Cheryl Durst, EVP and CEO of the IIDA: Focus on Leadership

Interview by Kemp Harr

Cheryl Durst, executive vice president and CEO of the International Interior Design Association (IIDA), has been referred to as “an ambassador for innovation and expansion, and a visionary strategist” by Interior Design magazine. Often asked to speak on the future of design, Durst is a champion for the design profession, interested in the social, cultural and economic ramifications of interior design. 

She tapped into her journalism roots to launch IIDA’s What Clients Want book series that explores the relationship between designer and client. She also sits on the advisory board for the Kent State University College of Architecture and Environmental Design and serves as a member of the Board of Trustees for the Harrington College of Design in Chicago. 

Durst didn’t begin her career in design, however. Earning degrees in print journalism and economics from Boston University, she worked her way up from sales and marketing positions, eventually receiving an honorary doctorate of fine arts from the New York School of Interior Design.

Q: What are a few of the core benefits of becoming members of the IIDA?
 The core benefits of being an IIDA member are numerous, but our members most often cite: being part of a vast global community of commercial design professionals; having access to resources that support and advance personal and professional success; and being a part of an organization that supports advancing the profession of interior design. 

Q: What are some of the key challenges that the IIDA faces?
 Like every professional membership organization, IIDA continues to seek ways to stay relevant and meaningful to our members and for the profession of design. Everyone is challenged in the arena of simply having enough time to fit in life, work, family and volunteer efforts. And designers are especially challenged. There is no such thing as an eight-hour day in a designer’s life. 

And as the organization continues to grow and we broaden our scope, I think we are fortunate to be challenged simply by sheer demand. There is a bona fide need and desire from so many communities—like the medical community, for instance, or corporate real estate or C-Suite business executives—for expert design knowledge and insight, and it is imperative for IIDA to continue to be a resource not only for designers, but also for the public and client communities.

Q: How do designers contend with instances when the client’s aesthetic vision really misses the mark?
 Interesting question, and it’s not an uncommon dilemma. IIDA members are primarily practicing in a commercial environment, and many more factors in addition to aesthetics come into play, like the overall effectiveness of the space, and whether it supports the client’s business brand or organizational and strategic goals. I will take the liberty of taking issue with the premise of the question. What professional designers do is so much larger than aesthetics, and while look and feel are an important part of design, they aren’t the only or most crucial service that designers provide. The more critical factor is how that space performs in the context of the client’s goals and objectives. 

I think those discussions between client and designer are far more critical—and interesting. A client may have incredible expectations, that their new workplace will change culture and brand. And it’s true, workplaces can in fact do those things, but a designer can also work with clients to identify what an organization truly and strategically needs in order to define its culture and create an interior environment that maximizes and enhances those goals, resulting in things like more engaged employees, increased productivity, and so on. IIDA has created a book series, What Clients Want, that explores the essential relationship between designer and client, and a number of the case studies consider what happens when a client wants to pursue a direction different from the one a successful design solution might require.

Q: Being successful in this career requires a strong ego. Is it challenging to lead an organization that is comprised of so many creative thinkers?
 Perhaps not so much a strong ego, but rather a healthy sense of self and an abiding awareness that being agile, flexible and open-minded are necessities. The wonderful thing about leading an organization of creative thinkers is the diversity of thought that exists and the fact that there are, more often than not, many right answers—and multiple approaches to get to those answers.

Q: With 13,000 members, how does the IIDA succeed in making everyone feel like they have a voice within the organization?
 Kemp, to be quite honest, I’m not sure if every member feels as if their voice is heard, yet mechanisms and opportunities exist for them to be heard on whatever matter they feel is important. I am accessible to all members, as is my team at IIDA headquarters and the entire International Board. Our chapter structure is representative of our membership and a convened group of chapter leaders is an open conduit for member opinion. And of course, so much of my time on the road and in the air is structured around being with IIDA members and local chapters.

Q: Different states have different licensing and core education requirements for qualifying someone as an interior designer. Is there a particular state program that you wish other states would adopt as a national model?
 Interior design legislation, by its very nature, has been crafted to meet the needs of a particular state, and very often to meet the needs of political expediency. There are elements in many states that are substantial, and I would perhaps select several aspects of the strongest legislation, rather than choose one particular state. Some of those would include designers having the ability to stamp and seal their own drawings; for the practice of interior design to be protected (with a strong definition of scope of service), not just the title of interior design; and for the NCIDQ exam to be regarded as the required competency test for this profession, to name a few.  

Q: What character traits do the most successful interior designers have that contribute to their success? 
 I believe that successful interior designers are insatiably curious. They ask great questions and problem solve in multiple dimensions and mindsets. Every design project starts with the question, “Why?” Passion is necessary and innate. I haven’t yet met a designer that isn’t passionate. And so is compassion. Designers need to be empathetic and sympathetic to the human condition. Thoughtful, agile, tireless. Having the ability to think with both sides of the brain. And diplomatic. That’s a necessity. And so is a sense of humor and irony. 

Q: What are the most significant ways in which the interior design industry has changed in the last few years?
 A higher regard for the work that designers do, as well as a shift that good design is a necessity, rather than a luxury, has been a tremendous change in last few years. Also, the scope of services that designers and firms provide has significantly expanded. Brand consultation, change management, communication design, service design…if you think about the vast changes that technology has brought to business, and the substantive shifts in the workplace and healthcare and higher education and retail, designers who create those spaces are working in ways that weren’t even predicted five years ago. Sustainability, active design, wellness and mobility—the sheer fact that we hold work (as in a digital device) in the palm of our hands—have all significantly changed the practice of design. 

Q: What has you most excited about the future of interior design?
 I think the seemingly limitless future for designers is exciting. Regardless of technology and the advances of society, place will always be fundamentally important to human beings. A sense of place is intrinsic and necessary to culture and humanity—and designers are required to create those places, the places that hold and nurture every human experience. That’s incredibly powerful and exciting. 

Q: What is the most intractable problem interior designers face? 
 The enduring issue continues to be one of value and understanding. So many people don’t understand the value of what designers do. And amidst the misperceptions and confusion and lack of equity, there are other professions that have attempted to encroach or co-opt design by offering what they call design services.

Q: What did you do early in your life that best prepared you for your role as the CEO of the IIDA?
 I think preparing to be a CEO and being a CEO are vastly different! When I was six years old, I certainly didn’t say I want to grow up and run a global design association. But I think my industry experience was eminently helpful. I’ve worked for Knoll, Reff and The Washington Design Center. I’ve taught high school. I’ve been a writer and a publicist in an advertising agency. And I’ve been a member and in leadership positions in volunteer organizations. I don’t think I could run IIDA, without having hands-on experience and first-hand knowledge of what it means to be a volunteer. 

Q: How do you earn people’s respect so they will follow you?
 Hmm. Tough and interesting question. I try to be as straightforward as possible. I don’t shy away from tough decisions. A sense of humor is critical. I like who I am. I don’t think you can respect someone who doesn’t like who they are. And I am constantly learning. I don’t assume or think 

I know everything. And then I share knowledge with others. And honestly, I try my hardest not to be a jerk. That’s pretty critical to the respect equation. 

Q: Why did you decide to pursue both journalism and economics in college?
 The real answer is because my parents told me that I would never find a job as an art history major, so I minored in art history and double-majored in journalism and economics. I loved the narrative of economics. It tells a cyclical story. And journalism was all about the writing and asking of questions and telling a story. My interest and specialty was technical writing. Taking a complex subject or matter that has its own unique language, like global finance, and writing about it in a way that made that subject easily understood and accessible to anyone. 

Q: What do you hope your legacy will be when you retire from this role?
 I hope my legacy is one that tells a story of the growth, expansion, relevance and stability of IIDA. And that that story runs a nice parallel to the profession of commercial design.

Q: Who has served as a role model or mentor in your career development? 
 I’ve had a number of amazing role models over the years, but the most significant and enduring one would be my mother. She was graceful, elegant, intelligent and rare. She was a microbiologist and research scientist at a time when African American women weren’t encouraged to realize their career aspirations or potential. She taught me that the word “no” just sometimes means “not yet.” She was a brilliant mother and wife and all the while maintained her personal and professional identity. I learned patience, perseverance and to have a good attitude from her. I also learned from her that details matter, but the little stuff can make you crazy. She also believed in the power of being well-read, being well-mannered—and in a good red lipstick.  

Q: When you are hiring someone, what personality traits do you look for?
 I’m looking for people who can think, who can write, who can speak well and articulate their ideas. People who can listen and learn. People who are slightly dissatisfied with the status quo and who want to make something or someplace better. I’m looking for people who are fascinated by culture, who may consider themselves as a little bit nerdy, and who play well with others. 

Q: What is the secret of your success?
 I’m still trying to figure it out. There are days when I can’t quite determine how I got here, or why I’m still here, other than it just seems right. I suppose that isn’t stellar or revelatory, nor could you write a business book about it, but I think sometimes, whether you call it success or not, whatever it is feels right to you and to those who support and surround you. And, quite simply, I enjoy what I do. I celebrate design and designers and consider myself fortunate to be in this place. 

Q: What do you do to relax when you don’t have your IIDA leadership hat on?
 I read. I read incessantly. And despite the fact that I travel for business, I love traveling with my husband and two kids. We explore. We take long excursions and road trips. And I tend to sneak in some serious people watching. Human beings are fascinating in action.

Copyright 2015 Floor Focus