Friday, December 6, 2013

I'm Still an Interior Designer

Sometime during the last few years, I was talking with my family about the switch I made from designing interior space to becoming a licensed professional counselor.  I have been interested in psychology since I was a teenager - as a matter of fact it was the first college course I took at the local community college the summer before I started 11th grade.  I did pretty well and thought it was pretty cool.  Reflecting on that, my Mom made the comment that maybe she and my Dad should have steered me towards psychology in the first place, rather than allowing me to detour into interior design.  Somehow the words "waste of time" entered into the comment.  Dad and I very quickly objected.  I very much enjoyed my design work, which I did for about ten years.  About 90% of the work I did was for K-12 public schools.  I worked at and with several very good architectural firms, and was part of several teams that designed several wonderful school facilities.  Over ten years I think I worked on about seven projects from initial sketches to move-in, and on a phase or two of about fifteen others.

A good designer focuses on how a building looks and functions.   Function was emphasized in my design education.  My undergraduate projects were not about retail or hospitality or restaurants; they were about day care centers, libraries, media production facilities and affordable housing.  The psychology of space is very important to understand if you want to create the correct function.  Are you designing a reception area in the front office where people who don't know each other are going to sit for short periods of time?  Better make sure you have room for an adequate number of chairs.  Research has shown that people who don't know each other do not like to sit in adjoining chairs.  Parents who are coming in for a parent conference are not going to want to be any where near the surly child who is waiting to see the Principal because they are in trouble.  If there are not enough chairs, the parents will stand.  Their perception of the school will be that it's not comfortable or welcoming.  Moreover, they might clog traffic coming in and out of a very busy space.  Better give that surly child a different place to sit altogether.  You get the idea.

A good designer also listens to the client and helps them clarify what they need.  For schools that gets down to a pretty granular discussion of educational pedagogy and how that will function in the building.  A room used for seminar type pedagogical approach differs from a room used for direct instruction differs from a room that makes heavy use of technology.  Sometimes rooms are often needed that can function in all three ways.  How big does the room need to be?  What type of furniture are we going to buy?  We can afford the big heavy chairs, but will a 6 year old be able to move them if you want everyone to turn from the board and face the SmartBoard?  If we buy kidney tables the teacher leading the reading group will be in arm's length of all the children sitting there.  If we buy trapezoid shaped tables, teachers will be able to combine them in many different configurations.  Turns out I was pretty good at those discussions.  That ability directly foreshadowed my main function as a counselor.

It turns out that as a counselor,  the function of interior space is still pretty important.  Space has psychological effects.  Most of us know that wall color can affect our mood.  (Yet still we continue to paint the walls in schools grey!! - don't get me started.........)  But the environment is more than that.  Montessori and the emphasis on the prepared environment has taught me several additional design concepts - the type of furniture that really works for creating micro-spaces in a room (low shelving and small tables); that interior surfaces and furniture do not need to be "bullet proof" in a public school environment to last and that, in turn, creates an environment that is less institutional; that the arrangement of furniture can assist with classroom management (ie: it's hard to run full speed across a room if there are two bookcases in the way - it's easier to tear down a row between desks); and that carefully prepared environments can be used to help children learn and function in several different ways. 

That last phrase is very important. 

All children benefit from carefully prepared environments whether they are at home, at school, or elsewhere.  Children with ADHD are perhaps more sensitive to their environments than other children.  At school I work with everyone, but my private practice and professional expertise has come to focus on ADHD.  Competing stimulus is always a problem for folks with ADHD.  Mitigating this issue sometimes means altering an environment.  Maybe working on the floor is better than sitting in a chair at a desk.  You can wiggle more, and if you are down low, there's probably not much to look at.  Maybe a reminder to feed the hampster needs to be made into a big sign that's stuck on the back door.  Sometimes managing ADHD means using a different environment altogether.  If getting dressed in the morning is taking 25 minutes in a child's bedroom because the books, toys, or electronics keep throwing stop sticks in the way, will it only take ten minutes if the child takes their clothes and gets dressed in the bathroom?  Maybe. 

Things come around full circle.  I hope I get to draw sometime again........