Breaking Academic Silos

Presented by: Marla Emory, Tom Futrell

The compartmentalization of design disciplines in academia is a standard that is often contrary to professional practice. Until recently, many academic departments focused on their design processes in isolation. While this model has proven to be successful, it is limiting to the overall design education. A solution was to develop a studio that focused on a mixture of topics, tools and expertise. By converging multiple design methodologies, students were exposed to a variety of new problem solving skills. Identify the problem Without considering the differences in scope, tools or deliverables, the assumption that there is a common language between design disciplines is an over generalization. These differences are shaped by disciplinary viewpoints from both academic pedagogy and professional practice. Graphic designers typically use symbols, words, images and motion to communicate a message, while interior designers shape the experience of a space through form making, acoustics, volume and texture. By creating an interdisciplinary studio, new opportunities for collaboration provide for unique design solutions. Method of strategy The interdisciplinary studio was a ten-week, three credit studio consisting of interior design and graphic design students, led by two professors, one from each discipline. Students were divided in teams of three – one interior design student and two graphic design students. Project #1_Designing Time Students read “Einstein’s Dreams” by Alan Lightman and interpreted the concept of time by creating an interactive installation. Freedom to explore was given to the teams in order to develop new processes and a collective voice. Project #2 _ Restaurant Design The student teams were tasked with a more complex and real world project; to design and brand a restaurant, based on conceptual ideas derived from a single chef prepared dish. The teams worked with the chef as a client and researched specific components of a professional kitchen, as well as the function and structure of a restaurant. After preliminary programming, students were given a physical space that would house the restaurant. They documented the existing conditions, researched the site context and began developing their target audience, naming, branding and spatial explorations. Final deliverables included primary identity and name, branding standards, communication platforms and wayfinding systems that aligned with the interior design of the restaurant including furniture, lighting, acoustics and individual programs. Table vignettes showing examples of lighting, tableware, menus, uniforms, etc., were mocked up to give the client the overall experience of the restaurant. Analysis of outcome Interior design projects are typically presented as a representation using visualization tools such as renderings, orthographic drawing and models. Graphic design, however, can produce scaled representations of final objects, allowing for a more authentic experience in conveying the overall design concept and subsequent deliverables. When the two disciplines work collaboratively, the interior spatial representation, combined with the actualized scaled mock-ups add a deeper level of understanding for the intended audience. Fostering cross-disciplinary collaboration allows for an evolved design process in students from both disciplines and the sum of the output is greater than individual efforts. Graphic design students began to think spatially, and interior design students more holistically, both realizing that a project can be more substantive than any single discipline can offer. In conclusion, an interdisciplinary approach to design pedagogy can be successful on multiple levels. Students are exposed to new viewpoints of process, techniques and compromise while learning to work as a team. The breaking down of academic silos leads to more well-rounded students leaving the safety of the academy and entering into professional practice.


  • Plunkett, D., & Reid, O. (2013). Detail in contemporary bar and restaurant design. London: Laurence King Pub.
  • Lightman, A. (1993). Einstein's dreams. New York, New York: Pantheon Books.
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