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Art Institute students face changing world of design: Businesses should keep interior designers in demand

March 27, 2006

Facing an expanding world of corporate rebranding, homier hospital rooms and high-tech theaters in every suburb, students entering the field of interior design know they'll be doing more than redecorating high-end homes.

What once was considered predominantly a luxury service for wealthy homeowners wanting to expand their drawing rooms, interior design became a necessity in business years ago.

Today, a majority of interior designers handle both residential and commercial work. And a growing number of firms that specialize in commercial work are carving out niches in particular types of business.

So the Art Institute of Indianapolis' first crop of interior design students, who will enter the market in four years, might help renovate a home in the Meridian Kessler neighborhood, but they're just as likely to design the interior of a new corporate headquarters.

"Every time you look at a new building, hotel lobby or theater, all of that has been done by a professional designer," said Kyle Huffman, a local interior designer for Cleveland-based Arhaus Furniture.

Huffman serves on the Art Institute's program advisory committee, which helped create the school's curriculum and works to build contacts between school officials and local businesses.

Classes at the Art Institute of Indianapolis began in January. Owned by Pittsburghbased Education Management Corp.- which announced last month it had agreed to be sold to a private equity firm-Art Institutes offer two-year and four-year degrees in graphic design, and four-year degrees in interactive media design and interior design.

About 65 students began classes in Indianapolis in January in the three programs. About 20 are working toward an interior design degree.

While the Art Institute doesn't consider itself a trade school, the curriculum is more career-focused than those at traditional universities like Purdue and Ball State.

And unlike programs at Purdue or Ball State, the Art Institute does not require entrance exams. Students do need a high school diploma or equivalent to enroll.

Tuition for the four-year program is about $69,000.

While the bulk of the required Art Institute courses are in their chosen major, students are required to take English composition, critical thinking and natural science, among other general education courses.

"I'm very impressed with the curriculum at AI," Huffman said. "Not only does it prepare students for residential design, but also [for] working with corporations and it prepares them to go it alone as well."

All interior design students take an introduction to business course and an introduction to business law course.

Once students satisfy foundation course requirements, they choose a track to focus on. Various tracks include computer-aided design, color rendering, residential design and acoustical design.

The school says graduates will be prepared for entry-level positions such as assistant designer, facility and space planner, sales or draftsperson.

Starting salaries in interior design run from $22,000 to $40,000.

A business track takes students beyond the artsy part of design and into how to relate interior design to business, said Carol Kelly, dean of academic affairs.

The program is rounded out with a class on career development, a course in preparing a portfolio, and another about presenting it. An internship is also required.

The internship component is one way the school hopes to meet its goal of 90-percent job placement within six months of graduation.

"We want to build relationships in the business community," Kelly said. "We can leverage that into career placements."

And with more and more corporations hiring interior designers, Kelly's optimistic outlook for the students is likely warranted.

"People are more aware than ever of the need to think about the image of a company," said Rebecca Dykstra, owner of Dyerbased Interior Image Group LLC, a commercial design firm. "Interior design goes hand-in-hand with the branded environment of today."

It's much more than wanting something nice to look at, Dykstra explained.

"It's becoming a huge thing for companies that are becoming so much more aware of their surroundings and adapting to a changing consumer-oriented society," she said.

Hospitals are creating less antiseptic and less sterile-looking hospital rooms. They're converting to a home-like feel with more colors, furniture and accessories that are comforting to the patient.

Restaurant owners are redesigning bars and dining rooms not only to look inviting to diners, but also to be easier for workers to navigate.

"There's a lot more to it than just picking out a color," Dykstra said. Interior designers need to understand lighting and cabinet making and be familiar with building code requirements and other technical aspects.

Another notion that needs to be corrected is that all interior design involves expensive homes.

"The biggest misconception about designers is that it's a high-end luxury for the very rich," Huffman said. "But designers coming out of places like AI are trained to work within budgets big or small. A good designer can come up with a great look regardless of the money available to spend."
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