Define Before Design: Programming

ID Collaborative blog post

As a designer, you get used to hearing, “Oh! What a fun job!” from folks when they learn what you do for a living. Now, don’t misunderstand me – I am not disputing that interior design is fun. I certainly wouldn’t have chosen it as my profession if I didn’t think I‘d have fun doing it! My point is simply this – good interior design is so much more than just fun. It’s as much science and math as it is creativity and art. Great interior design starts not with creative genius, but with data collection, analysis and synthesis.

That’s a bold statement for an artist, but consider this example: a friend of yours asks you to throw them a party. After your initial reaction (What kind of friend asks me to throw them a party? Maybe I need some new friends…), you realize that in order to put on a successful event, you’re going to need some additional information. At that point, you start what designers like to call the Programming or Pre-Design portion of a project. You may start asking questions like:

How many people do I need to accommodate?
What’s the purpose of the event? Are we celebrating a birthday, a wedding, a promotion, a farewell?
What should the tone of the party be? Is this fun and laid back, or a more formal, polished affair?
What activities need to take place at the event? Are we talking bingo, bowling, or basketball?

The list goes on and on until eventually you have enough information to start making concrete plans.

By asking these questions, you have defined the problem before you started designing the solution. Interior designers do the exact same thing with every project, big and small. We gather data, quantitative and qualitative, before we even utter the word ‘concept’ or ‘inspiration.’ Otherwise, we run the risk of missing the mark.

By asking these questions, you have defined the problem before you started designing the solution. Interior designers do the exact same thing with every project, big and small. We gather data, quantitative and qualitative, before we even utter the word ‘concept’ or ‘inspiration.’ Otherwise, we run the risk of missing the mark.

So what does programming look like for interior designers? It necessarily takes different forms depending on the type of project. For a corporate office renovation, the data collection process may involve surveys and interviews, culminating in an official, published report complete with square footage assignments by job function. For a senior living community, the process may be less formal, consisting of conversations with on-site staff and observations of how existing spaces are utilized efficiently and, more importantly, inefficiently. Regardless of the form it takes, a good designer always endeavors to program a project prior to designing it, gathering the following critical information:

– What’s the project budget?
– What’s the project schedule?
– What’s the scope of the project? Does the client want to engage an architect, engineer?
– What are the goals for the space? Should it say something about the client’s brand?
– What’s the function of the space?
– How many people need to be accommodated on a regular basis? What about special occasions?
– Are there any specific technology needs? Video, Audio, Charging stations, Wi-Fi?
– What kind of use will the space see? 24/7? Heavy traffic? Only occasional use?
– How long should the design last and be relevant? Does the client plan to re-model again in 5 years? 10 years?
– How should the space make people feel?

This list of questions, like the one about the hypothetical party, goes on and on, until eventually, a design solution starts to take shape.

Great design requires that you define the problem before you design the solution. It requires both the right and left brain, both the creative genius and the methodical, practical social scientist.