Limitations of Labels and other Lessons from Kia Weatherspoon

Kia Weatherspoon has built her career on defying design stereotypes, most importantly, the notion that good Interior Design is a luxury not accessible to all people. Under her leadership, Kia and her team have changed the perception of what is possible in economically challenged communities, but her approach and message are relevant to all designers. Her company, Determined by Design, advocates for design equity.

I had the good fortune of meeting Kia Weatherspoon several years ago through our joint involvement with the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID). It was immediately clear that Kia brings a great level of critical thinking and care for human connection to the room. When Hanbury had the chance to invite someone to be one of our 2020 Virginia Design Medalists, I knew Kia would be just the person to get us thinking critically about design and our practice.

“I will make you answer some uncomfortable questions,” she said.

“Do you promise?” I retorted.

Kia’s talk was expertly framed around the power of labels. It began in a deceptively simple way with a game about furniture. A few examples of chairs flashed up on the screen.

“Which chair would you describe as an office chair? Which chair is for senior citizens?”

Then came a series of project photos. We called out our best guesses of the project types pictured.

“High-end residential. A conference center. Perhaps a hotel lobby?”

She asked, “Why?” It was a simple question, but it set the tone for us to be more open and thoughtful for the rest of the presentation.

The most provocative prompt was a photo of a multipurpose space that was drably appointed and complete with uncomfortable furniture. It was clearly done on a low budget – an “affordable” housing project. "Would you host your daughter's birthday party here?" The answer was a clear NO. “Where is the humanity in these types of design? Is this good enough for someone I love?

This is the point where Kia turned up the heat and made the audience a little uncomfortable. If design has the power to calm, soothe, humble, motivate and inspire, why should affordable housing be any different? Design should always bring dignity to those who use it.

As humans, we have learned to process information quickly by labeling and categorizing the mountain of information swarming around us. Sometimes that is helpful - we see red on a traffic light and we know we need to stop.

However, there are ways in which labels can be extremely damaging. We use them freely in design, and they are full of assumptions. They can be used to assign a value on the amount of time, thought, engagement, or emotion we put into a project, and this can negatively impact entire communities for generations.

As Kia pointed out, design is inherently about people, and we must use our creativity to deliver possibility. Our approach to design needs to shed the labels that put limits on our creative energy and take a more empathetic approach to understanding the communities we serve, especially communities whose power and dignity are not often acknowledged. By acknowledging the power that labels have, we can start to engage more open-mindedly and explore the values of a community – their hopes, their goals, and their stories.

Her message applies across project types, to any community that is considered different from one's own. This makes representation a key component to a design process built around empathy. Design teams should reflect the communities for which they are designing. As designers it is our responsibility to connect with our stakeholders, but can we really do that if we don't have similar experiences in our backgrounds? The fact that the architecture profession is short on people of color is no excuse. Kia drew a straight line from our recruiting and mentorship efforts to the next generation of designers. She pushed us to invest in the communities that need to be represented in our field.

When we walk away from a completed project, we want everyone involved in the process to feel a sense of ownership — to see themselves reflected in the design. This is not a unique position, but Kia’s challenge is for us to take a step back and critically examine our patterns of thinking and engagement during the design process. We must admit where we sometimes fall short or take shortcuts. In response, we must build a stronger and more empathetic process.

Kia is immensely talented at engaging people in a way that goes beyond conveying information. She challenged us and then left the space for us to sit with our thoughts and begin to make changes on our own. Our profession is being asked to turn a more critical eye toward how we prepare our industry for a brighter, more sustainable, and more inclusive future. We have a lot of work to do, and Hanbury is excited to take a proactive path toward that future. Many thanks to Kia for helping to open our hearts and minds to the task ahead.

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