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Feb 24, 2022 By IIDA HQ
Women Lead Design: Women’s History Month 2022
Imani Day, Megan Dobstaff, IIDA, and Tiara Hughes share their experiences in being a woman in the design industry.
By IIDA HQ Feb 24, 2022
Published in

In celebration of Women’s History Month, IIDA continues its annual conversation series, Women Lead Design. This year we’re highlighting three inspiring women in the industry: Imani Day, award-winning architect, founder and principal of Detroit-based RVSN Studios, Megan Dobstaff, IIDA, design director and senior associate at Gensler, London, and Tiara Hughes, Assoc. AIA, senior urban designer at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), adjunct professor at Chicago’s Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), and founder and executive director of FIRST 500, a global platform dedicated to celebrating and raising the awareness of Black women architects. They discuss their sources of inspiration, mentorship as a two-way learning process, and the evolving role of women in design in a changing world.

Who has been an important mentor to you over the course of your career? Have you mentored others? What impact has mentorship had on you?

Imani Day:
My idea of what mentorship means has really expanded—I always thought mentorship needed to come from an older, more experienced person in my field. In the past year, while starting RVSN Studios, I’ve found it most helpful to surround myself with people who understand my vision and can help strategize around achieving bigger goals. I’ve always learned from every direction; older or younger, experienced or new to the field, etc. So it’s a 360 approach to support and guidance; the most important part being the alignment of our values and making sure we’re not only looking up for direction on what’s next.

Megan Dobstaff: I feel extremely lucky to have had so very many wonderful mentors over my eleven years with Gensler, however two women take the cake in terms of both importance and impact. Stefanie Shunk, IIDA, design principal at Gensler New York, is an amazingly accomplished design maverick in this industry, who for the past eleven years has always taken the time to explain the intricate whys and hows behind everything—from space planning, to materiality, to architectural detailing, to presentation skills. I can’t thank her enough for leading by example, and for giving so much of her mind and her time not just to me, but to many young designers who have worked for the firm.

Amanda Carroll, principal and managing director of the New York Office, started Gensler’s Northeast Technology Practice Area seven years ago, and has built it into what it is today. I was lucky enough to be asked to join her at the beginning of that quest, and from her I have learned the art of strategic thinking, client relationships, the importance of building a team, and leading with your mind.

Personally, I am pleased to have been informed by many of the talented designers I’ve been lucky enough to have on my teams, that they enjoy working with and learning from me. (I’ve learned from the best!) Stefanie said to me years ago, that “it is important to have mentors who are both older and younger than you,‘’ and that could not be more true. I am so inspired by the young talent that we have at the firm, and I learn and grow just as much from them as I hope they do from me.

Megan Dobstaff, IIDA, design director and senior associate at Gensler, London. Image courtesy of the subject
Megan Dobstaff, IIDA, design director and senior associate at Gensler, London. Image courtesy of the subject

Tiara Hughes: Dina Griffin, FAIA, the president of interactive design architects. She has been a fierce and phenomenal example of an architect leading in practice. Additionally, she has been a personal mentor of mine for most of my professional career. I can call her anytime for advice or guidance in a space with so few black women. FIRST 500 is lucky to have her as an advisor!

Dina’s mentorship has inspired me to carry on the torch of mentorship because guiding the future pipelines of black women's voices is critical to the survival and growth of our industry. Our voices are needed in spaces where decisions are made, policies are considered, and positions of leadership and power are earned. We offer a different lens and point of view that’s often missing from these spaces.

Where do you look for inspiration?

ID: I’m always inspired by people who are courageous enough to approach universal problems that seem impossible to solve; who dare to tackle bigger social issues that are rooted in systemic injustice through design and activism.

I’ve been an avid fiction reader since I was five years old, and for as long as I can remember I’ve escaped to novels to both be inspired by other spaces, places and planets. To exercise my creative muscles I’ve been building those worlds in immense detail within my imagination. All this worldmaking comes in handy when working with clients to craft spaces that hold their narratives and tell their stories.

With FIRST 500, Black women architects are my inspiration because they have paved the way for me to have a space in the profession and their contributions to the built environment should be well known by everyone. I’m also inspired by the next generation of architects and my students—their hunger for knowledge and desire to form a better understanding of the world around us is refreshing. I recently had a person ask me if they thought students would want to learn about social equity as it relates to design. I just about screamed YES at the top of my lungs because I know this generation of students are open-minded and ambitious and ready to tackle real world issues. The people and the communities I serve inspire me too; I have always lived in areas that do not have a lot of representation in places where true change happens and advocacy for underserved communities is necessary. My personal experiences and the people from these places have inspired me to take action, and to engage and empower communities throughout the design process.

Below: Tiara Hughes, copyright Dawveed Scully


What do you see as the role of women in design in light of the past few years?

Women often play so many roles in design; a lot of which are rendered invisible because of how we tend to define leadership and value tangible contributions to our offices and culture. I think it's important to recognize how much we associate leadership styles with masculinity, when there is so much to embrace and celebrate about our natural ability to empathize and humanize our team members in an industry so focused on productivity and bottom lines. There is immense strength in effective communication and emotional intelligence alongside our design skills.

Our voices are being listened to and respected now more than ever before. Individuality is being celebrated and encouraged. We need to feel both empowered and comfortable enough to share our true selves, and author our own narratives.

Women are change makers, leaders and true purveyors of change in our industry—we see problems as opportunities for thoughtful solutions. So many things have changed since I first arrived in Chicago, in search of a strong network of black women architects. For starters, our design schools nationwide have reached gender parity on average, split 50/50 between male and female students. The designers graduating and entering into our workforce today are more diverse and empowered than ever. And supported by networks like FIRST 500, I see a future with greater access and resources available for all to advance into leadership, have greater social impact and pursue their dreams!

What do you do to remain balanced amid change?

ID: Change is an inherent part of our industry, so I try to stay present and remember that we play an active role in whether that change is progressive or regressive. I think the balance comes by learning to trust that my agility and resilience will allow me to handle most, if not all, of the unexpected.

MD: To quote researcher and author Brené Brown, I aim to stay “awkward, brave and kind,” and I aim to move with intention.

TH: Prioritizing mental health, meditating, and connecting with our youth because they are the

What's the best piece of advice you can give to emerging women designers?

ID: Knowing when to say no is equally as important as knowing when to say yes. You are your strongest advocate in assertively setting and protecting your boundaries, goals, and energy.

Listen, learn, and never arrive at the table empty handed or without a point of view. You can only move up and onwards to the next level of leadership when you are able to train and empower someone to step into your place.

When considering what advice to pass along, I often think of what I would tell my younger self when I was homeless in college, fighting to survive and to get my architectural education; when my professors and advisors continuously told me this field and industry may not be right for me. In addition to seeking out resources like FIRST 500 that exist specifically for your needs, I would tell my younger self, and to young people of color everywhere: if this industry feels lonely, you are not alone. If your ideas are not heard, keep speaking. If one door closes, three will open. Keep going and never give up. If there is no well to drink from, dig until you create one!

Imani Day, award-winning architect, founder and principal of Detroit-based RVSN Studios. Image courtesy of the subject
Imani Day, award-winning architect, founder and principal of Detroit-based RVSN Studios. Image courtesy of the subject

What is one thing you wish more people knew about women in design?

ID: See question three, above!

MD: A study published by McKinsey & Company in 2018 approximates that despite 61% of the design industry population being women, only 11% of leadership positions in the industry are held by women. In an essay published in Stanford Medicine in 2017, it is stated that “The two hemispheres of a woman’s brain talk to each other more than a man’s do.” We dominate in both population and in duality of the mind. It’s our time to shine.

TH: Women are excellent designers and should always be involved in the design process. Everyone in the industry should be working to elevate women designers—start somewhere because no act is too small. Diverse collaborators and voices are paramount to critically solving the problems communities face and creating a more equitable exchange between designers and the communities we serve.

For more conversations on being a woman in the interior design industry, register for Collective D(esign) S3, Ep1 | Women Lead Design: New Changemakers

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