Unraveling the Complexity: The Interwoven Threads of Spatial Design Disciplines

August 30, 2023In Articles

As someone who has dipped their toes into various aspects of the design world, I can confidently assert that these disciplines are akin to living organisms, constantly evolving, adapting, and changing to meet our needs and the demands of the world. We live in an era where rigid boundaries that once demarcated different professions are gradually morphing into mere suggestions. Consider my journey as a multidisciplinary designer, where I’ve navigated smoothly from graphic to yacht design, treating them as stepping stones in a stream.

Today, we find ourselves at an intriguing crossroad in the world of space design. In my preceding article, “Something Spatial”, I delved into what spatial design is and how it merges multiple disciplines, from the physical to the digital and even mixed reality. In this article, however, I will set aside Extended Reality (XR) and roles involving digital spaces and interactions, such as Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR), and Mixed Reality (MR). My focus will be on traditional and emerging disciplines that deal with physical spaces, including interior architecture, interior design, environmental design, and of course, spatial design. These are no longer stand-alone entities but integral components of an interconnected archipelago, each taking cues from the other, enriching and expanding their practices.

Transitioning between design roles and amalgamating diverse tasks has never been an issue for me. The challenge arises with a highly specialized industry and the increasingly niche roles we encounter today. As an educator in interior and graphic design, I’ve encountered many students who bear misconceptions about what the field encompasses.

It’s vital to demystify the roles and comprehend whether certain titles are merely grandiloquent labels aimed at distinguishing some designers from the pack. I also discern that certain “new” roles are essentially rebranding of existing disciplines, albeit with a focus on new domains. This can be bewildering for both clients and students trying to discern roles and responsibilities. However, if there is an authentic opportunity to carve out a meaningful specialization, I’m all for it.

Interior Architecture

Let’s commence with interior architecture. I’ve encountered numerous architects who have a longstanding disdain for this term, and honestly, I don’t blame them. Architects are responsible for the comprehensive design of buildings, including factors such as structural integrity, safety, functionality, and aesthetic appeal, encompassing both the building’s exterior and interior. The interior consideration for end users is paramount. Hence, the term “Interior Architecture,” which many use to refer purely to the functional aspects of interior space, can be misleading, especially when interior considerations are already part of the architectural discipline. Some employ this term to distance themselves from interior design, presumably because it conveys a loftier status. However, this is a misconception.

Interior Design

Interior design has often been conflated with decoration or styling, which is likely why many interior designers engaged in technical work prefer the term “Interior Architect.” Interior design is a complex field that goes beyond mere aesthetics. It involves the creation of functional spaces that consider people’s relationship and behaviour within these spaces. It encompasses technical planning, refurbishment, installations, and styling. Therefore, styling is just one facet of the interior design role. An Interior designer is a certified professional, while a stylist, who is tasked with defining the appearance and creating the look of the space, doesn’t necessitate certification.

There are indeed specializations within the interior design industry. While an interior designer possesses broad knowledge to develop an interior design project, they can further specialize depending on the project’s requirements. Some professionals specialize in styling, technical development, lighting design, kitchen design, bespoke furniture design, and so forth.

Blurring the lines between architecture and interior design merely for distinction is, in my opinion, misguided. Both fields have their unique attributes, and they can thrive symbiotically in diverse projects. They should each be acknowledged for their distinct contributions.

Environmental Design

Then, we have environmental design, a term that merits a clear definition. Some use it interchangeably with spatial or environmental graphics, referring to the overall experiential and atmospheric design of a space. This extends beyond mere graphic interventions, weaving together various design elements like spatial configurations, lighting, materials, colours, textures, and graphics to craft immersive, cohesive experiences. It necessitates a multidisciplinary approach, fusing architecture, interior design, graphic design, and other creative disciplines to shape the mood, brand identity, and narrative of a space.

Conversely, environmental design is also viewed as a discipline that amplifies the principles of spatial design to contemplate our broader ecosystem. It explores the environmental impact of our buildings and spaces, and investigates how we can mitigate this impact through sustainable practices.

Equating environmental design with spatial graphics could be misleading due to varied interpretations of the term. Spatial graphic design is a discipline unto itself, covering a wide range of graphics deployed in space, hence the term seems more appropriate (I’ll be writing an article about it very soon). Considering sustainability and environmental impact is now imperative for any designer. Just as lighting designers possess a deeper understanding of lighting than interior designers or architects, an environmental designer, equipped with extensive knowledge about the subject, can play a pivotal role in large projects and even offer consultancy to smaller studios on environmental and sustainable considerations.

Spatial Design

Lastly, we arrive at spatial design. This relatively new discipline is not merely about creating spaces; it’s about curating experiences. It links architecture, landscape design, and interior design, honing in on human interactions within spaces. From bustling cities to the smallest room in your house, spatial designers investigate how spaces influence our behaviour, emotions, and even thought processes. User experience is a fundamental part of any design job, so is there a need to extricate it from any discipline as a specialization?

As I detailed in my prior article, spatial design feels more like a field than a specific role in a project, as it encompasses multidisciplinary roles all around the Space — spanning physical, digital, and mixed reality spaces. It includes interior designers, architects, landscape and environmental designers, spatial graphic designers, and AR, VR, MR designers. It’s such a broad spectrum that simply calling someone a “spatial designer” seems vague.

All these disciplines are becoming increasingly intertwined, much like threads in a tapestry, signifying our progression towards a more unified, holistic approach to space design. In this paradigm, aesthetics, function, psychology, and the environment are all considered in one comprehensive sweep. The blurring of roles and the fluid transition between fields can often be beneficial, as it fosters dynamism and versatility among designers. However, as we have seen, adopting trendy new titles without a clear purpose or defined specialization can lead to confusion. We need to be precise about roles and their responsibilities to provide designers with clear objectives and areas of study. This will foster true collaboration as experts in their respective areas without overlapping tasks.

The cross-pollination of disciplines, where designers have clear tasks and objectives, can foster a multifaceted perspective of space design. This, in turn, leads to more innovative, sustainable, human-centric, and aesthetically pleasing spaces. And ultimately, isn’t that the goal we are all striving for?

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