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May 17, 2023 By Laura Botham
Design as Communication: 2023 Wilsonart Essay Winner
Emily Roberts, Student IIDA on learning about thinking of interior design as a way to communicate to and serve the end-user
By Laura Botham May 17, 2023
Published in Articles

Every year, hundreds of students from around the U.S. participate in the IIDA Student Mentoring Program to learn more about what having a career in the interior design industry can look like. Mentees are paired with a mentor to shadow in the workplace to gain a real-life look at different aspects of the role of interior designers, representatives, manufacturers, dealers, project managers, or more.

The Wilsonart Student Essay Competition allows students the chance for a $1,000 prize for their insightful and meaningful take-aways from the experience—what they learned and were surprised by about how to look at design. Emily Roberts, Student IIDA of Ensign College in Salt Lake City is the 2023 Wilsonart Student Essay Competition winner for her essay describing the new mindset that she learned from her mentor—one of design as a form of communication, and an act of service, sustainability, and support.

"Stories of Service, Sustainability, and Support"
By: Emily Roberts, Student IIDA

“Great design should tell a story.”

-Sol Sender

The first time I saw my mentor was on a “Student Q&A” panel at an IIDA event in Salt Lake City. His answer to a question about the design process struck a chord with me. He said that design is a form of communication that speaks unconsciously to the end-user, and that the communication is enriched by a meaningful story. I loved this thoughtful perspective, so you can imagine my delight when, after registering for the IIDA Student Mentoring Program, I was paired with this designer, Mr. Dannon Rampton of VCBO Architecture.


The whole experience has been absolutely energizing! After coordinating schedules over email, Dannon invited me and two other mentees to a day of immersion into the world of commercial interior design. We toured the firm, met his colleagues, observed him and others in action, participated in design conversations, enjoyed a lovely lunch al fresco, and even visited a commercial furniture procurement company about one of his current projects. On top of that, my mentor spent individual time with each of us discussing our portfolios and our current work. Three major themes emerged throughout the day: service, sustainability, and supportive teamwork.

In the discussion about the various projects they showed us—a large metropolitan medical school facility nestled into the side of a mountain, a historic courthouse in a rural town, multiple religious buildings around the country, and more—there was an emphasis on client needs. Design is a service industry, and with everything from the story of the built environment to the budget, I saw that the focus is on serving (and educating) those needs. My mentor even taught us a strategy of managing client conversations and contributions. When something surprising may come up in a design discussion with a client, responding with “Yes, and...” is a way to encourage creativity, find ways to work unitedly, and still use our expertise to skillfully meet their needs.

Another important concept that came through in our conversations over the course of the day is the crucial role that designers play in creating a more sustainable and just world. It was evident that my mentor’s firm values sustainability. From healthy material specifications and volunteerism to educating ourselves and clients, we make a significant difference.

Finally, I was impressed by the collaborative design process and the efforts of everyone I met to support each other and invest in the future of the industry. Despite the intense nature of the work, the environment at the firm was positive and encouraging. In addition, it was clear that they consider their support of IIDA's Student Mentor Program as not only an investment in my design education, but good business practice for the company as well.

What I have learned through this experience—service, sustainability, and support—has energized and inspired me as I develop as a designer. Throughout my career, I will seek to implement these principles, and I will be forever grateful for these additions to my story.

Learn more about the IIDA Student Mentoring Program and the Wilsonart Essay Competition

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