with the community through offering our services in design and construction to non-profits who would not otherwise have had access to commercial interior designs; and a legislative committee that is slowly building grassroots movement of the future of legislation in our chapter. The groundwork of the last two years will help the next Vice President of Advocacy push legislation over the coming years.

EW:  I have been involved on IIDA Oregon Chapter’s Advocacy Committee since 2018, serving the last two years as Vice President. We have spent that time advancing a five-year strategic plan on our chapter’s path to legislation for the recognition of interior design as a regulated profession. A critical step to accomplishing our goals was in educating and empowering our members—talking about why commercial interior design is important, why it should be regulated, and its recognition as a profession as respected as architecture. We focused on making sure our members each felt comfortable talking about what they do as a commercial interior designer and provided resources for their own personal advocacy. This year we had a really successful campaign and a lot of positive response to doing the “Advocacy Roadshow,” a presentation that we took to many firms around Oregon, where we talked about the history of commercial interior design legislation in the State of Oregon, the obstacles that we have faced, and what lies ahead of us as we continue to push for regulation.

Q:  It sounds like you both are very hands-on! You both talked a lot about interior designers having a seat at the design table. Is integration with architecture and advocating for your seat at the design table the greatest issue facing IIDA today?

EW:  I think it’s very important that interior designers have a seat at the table. We are seeing a shift in the way we work across the AEC industry. Fifty years ago, you would have a lead architect designing things and everybody—architectural designers included—working beneath them in a top-down model. That’s not how anyone wants to work anymore. As interior designers, we have a specific skillset to offer to a team, and we want to be a part of a collaborative and high-functioning group who builds something together. This change is continually happening through advocacy.

SL:  I agree with that, Emily. SRG really has a hunger for collaborative work and pushes for having everyone at the table. That’s one of the things that brought me to SRG. It can be unique in our industry for firms to integrate interior designers throughout the entire process. That’s why I’m personally very excited to be serving on our chapter’s board in a leadership role, and representing SRG in the Northern Pacific Chapter.

Q:  What ideas do you have for addressing issues facing the IIDA today as presidents-elect? What sort of change do you want to see and implement?

EW:  Beyond advocacy, I am really excited about continuing our push for student engagement and thinking creatively about getting students involved with IIDA. We have university-level students actively engaged, but would like to expand a K-12 program, working in schools to create our own curriculum. We’d love to give younger kids the opportunity to learn about what interior design is and what you could do as an interior designer. This also ties into strengthening our diversity initiatives. Getting diverse perspectives interested in interior design at a young age and breaking barriers for them by legitimizing the profession through legislation. When we tap into these deep-rooted issues, we can make bigger change in the industry, and I’m really looking forward to carrying out some of these big plans.

SL:  Personally, I wanted to continue onto the board as President so that I could help see some of the advocacy efforts through, among other things. We are passionate about continuing to lay the groundwork for the next generation of interior designers as a whole—from improved diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) to K-12 outreach events this year and much more. I’m also looking to develop my leadership skills and a deeper understanding of how to work within our design community. The IIDA Northern Pacific Chapter board is filled with the brightest designers, both currently engaged and in the past, so I look forward to learning from them.

Q:  It’s unusual that we have two staff from one firm leading neighboring chapters of IIDA. Is there any synergy and opportunities between your roles? How will your chapters cross-collaborate?

SL:  Definitely! Emily and I have been talking about advocacy and learning from each other in our current roles. Our chapters are part of a yearly Western Region Chapter Leadership Conference—including the following chapters – Hawaii, Intermountain, Northern California, Northern Pacific, Oregon, Rocky Mountain, Southern California, and Southwest Chapters. We meet and discuss advancing broader IIDA headquarters goals. We also meet nationally twice a year at IIDA Headquarters with all the chapters in the United States. Emily and I can also work together and learn from each other as we develop in the same role within different chapters.

EW:  One of the things we stumbled upon in COVID was virtual events, where you could pretty much attend an IIDA event anywhere in the country. As we begin to move towards in-person events again, there is a really cool opportunity here for Sarah and I to collaborate and continue building on the precedent for collaboration and sharing programming. Our close working relationship and the precedence of remote work will be huge for resource sharing.

SL:  Absolutely. And even at big events like the IIDA INawards, it would be great to have an SRG presence in both Portland and Seattle. There’s a lot of power in our joint efforts as well as exposing and integrating SRG’s interior designers further into the IIDA community.

Q:  It’s really nice to see a firm support your growth and involvement in IIDA.

SL:  I am very grateful for SRG supporting our involvement with IIDA. It sends a message to us and to our teammates about how important community involvement is. My involvement on the IIDA board has personally fostered my growth as an Interior Designer and as a future leader in our community.

EW:  I agree. I have been serving on the IIDA board for 6 and a half years, which is a long time. SRG has always been great about giving me the space and support to do what I’m interested in. Stepping into this role has been a really positive experience.

Q:  Well, we certainly appreciate your leadership and commitment, not only to IIDA and the interior design community, but to the advancement of the industry and the inclusion of diverse perspectives and skillsets. It is great to have you both on our team and thank you for your time today!

Visit IIDA Northern Pacific and IIDA Oregon to learn more about their local efforts and get involved.