Small Business Off-Campus Start-Up: Developing an Interior Design Research Center for Community Engagement

Presented by: Travis L. Hicks

In a public land grant university an interiors department with a CIDA-accredited BFA program has developed a center for community-engaged design research and practice. The author, director of this research center, will share the process of developing this research center and will compare this center with various models of professional practices in interior design. Students engaged in this center, nominally “Student Fellows,” receive hands-on practical experiences that go well beyond the typical experiences from studio courses, lecture courses, and even professional practice courses.

Following decades of community-engaged design projects, ranging from custom residential design/build to commercial fit-ups, an existing research center has been transformed into a community design center. In a land grant university, where the mantra is “do more with less” by consolidating shared functions and eliminating research centers, the interiors department has been successful in maintaining an existing research center and convincing upper administration to approve changes to, and provide additional support for, this center.  Normally the transformation process would take several years; in this case the changes took less than one year. The author will offer insights into the visioning sessions, community meetings, campus conversations, and broader support that contributed to this expedited transformation.

The connections between this research center and Professional Practices pedagogy are two-fold. First, the author has utilized years of practice experience and knowledge to plan and execute a research and design center that, on the surface, operates much like a small design firm. Secondly, students who work in this center contribute to “real world” projects in this firm-like environment, going beyond the learning that typically occurs in the department’s Professional Practices course. 

The author has taught the Professional Practices course in recent years, and there are pedagogical techniques, such as active learning and project-based instruction, that have made these lecture-based courses successful. None of these teaching and learning techniques, however, hold a candle to the process of engaging students in what is the equivalent of a small business “start-up.”

Students developed professional practice skills in the center, which occupies a 1,500 s.f. off-campus commercial storefront. Student interns took the space from an empty shell to a finished space over the summer, and current Student Fellows continue to enhance the design of the space through additional detailing and accessories.  In doing these projects, students have gained practical experiences of designing and building out a commercial interior, such as documenting, designing, budgeting, procuring furnishings and fixtures, and executing the plan. In addition, students have contributed to the planning, marketing, and communications for this research center and have worked on a handful of community-based projects.

This center has engaged in over a dozen community-based research and design projects, has engaged over 125 students from various disciplines, has engaged over 100 community members and volunteers, and has generated over 2,000 person hours of community engagement in a city where there is a clear void this center fills.


  • Martin, Caren, Denise Guerin et. al. The State of the Interior Design Profession. Fairchild Books (2010).
  • Piotrowski, Christine M. Professional Practice for Interior Designers. Wiley (2013).
  • Boyer, E. 1990. Scholarship reconsidered: The priorities of the professoriate. Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Princeton, N.J.
  • Boyer, E. 1996. The scholarship of engagement. Journal of Public Service and Outreach 1(1): 1    1–20.
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