A Conversation with Kia Weatherspoon, Visionary Award Winner
Design infused with empathy can change lives.
That's a core precept for Kia Weatherspoon, founder and principal of Determined by Design and winner of this year's IIDA Anna Hernandez/Luna Textiles Visionary Award. The award honors a woman business owner making valuable contributions to the design industry.
As a champion for design equity, Weatherspoon is shifting the narrative around affordable, low-income, transitional and supportive housing. Thanks to its diverse team, Weatherspoon's firm has been able to forge authentic connections with its community partners.
She challenges developers to examine their perceptions of affordable housing and approach the design process with empathy. The goal is to make high-quality design accessible to all.
We recently spoke with Kia about how she became a designer, what equity in design looks like and how empathy can transform design. This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
KI: What inspired you to enter a career in design?
Kia Weatherspoon: There are two pivotal moments in my life where I realized the power of space. My brother was incarcerated when I was younger, so my family went in and out of prison institutions for several years. I started looking at the experience from different perspectives, from the person who is incarcerated and the guards to the children and loved ones. It was undignified.
That was part one. When I didn't get financial aid for college, I had to join the military. I joined one month before Sept. 11, so I was in the first of five deployments to the Middle East. I needed a place of solace and security so I took three sheets and hung them around my bunk. That was the first space I created. I sat within my space and bawled for fifteen minutes. And I did it again, each time I was deployed -- a total of three more times.
So, I don't want to necessarily say I was "inspired" to be in this profession. Life led me to realizing the power of space to impact and heal.
KI: Can you walk us through the origin story of Determined by Design? I understand that you've worked at larger firms. What motivated you to start your own firm?
Weatherspoon: A burnout culture plagues the A&D profession. I was getting disenchanted with my craft. I knew there had to be a way for the professional experience to feel better. I wanted a more holistic, positive experience, rather than an a process driven by deliverables and a "get-it-out-the-door" mentality. It wasn't so much about leaving my specific firm, but about finding a firm where the leadership looked like me. I couldn't find it, so I created it.
The origin story of our mission is different. Our focus on design equity started with our first nonprofit project, a safe place for 32 women survivors of domestic violence and their children. Originally, they said they didn't need a new design. I was taken aback. I thought to myself, "How do I show them that this is invaluable?" Perspectives changed from "We don't need this" to "I thought I could only see this on TV." When we finished the project, one of the women said to me, "Miss Kia, when I walked into this room, I knew that change was possible for me."
People who need equitable design often don't realize they need it until they have it -- and they don't have an advocate. That's why we focus on affordable, low-income, transitional and supportive housing.
KI: Your team has grown in recent years, even through the pandemic. What about your approach has fostered that growth?
Weatherspoon: We've become the experts in affordable housing. Our approach is not, "These projects are in poor communities with lower budgets, so let's just do the status quo." Our approach is that these homes are in communities that have vibrant stories and rich histories. How do we take those stories and reflect them in design? How do we do this within budget but have an elevated outcome?
That's why we are successful even in a pandemic. Our counterparts don't look at projects in communities that aren't theirs with an empathetic lens. It helps that our team reflects those communities.
KI: What are the benefits of working at a smaller design firm, as opposed to one of the larger ones? What are the challenges
Weatherspoon: There's a level of intimacy and sense of community that exists at smaller firms. Because there are fewer people, you experience the work as a whole person. You touch all facets of the process.
A big challenge is the perceived notion that because you're a smaller firm, you're not going to have the same resources or be able to pay as much as a larger firm. Another challenge is that you have to solve problems at all levels. There is no IT department. Everyone is IT. You have to be a jack of all trades.
KI: How did you get involved in designing affordable and public housing?
Weatherspoon: It was the first project, but it also goes back to my origin story. Elevated design didn't reach me where I was in my low-income community. Elevated design does not meet a lot of communities where they need it most, which is in their homes. Low-income housing is often 50 years old and made out of subpar building materials with asbestos and no natural light. Is that the way? Absolutely not.
It's also about purpose. Someone is having the same disenfranchised experience that I had. I didn't have elevated design, so I want other people to have it. Being a business owner is about seeing a problem that infuriates you so much that even when it's hard, you continue because you want to solve the problem.
KI: Tell us about the approach your firm takes when working on a project. What does the design process look like from start to finish? What's unique about your approach?
Weatherspoon: We do a deep dive into the community to learn about historical figures, do site walks and engage with residents and organizations. It's coalition building and connecting as much as it is research and data mining.
Then, we do something called "word mining," where we look at all the words or feelings that evoke this information we've gathered. We create a concept statement, which might sound like "opening the senses to ascension" or "zones etched in travel."
This statement guides us as we start space planning and exploring the color palette. We're not going to use Pantone's Color of the Year or do another mid-century modern building. Our design puts the people's context first.
That translates into a formal design presentation with two plans. People often ask me, "How do you get your development partners to do what you say?" We tell them, "This is the story of the people and the community." We make sure every decision is based on a why.
KI: Do you ever get pushback?
Weatherspoon: The why is powerful enough. We may hear, "I personally don't like that, but I understand why you did it." The why removes the designer's ego. People buy into the why.
KI: How does empathy play a role in your design process
Weatherspoon: Interior design is empathy in practice. Sometimes our process includes what I call "empathy exercises." There's often a multipurpose room in housing -- for birthday parties, baby showers, movie nights and professional trainings. Our development partners may suggest folding tables and chairs. I ask them to close their eyes and envision a birthday party for their own kids. They'll describe soft light, comfortable seating and so on. Next, I'll show them a photo of a typical multipurpose room and ask them if it's what they envision for their child. They'll say no. Then, I'll tell them that this multipurpose room is actually from one of their own properties.
I put them in a place of empathy. Whenever someone is making a design decision based on someone else's socioeconomic place, I challenge them to view whether that decision is good enough for their loved ones.
KI: How do you balance designing for the users of a space and for the developer or party paying for the project?
Weatherspoon: The first thing I do is I change my language. The word "user" is detached. We always say we're designing for "the people in the community." Our focus always lies with the people. If I put the needs of the people first, it will meet the developers' needs. It always does.
Understanding people is another part of working with developers. If a partner is saying something with a bias, I can tell them, "Your bias is dictating a design outcome that is offensive and here's why." But it's also about realizing that everyone's why is different. A developer's why includes working within a budget.
We challenge ourselves to consider all the people involved in the process. No matter the project, there's always some bathroom or kitchen tile. Who is the last person to touch that tile? The subcontractor, the tile installers. If we specify 12 different tile manufacturers, we might not get the best pricing. So as a designer, we use one tile manufacturer because it gives my development partner greater buying power, it makes the subcontractor's life easier and it gives the people we're designing for a better design outcome.
KI: You've mentioned that manufacturers should strive to stop reinforcing certain mindsets and labels. Tell us about your thought process there. How can labels be harmful?
Weatherspoon: Bryan Ballegeer said it best when he told me that KI tries to do "agnostic marketing." I thought that was such a good descriptor. Here's why it matters. If you tell me that I can only use the senior furniture line for my senior housing project, you likely said that to 10 other designers or 10 other senior housing spaces. Everyone's spaces start to look the same.
We don't design based on demographics but on the specific needs of people. For one project, we specified a sleek, modern armchair. The client told us the chair was simply not a senior chair because it didn't have a certain seat height and arm height. But we took the modern chair to a site and people wanted to know why they didn't have chairs like it. It's a disservice to tell us what furniture we can or cannot use in a given space.
Elitism plays a role, too. It's a perception that a particular brand is only for high-end hotels or the upper echelon. Why can't it be for everybody? Our job as designers is to ask more of our manufacturers. We have to remove the labels and ask, what is for the people?
KI: Do you have any examples of when you've disregarded a given design label and had that work out for the better?
Weatherspoon: The same thing goes for materiality. In senior housing, the perception around textiles is focused on bodily fluids, so people put vinyl on everything. I challenge you to find me a sofa in anyone's home that is made of vinyl. It's always made with a fabric that has a cozy feel to it. In one of our senior living projects, we used a cream ArcCom textile on a couch, while manufacturing allowed us to meet bleach-cleanable and antimicrobial standards.
As designers, we have to challenge and educate people to think from a place of empathy. With developers, we often hear that we can't do soft seating in common areas because "people will tear it up." But will they? Or are you just getting the wrong products? If you're getting something from Crate and Barrel, that's the problem. If you use something from KI, something that's contract grade, that's a better solution. It's important to use furniture made for high-use spaces.
KI: What does design equity mean to you?
Weatherspoon: Design equity means everyone has access to a space that inspires them and makes them believe they are worthy of greatness, whatever greatness means for them. Design equity is understanding interior design is not a luxury. It is a standard for everyone. Design equity is not designing based on a person's socioeconomic standing, background or demographic.
KI: What steps can the industry or other stakeholders take to make design more equitable?
Weatherspoon: It starts with acknowledging bias and its outcomes exist. It also has to differentiate from the savior complex. When I tell people we do affordable, low-income housing, manufacturers will offer us furniture they're discontinuing, as if they're doing us a great service. It's not that we need a handout. We have Bernhardt furniture. We have custom crown molding.
It's not about "saving a poor community." Designers and manufacturers need to internalize design equity practices because everyone deserves access to elevated design. If you wouldn't put your family in that room and you wouldn't send your kids to an afterschool program in that building, then it is not good enough. That's what I need the industry to understand.
KI: What does inclusivity and diversity in the design industry look like for you? How do you hope the industry will address these issues
Weatherspoon: First, we have to balance the pay scale. If leadership has not addressed pay inequity among designers of color or women, then they are not doing the work. Then, the industry needs to identify designers of color within their organizations who they can uplift into leadership roles. They need to provide a level of grace to those designers of color once they promote them, because they've been disenfranchised and pigeon-holed for years. Leadership can't cop out and say, "We promoted them and they didn't excel."
In every organization and event, the industry needs to look around the room. If the panel is not diverse in gender, race and experience, change it. Make it the standard.
Lastly, the pipeline is broken. The industry should be creating K-12 mentorship programs. At our firm, we do something we call "agency building collaboration." We might partner with a collegiate institution in the Boston area. We'll tell them we have a project in a specific community, with a certain demographic makeup, and that we need three students who reflect this community. Then, those students are required to find three high school students. And those students are told to find three middle school students. We're giving these communities agency in the design process by mentoring and meeting them where they are. The industry needs to create agency for community members at the educational level.
KI: How have you seen design empower communities, either in your own work or the work of others?
Weatherspoon: It never fails. We recently completed a project where a new crop of residents walked in while I was in the lobby. I heard them say, "I never thought I could live in a place like this." It's hearing that sentence. No one should ever feel that way. But our work is changing that.
This project was developed by a Nigerian-American man. There's power in saying this affordable housing building for families of color was developed by a man of color. You can tell his intent was to provide equitable design in affordable housing. That's the impact of our work -- to develop a better standard for all communities.
KI: Where are you finding inspiration these days?
Weatherspoon: Art. Art. Art. Nature. When artists and creatives are so connected to their work, it translates for me. Artists like Nate Lewis, Joey Lee and Maya Freelon, whose work is powerful, contextual and personal. And I know COVID-19 has put a little kink in this, but travel. It forces you to travel exactly where you are, in your community and in your own backyard.
KI: Do you have any advice for the next generation of designers
Weatherspoon: Remember to design for people and not our egos. Lead with empathy. Constantly ask why. If you are the only Black person, woman or young person in the room, embrace being the "only" and use your voice to provide an empathetic lens for others.
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