Bringing Spaces to Life through Interior Design

Interior design has a massive impact on the way we interact with the spaces around us. It involves macro-level factors (like layout) all the way down to the details (like the finish on drawer pulls). Interior design dramatically affects mood, productivity, and even health. It also has a major impact on things like sustainability and inclusivity.

That’s a lot to take on, and it takes talented, dedicated professionals to make it work. Fortunately, we have a lot of those at BWBR, and we were lucky enough to sit down with a couple of them for a podcast episode on our popular architecture and design podcast, Side of Design.

Host Matt Gerstner met with Senior Interior Designer Lisa Miller and Interior Designer Sara Biedenbender to find out more about what they do, why it matters, and what motivates them.

Putting People at the Center

Interior design, done well, can go unnoticed. That’s really too bad, because interior designers deserve a TON of credit for what they do, but it’s also a tribute to their skill. Their job is to consider the unique needs, priorities, and preferences of an individual client, and reconcile those with budgets, building codes, supply chain availability, material durability, space restrictions, environmental factors, the architecture team, and about a million other considerations. They might make it seem effortless, with seamless results, but there’s a huge volume of practice and effort put in behind the scenes.

“The goal is to make people feel better and more refreshed when they leave [a space] than when they came into it,” says Sara. “We have the ability to affect every part of a human’s daily life who is using the space. It’s about getting the right balance of all the priorities.”

The interior designers at BWBR take a holistic, human-centered approach to design. And while a space will definitely be beautiful, as Lisa says, the spaces our team designs “aren’t just for a cool picture or a great view. It’s about the people who use the space. It’s thinking about how these spaces are affected by cultural, demographic, and societal influences, and by human behavior.”

For Lisa, Sara, and other BWBR designers, having an exceptionally thoughtful and functional space is only part of the objective. They go beyond that to think about how people could be inspired by it. And of course, the answer to that is going to be completely different every time, based on the type of space, the location, who will be using it, and how it will be used. That means they need to aim for individualized functionality and inspiration every single time.

Emotional Impact

When a space doesn’t have high-quality interior design, you definitely notice — ask anyone who has worked in a cramped office with no natural light and inadequate airflow. “You can tell when something has made you feel more chaotic,” says Sara. “When you can’t find your way and you’re stressed and the lighting is wrong.” Avoiding this kind of stress and uncertainty is all the more important when you think about the kinds of spaces our team works on — in health care settings, where patients might already be feeling unwell and worried; in educational spaces, where students need to feel supported and safe; or in workplace environments where workers want to be inspired and energized.

Open seating for dining and access to the meditation space, surrounded by indoor plants.
Avera on Louise Health Campus

Lisa and Sara not only pay close attention to their client’s needs and priorities, but they also make a point of putting themselves in the figurative shoes of the people who will use the space. A client might not have the vocabulary, context, or expertise to be able to pinpoint a problem, much less identify the solution, but a knowledgeable designer can visualize the holistic experience users will have in the space, and use that understanding to make it extraordinary.

Scratching the Surface

The next time you notice a perfect wall treatment or a show-stopping light fixture, remember that you’re seeing — quite literally — just the surface level of the interior designer’s effort. They’re working within complicated restrictions and leveraging precise data combined with artistry to achieve that final result.

We also delved into sustainability, industry trends, work/life balance, and more in our conversation with Lisa and Sara — you’re not going to want to miss it! To listen to the full podcast, click here.

Design for Belonging: An Introduction to Inclusive Design

BWBR seeks to bring an equity lens to every project we take on as part of the ongoing work of pursuing inclusivity in our organization and our communities. We believe that people are at the heart of creating good design, and that means striving to make sure that every voice is respected, valued, and heard. By inviting everyone in, we can foster belonging, and one practical way we live this out is by facilitating an inclusive design process.

When we talk about inclusive design, we mean anyone and everyone who will use or be impacted by a space. This requires representation across all genders, ages, races, religions, abilities, financial backgrounds, ethnic identities, sexual orientations, body types, and more.

What is Inclusive Design?

The foundation of modern, formalized inclusive design can be traced back to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, which was aimed at ensuring that individuals with disabilities be afforded the same opportunities and experiences, and the opportunity to participate wholly in all aspects of society (though certainly humanity wrestled with facets of accessible design going back much further historically). With that goal of full participation for all in mind, inclusive design has developed beyond the simple rules outlined by ADA regulations resulting in features like adult changing tables, mothers’ rooms, prayer rooms, and inclusive restrooms. (And, of course, engaging local building officials on any unique or new solutions is vital to a smooth process — especially since not all officials will have the same position on things like alternative restroom planning, for example.)

Side by side images of Gustavus' multifaith and ablution spaces.
Gustavus Adolphus College, Anderson Hall Renovation

Despite initial appearances, spaces that enable full participation can be deceptively complex. For example, a multi-faith prayer room design process would need to understand and account for the worship practices of various religions and translate those needs into physical space. Do men and women pray together or separately? Is kneeling space required? What sort of acoustic needs are there? Will there be candles or incense burned, requiring ventilation? What sort of décor requirements or prohibitions must be met? Do cardinal directions need to be clearly indicated? What ablution practices must be accommodated? Can the space be used for other purposes like yoga or meditation? These are just a few of the questions that require careful consideration, conversation, and collaboration.

Beyond specific features and functions, designers should also pay attention to inclusivity barriers found in more foundational elements of a project, including scale, wayfinding, historical context, sensory details, service animal access, and general visibility across and through space. Above all, the goal is to avoid creating unintended obstacles for users, with the end goal of creating spaces that welcome and serve everyone.

How Do You Implement Inclusive Design?

While any design project is a complex undertaking, the key to successful inclusive design is to have a process built in right from the start. You don’t know what you don’t know, and the only way to find out is to hear directly from those who do! Our team works to deeply understand our client, their clients, and their staff, as well as their existing internal policies and philosophies around equity and inclusion. From there, we can understand who all of the stakeholders on the project will be and map out how to incorporate their voices.

Here are some of our top recommendations for facilitating an inclusive process:

  • Prioritize empathy: Consider how various demographics will interact with your space — creating personas can be a helpful exercise for this.
  • Pay attention to who is and is not “at the table:” Don’t forget about cleaning and maintenance staff, operations managers, or various community members, for example.
  • Build trust: Make time to make everyone feel comfortable. One exercise our team likes is to ask everyone to share a space that makes them feel welcome and why, as an icebreaker or brainstorming prompt.
  • Stay humble: Be flexible, open to feedback, and aware of your own limitations. Don’t be so focused on selling your idea that you forget to listen.

For example, through stakeholder conversations during the programming stage of a neighborhood center in a diverse community, our team came to understand the varying meanings colors held for different cultures. Some of our assumptions about which colors were “warm” or “inviting” were challenged as we gained a deeper appreciation for the way color interpretation is connected to cultural context — a valuable insight that we integrated into the final design.

The bottom line? Build a process with awareness and intention, then be open to what you learn along the way. We all benefit from greater representation, and the end design is so much stronger and more impactful when we make the time to make sure all voices are heard.