A Letter to a Design Student

Primo Orphilla on what it takes to become a successful interior designer.


Dear Future Designer,

Let me start by commending you on the leap of imagination you have made to pursue a career in interior design. Unlike telecommunications, law, medicine, finance, or architecture, ours is a profession not clearly understood. When you say you’re an interior designer people—like your parents—will ask: “What exactly do you do?” Even when you spell it out it’s hard to get a sense of what it is: electing furniture, finishes, colors, and textures; figuring out where people are going to sit and where the light will come from; lining up adjacencies so that Space A leads logically and effectively to Space B. You can get a degree in this?

Yes, you can.

Having practiced the profession for more than 30 years, I’ve come to understand that what an interior designer does—what you will learn to do in the years ahead—is create an experience using space and light. Because interiors don’t typically last as long as the shells that enclose them, our field has existed for many years in the shadow of “starchitect” exteriors. But it’s important to remember that most of us experience architecture from the inside out. Interior design is part psychology, part cultural anthropology, and part behavioral science practiced through mediums of space and time. Like gardening or even farming, it is the art of creating living ecosystems. (You probably didn’t realize you were studying to be a farmer.)

How this particular discipline is taught is of great concern to those of us who will hire the next generation of designers. As the head of a company with young designers on staff, there is a surge of first-rate talent coming to our firms equipped with some of the most sophisticated technical expertise I’ve ever seen. Our design schools are doing a bang-up job teaching AutoCAD and Revit, Rhino, InDesign, and SketchUp.

Where I would like to see more progress is in teaching the process—or maybe I should say the habit—of critical thinking. The great software tools that have shifted our profession from literal drawing boards to digital screens have brought with them precision, consistency, and ease of use, but also a habit of conformity that is the antithesis of good design. The challenge of modern design education is to teach the high-tech mechanics of the craft while simultaneously breaking the herding instinct (and reliance on shortcuts) those mechanics tend to encourage.

In other words, when you come into my class (or my firm) you will be required to untether from the internet, close your apps and programs, and open your eyes to the world around you—specifically, to your world. Every designer is inundated with influences: image boards, pins, manufacturer’s pitches, design blogs, magazines like this one, HGTV, etc. But if design is the art of creating experiences, the quality spaces will be those that are drawn from experience and replicate a feeling the designer knows firsthand.

One of my favorite exercises with students is to ask them to think of a favorite space and to analyze what specifically creates the experience that makes it their favorite. Begin design development not with an idea, but with a feeling—say of your bare feet walking as a child on uneven wood or of the particular quality of light coming through an iced-over window late on a winter afternoon. If you start with the emotion of a space and then develop your idea from that, the resulting design will have an authenticity you won’t find on the internet.

The best minds in design education today are searching for new ways to teach a path to authenticity. In a world that’s increasingly digital, virtual, and governed by algorithms, the role of designers going forward will be to connect with the timeless sensations we experience through the soles of our feet. You can teach that?


Primo Orpilla, FIIDA, is the co-founder of Studio O+A, a San Francisco-based multi-disciplinary design firm responsible for groundbreaking workplaces at Facebook, Microsoft, Yelp, Cisco, Uber, Nike, McDonald’s, and many other companies. He and O+A principal Verda Alexander were Contract’s 2011 Designers of the Year. As global chair for student experience at the International Interior Design Association, Orpilla’s new focus is on empowering the next generation of designers.