JDC Spring-2001 v3 - Teaching Design Concept Through Interdisciplinary Collaborations

Teaching Design Concept Through Interdisciplinary Collaborations

Bradley Whitney
Virginia Tech
email: whitneyb@vt.edu

"The real voyage of discovery begins not in seeking
new landscapes, but in having new eyes." Marcel Proust 1
Design Concept
Examples Project Application

The design of interior form within structural environments involves knowledge and understanding of design theory, human development, environmental issues, ergonomics, and visual aesthetics. A formal design education that reflects these principles challenges students to think critically in their design of spaces that enhance the quality of life, health, safety, and welfare of all users. Generally, students explore these principles through studio investigations and theory. 2

In our interior design program, first year students discover the vocabulary of design through studio and lecture experiences. Additional courses in related subjects complement the intense first year design focus of the studios by helping students recognize important themes and influences shared among the design arts. Connections between interior design and its allied disciplines, particularly those of art and architecture, are made continuously throughout the major.

First year studies set the pace and expectations for excellence in design. During that time, students explore form and space through concept driven projects. One particular project draws upon fine art for conceptual inspiration providing an opportunity for students to examine thematic elements shared between interior design and fine arts. The purpose of this paper is to discuss the significance of the design concept as well as its formulation and implementation in the design process, and to describe a first year interior design project that establishes an interdisciplinary link with fine arts. The project additionally fulfilled the following three goals:

  1. exploration of a three-dimensional product as a metaphor of a two-dimensional image;
  2. realization of the essence of a particular historic context in a newly interpreted design;
  3. revelation of philosophical ideas shared by interior design and fine art.
Formulating the Idea

Design Concept

Reflecting a similar model present at many universities, interior design students in our program are exposed to the vocabulary of design during their first year design courses. Fundamentals of design are taught in a two-semester sequence of studio courses creating an environment where soon to be designers can explore the principles and elements of design. Using a concept driven pedagogy, students are guided through a variety of explorative projects, exercises, and lectures focusing on abstract principles that nurture the development of conceptual thinking. Paramount is the interaction of form with space, and the process of designing in both the two and three-dimensions is repeatedly explored in every project. In addition to their first year design studios, interior design students complement their explorative studies with theory-based courses such as design appreciation and art history. The culmination of an intense year of fundamental design studies results in a synthesis of design theory and practice that establishes a strong foundation for upper level design course work.

The formulation of a concept during a design project is the most essential component of process development. The concept drives the direction of a designer's work. It is a faithful, unwavering voice that guides the design process through confusion or hesitation when faced with 'where to go' or 'what to do next'. The concept also makes the designer accountable to every design decision made in fulfilling a project's objective. Addressing concept early in studio education is vital to producing a designer with analytical cognitive skills, integrity, and responsibility.

Interior design concepts begin from a balance established between client needs and the appreciation for visual harmony. The heart of a design concept, as well as its process, focuses upon a person's relationship to a space. The Foundation for Interior Design Education and Research (FIDER) states that a professional interior designer is qualified through education, experience, and examination to enhance the function and characteristics of interior spaces in order to improve the quality of life, increase the productivity, and protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public. 3 Moreover, the design concept guides decisions of the designer that will emotionally connect people to interior spaces. Understanding and applying a unified visual aesthetic to an interior that reflects the values of both designer and client leads to a psychologically and spiritually gratifying environment. By using concept to establish a design where a heightened synthesis of function and visual harmony exist, interiors are elevated to "intimate spaces becoming the screens on which we project our inner visions; they are the shell from within which we view the world beyond, their windows our eyes, their walls and ceilings our security, their furniture and décor our convictions. They are our most personal art" ( Abercrombie, 1990 ).

During undergraduate coursework, design students continually shape and refine their conceptual and analytical thinking. Conceptual seeds are first sown in design fundamentals courses through abstract explorations of the principles and elements of design. As a student's design education progresses, the design vocabulary begins to address the more familiar shapes and forms of architectural and interior environments. In first year studies, for example, it is enough to just explore the concept of movement in an abstract project constructed solely out of balsa wood. But as the level of spatial complexity rises and becomes more sophisticated in upper level studios, i.e. more familiar, the conceptual intricacy of the design process needs to evolve too. After first year studies, the student is slowly introduced to design problems that address human environments where familiar forms of walls, windows, and furniture occur. Instead of relying on a single idea, the student learns to consider the needs of the client and/or the space in order to ascertain a more appropriate and involved design concept. More advanced project programming that investigates client needs and values assists students in establishing a design concept that relates to the persons or actions occupying the space.

Design Inspiration

Although human needs generally determine the mechanics in a design, the descriptive visual form may remain quite fluid. Looking beyond the individual and seeing the entirety of place and existence reveals timeless metaphors that can inspire form in design. For centuries, artists and designers have reached beyond the individual and beautified human environments with representations inspired from the world around us. Influential forces of nature inspired our ancestors to decorate cave walls in paintings of fleeing game. The sun, moon, and stars inspired mathematical thought that gave rise to monuments and temples. Geometric patterns found in nature inspired philosophies on beauty and perfection. Design has existed for as long as humans have been able to perceive and interpret patterns in the natural world.

The following links will take you offsite to images supporting the premise that design is often inspired by the world around us. Use your browser's back button to return to this article.


Cave Paintings at Lascaux
Great Pyramid of Khufu
Sydney Opera House


Monet's Water Lilies
Cole's View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm-The Oxbow
Adam's Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona, 1948

Echoing patterns found in nature is one method of addressing form in a design concept. Looking to allied arts and philosophies is another. E. L. Boyer, the author of a report entitled Building Community: A New Future for Architectural Education and Practice, recommends that "In a rapidly changing world, students need to look beyond the confines of a single discipline…students should be exposed to how the great figures in history, literature, philosophy, and art have struggled with life's moral dilemmas. These are the needs that make a true liberal education so essential" ( p.77 ). Building interdisciplinary bridges with similar theoretical design based cultures greatly increases a student's conceptual awareness and design process.


For example, Frances Bronet and John A. Schumacher ( 1996 ) defined design in movement, i.e. dance, as a complement to methods of design in space, i.e. architecture. Presented as a class project, the authors investigated the collaborative link between dance and architecture in a first year architectural design studio. Relating specifically to the concept of movement, architectural students created projects based on theories of kinetics and choreographic theory found in dance ( pg 205 ).

In a project more clearly related to interior design, Carl Mathews and Betsy Gabb ( 2000 ) stress the importance of establishing cultural connections between design-related disciplines. This student project explored how literature, film and visual arts were used as sources of inspiration in the formulation of a concept. The authors of this project found that their students developed a wider range of design solutions, exhibited a greater understanding of conceptual development, and also an understanding of the creative process of other artists ( pg 11 ). Similarly, Eric Wiedegreen ( 2000 ) asked students to look to historical architectural styles for inspiration in the creation of non-literal interpretations. Students created a series of full-scale arches that reflected the essence of a particular architectural style ( pg 96 ).

These examples answer the call by Boyer and support his notion that interdisciplinary links with a related discipline furthers the conceptual development of students, particularly those in design.

Art as Concept

Project Application

The teaching of concept can be very difficult at times. Its elusive abstract nature often times makes its definitions and examples appear extremely ephemeral to first year design students. But its importance still remains paramount to a successful design. During first year design foundation studies, various methods are utilized to clarify what a concept is and is not. Discussed is one particular project that reflects Boyer's interdisciplinary directive and explores how a concept can be derived from a historic context, specifically the historic context of a work of art.

The collaborative group nature of this project reinforced the idea that good design is not created in a vacuum but arises from a complementary synthesis of outside influential forces and ideas. The class included fifteen students that divided into three groups of four and one group of three. Students were introduced to the project and assigned to carefully selected groups that incorporated a balance of talent and skill. Each group was then randomly assigned a painting. The following paintings were carefully chosen from various art movements to reflect form, space, color, light, and movement…the major principles taught in the course:

The Stigmatization of Saint Francis (c. 1596) by Merisi da Caravaggio. There is a strong movement in composition from lower left to upper right in this piece. The element of contrast supports this movement and emphasizes the foreground subjects. 4
Abbey in the Oak Wood (1810) Casper David Friedrich. This painting was selected for its strong contrasts between lights and darks as well as its division of horizontal space. 5
Wheat Field with Cypresses (1889) by Vincent Van Gogh. Color was the main determinate element for this painting as well as the movement of the composition as augmented by Van Gogh's brush strokes. 6
Forest Witches (1938) Paul Klee. This painting was selected for its spatial relationships as defined by line and shape. 7
Untitled#131 (c. 1985) Stanislaw Kors. The strong movement was the reason this work was selected. 8

The students were then asked to present research on their painting during the following class meeting. Each group's presentation included a summary of the painting's historical context, an academic critical analysis, and the group's own emotive responses and interpretations. The team then discussed the occurrence of form, space, color, light, and movement in the painting. Working sketches that showed conceptual images for a possible three-dimensional form were also presented.

After gathering and presenting background information, the next objective for each group was to formulate a concept based on their assigned painting. Some groups narrowed in and focused on one dominant theme or element of the painting while other groups looked at the whole composition to ascertain a concept. Discussion on the use of metaphor in regards to concept building also took place. After each group formulated a concept, they started designing for a three-dimensional form no larger than 4 feet in any dimension. Materials for the project were selected by the group.

Outcomes: Comparisons and Contrasts

The following images establish comparisons and contrasts between the original painting of the master artists and the inspired three-dimensional metaphor of the student's design project.

Interpretation of Caravaggio's The Stigmatization of Saint Francis (c. 1596)
Interpretation of Friedrich's Abbey in the Oak Wood (1810)
Interpretation of Van Gogh's Wheatfield with Cypresses (1889)
Interpretation of Klee's Forest Witches (1938)
Interpretation of Kors's Untitled #131 (c. 1985)

This project revealed that students were clearly able to demonstrate how to establish a concept from the historical framework of fine art. Each unique piece fulfilled the project's requirements. The students knowledge about the historical significance of an allied discipline was elevated, the appreciation for the relationship between design and an allied discipline was nurtured, and the student's conceptual and analytical thinking regarding form, space, movement, light, and color was increased. When viewed alongside its inspired painting, it's clear the final product is truly a three-dimensional metaph or of a time in history. Art shares a role in the teaching of interior design and this project effectively explored one particular facet of that collaboration.

Many educators throughout design curriculums answer the call by Boyer. Weaving between architecture, interior design, fine arts, and dance are many collaborative threads that offer new possibilities in nurturing a student's conceptual ability. By building interdisciplinary bridges between related theoretical cultures students gain a deeper understanding of their place in the world and their connection to others. Design cannot exist in a vacuum nor can students design in a vacuum. They both have purpose and require a broader scope of vision to achieve success.


Abercrombie , S. (1990). A Philosophy of Interior Design. New York, NY: Harper and Row.

Boyer , E.L. and Mitgang, L.D. (1996). Building Community: A New Future for Architecture Education and Practice. Princeton, NJ: Carnegie Foundation.

Bronet , F. and Schumacher, J. (1996) Design In Movement: The Prospects of Interdisciplinary Design. Proceedings from the 86th ACSA Annual Meeting and Technology Conference: CANADA

Matthew , C. and Gabb, B. (2000) In Search of Inspiration: Developing Design Through Literature, History, Film, Art, Architectural Precedents, and Personality Theory. Proceedings from the Interior Design Educators Council National Conference: Calgary, CA.

Wiedegreen , E. (2000) Historic Arches: "Building" A Context for History. Proceedings from the Interior Design Educators Council National Conference: Calgary, CA.


1 This quote appears in the introduction of Landscape (Princeton Architectural Press: Princeton, 1985)

2 This paragraph references a philosophy of interior design that is stated on a promotional brochure prepared by interior design faculty at Virginia Tech (2000).

3 Definition of an interior designer as found on the FIDER website www.fider.org (2000).

4 WWW image from the CGFA site.

5 WWW image from the CGFA site.

6 WWW image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art site.

7 WWW image from the Gallery site.

8 WWW image from the Stanislaw Kors online gallery.