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Cheryl Durst, IIDA, on Marketing, Branding, and Knowing Your Worth

Did you know that this powerhouse travels 35 weeks of the year? Yep, it's a lot. Which is why we were delightfully surprised that Cheryl Durst was able to drop into the lounge for this week's episode (S4, E2) of In the Design Lounge.

Cheryl Durst, Hon. FIIDA, is the executive vice president and CEO of IIDA (International Interior Design Association), a membership association for interior designers and architects, or anyone practicing in the built environment and improving the quality of life for human beings worldwide.

Joining host Brandon Gaston, GRAY senior digital content strategist, Durst offers valuable tips on marketing, branding, and knowing your worth.

BRANDON GASTON: As I was looking through everything that you do and the timeline in which you've done it, I'm like, oh my goodness, I can take this conversation so many ways! But one thing about GRAY, we have a lot of trade readers as well as general public, so I'm like, what is one of the main things we could have as take away of having you on [this video series]. And I thought about when you came into IIDA in 1997, and I believe became CEO in 1998, there was a lot of fiscal responsibility turnaround that you were a part of. So what are some of the things you did more in depth during that time and what are some of things that are timeless, that designers can utilize today?

CHERYL DURST: You know it's interesting, in the 25 years that I have been with IIDA—which sounds like a hell of a long time, and I never would have believed that I would have had a job this long, but I've had so many different jobs, you know what I mean? I've had one title—recognizing the aspects of the changing nature of design, being mindful of marketing and brand and image.

There was no social media when I started with IIDA, but one thing I have always kept prioritized and upper most in my mind is that design is a business. It is a business that needs to be managed, it is a business that needs to be marketed, it is a business that needs to be forecast. And so all the things we love about design—whether it's on the practitioner side or the consumer side—we have to remember that it's this three-legged stool. It's an art, it's a science, and it's a business.

The one thing that I'm super cognitive of is that people often have a negative opinion of the ability of designers to manage a business. And so when it looked like we were on this precipice of falling apart and going out of business, I personally couldn't let that happen because I didn't want to live up to—or, live down to—the expectations. Some of that comes from my upbringing, as person of color, that my parents raised me to be responsible and to not give in to the lowest expectation that people have of me as a woman, as a person of color, all the things—and it just so bothered me that people expected a design association to fail because this untrue belief that designers don't understand business. What often interior design is specifically known for on the commercial side, is being very tactical. People look at design as fixing things, and it does—design has this incredible ability to fix things, it solves problems—but as much as design is tactical, it's also strategic and it's long term.

Part of what designers do best is they think. Most often they get paid for what they do, but the first thing a designer does is ask all the right questions.

Part of what designers do best is they think. Most often they get paid for what they do, but the first thing a designer does is ask all the right questions. The best design begins with the question, "why," and that "why" is uniquely tied to the strategy that every interior designer employs in the work that they do. And strategy is long-term, but often people don't think of design as long-term.

GASTON: I come back to like they say, "make it make sense." It has to make sense. So its not just—even from a marketing perspective—it's not like we're just doing this to do it. There has to be an intention behind it, it has to be an end result. We're looking long-term, and then we're reverse engineering how we get there and then from that perspective we can kind of create a flow and strategy behind it.

Do you think your background as a teacher has helped you within the business side of the design and being able to communicate that to both sides?

DURST: You know I've always loved the instructional side of design. Designers are inherently, as well as being communicators, are teachers. They are constantly teaching their clients. Very often, are needing to educate those around them about the value of design, the value of what they bring to the table. It's not only an aesthetic sense, but it's also what designers understand about human beings and human behavior. You know, the complexity of what a healthcare environment requires, the complex of what the workplace requires, hospitality, retail, you name the discipline. And interior designers are so often called upon to articulate not only the components of a project but what they bring to the table. That's probably our number one, most asked question is: "help me help others understand the value of design."

GASTON: Jumping ahead, I know with Design Your World, you launched in 2021. But that was something you had in mind for years.

[Design Your World is an education pipeline program to build diversity and equity within the design industry by providing hands-on learning for high school students.]

DURST: For years.

You know sometimes there is this beautiful thing called the right time and the right moment, and so a project like Design Your World, it's fairly comprehensive in what it requires. And up until, sadly, the murder of George Floyd, there had not been enough conversation around equity and representation in our profession. We had not necessarily had that same push and that same catalyst in the profession of interior design.

Sadly, it took a civil upheaval to take a really hard look at our profession.

Sadly, it took a civil upheaval to take a really hard look at our profession. As you mentioned, Design Your World had been an idea that I had long had because I firmly believe that in order to bring more people into profession you need to educate, build awareness before you can even talk about access to a profession. People have to know and understand the profession. Design Your World is not only a pathway to interior design for those who haven't traditionally chosen it as a career, but it also serves as an opportunity to educate more people about the profession of design.

And so it took that moment in time, I think, for us to take a look—all of us—to take a look around and look at the profession of interior design and see who was represented and who wasn't represented. You know, running a not for profit you learn to be an opportunist and you take advantage of moments and it allow us though, to have conversations that we hadn't fully been able to have prior to the pandemic, quite honestly. The pandemic just offered so many opportunities to have conversations around well-being and emotional health, and equity and diversity, and inclusion that as a society, and as a culture, we had not had before.

GASTON: What role do you think social media has played in digital marketing from the exposure of the profession? Because now you have celebrity interior designers, now you know, I mean there has been a shift, obviously, just in entrepreneurship as a whole, which now entrepreneurs are celebrities. Within that, design. There's design celebrities.

I love how magazines, how print—because I absolutely print, I was trained as a writer, I've always loved the tangibility of a print publication or a book—but I love how digital/social can compliment the written word.

DURST: I love this question because there's so many layers in there. You know, I think culturally, human beings are very visually literate so what social media has done is kind of escalate that embedding of design—both good and bad—in our brains. You live design 24/7, whether you realize it or not. But when consumers and clients were absorbing design it was for trade publications, what I love is it's not a one or other conversation. I love how magazines—how print, because I absolutely print. I was trained as a writer, I've always loved the tangibility of a print publication or a book—but I love how digital/social can compliment the written word.

GASTON: I have a two part question. Going back to your Design Your World aspect. I know when you did that, 2020, it's 2023. I think 85% of your membership was women-based but only 1% was people of color. How has that shifted or do you guys have forecasting where you think you're going to expand upon that within reaching audiences that maybe beforehand weren't privy to this as an industry? And then part two, even though it's such a women-dominated membership, we still have the aspect of financial inequality, right?, from male to female. So how do you guys go about educating your membership base on pricing effectively and according to the work and value they provide?

DURST: So a couple things. We established Design Your World, as much as I would like to think every student who comes through any of our programs in any of our cities will become designers, I know that that isn't the reality. And yes, there will be, I mean we have two right now—of our very first students who were in the Chicago program—are enrolled in design school. So that's brava! But if nothing else, when students come through that program they're kind of armed with a basis around design thinking, around critical thinking, and what they come though that program learning is that there's agency at their fingertips. There is wherewithal in the ability to alter not only the world around them but to alter the world in service to others. So we're arming students with the tools of design as this powerful force and to realize their own power.

Typically, again from a gender standpoint, men, when they go in and negotiate a salary, will look at a number typically higher than a woman will look at. A woman will look at salary differently. Women need to acquire those skills for negotiating salaries, you know... self-advocating.

The second part, the demographics of this profession—you mentioned 85%, it might be even be slightly higher than that—it's primarily a female-led profession but it's the men who typically become the leaders. They are firm owners, the principals. They're earning at a higher rate, so pay equity does not exist in all instances in this profession and so building that awareness, arming folks who belong to IIDA with tools to help them effectively negotiate a salary.

We do a compensation survey so you can take a look at your salary in comparison to others across the country by region—in certain regions salaries differ whether you work for a large firm or small firm. Typically, again from a gender standpoint, men, when they go in and negotiate a salary, will look at a number typically higher than a woman will look at. A woman will look at salary differently. Women need to acquire those skills for negotiating salaries, you know, going in and advocating, self-advocating.

I hate to put things in a gender box but by and large studies do show that we react differently to how we are regarded, how we are compensated, and then how we can aggregate and gather those skills for our selves. Again, to leverage our worth and value. "Know your value" is something that, particularly for design students, should start in professional practice if not before. And know what you bring to the table so that you can effectively negotiate a salary stance.

GASTON: And have the ability to communication that, clearly and to be able to speak their language, right?

DURST: And speaking that language of a CFO or a CEO, for your client or even internally. As a country, the U.S. is not a financially literate as we should be and that translates definitely into some of the things we see in our industry on the client side not understanding how designers charge, why they charge what they do, and on the design side understanding how and why to be effectively billable .

GASTON: And also it's a different vernacular. It's different types of conversations, it's a different language from the design language, if you will, to the financial language. Talking about financials, I want shift a little bit into branding. You've implemented so many different programs . All those things I can synthinsize and say comes back to exposure—education, exposure, and awareness. When you talk about branding and marketing, they aren't something that will neccessarily show up as a line item on your billables, but if done correctly it emphatically impacts what your line items are. So how do you guys communicate the importance in almost the reinvesting of brand awareness, branding, marketing.

Understanding that connection between people and place, and the story that connection tells... that's brand.

DURST: Branding is everything. I think that it is a skillset that is probably most apparent for designers. We all have a personal brand and there are families that talk about their family brand and that gets incorporated into the places we exist. And so whether that's home or whether that's work, I think understanding that connection between people and place and the story that connection tells, that's brand. And brand isn't evergreen. You always have a brand, but that brand shifts and changes. So understanding the chronology of a brand I think is a scope of work that maybe had been a bit discrete for the design industry for a very long time, but then clients started asking designers to "help me understand my brand, my culture, my people, my 'why'." Design is multidisciplinary but I think—we were talking about language earlier—design needs to be multiliterate. You need to speak the language of your client. But brand is a wide open area whether it's interior design or graphic design or industrial design. Understanding that design is what happens on the receiving end and so immersing yourself in that, in the "why" of the product or the place or the narrative is an incredible competency for designers. That expression, designers are in the business of human expression— how do we hone that expression, how do we articulate that, how do we refine it because it's all about the experience. I think that brand is still the territory that is wide open for practicing designers.

GASTON: I could go on so long! But I want end with: 2022 you said was a year of hyper quality connectivity. So what is the catchphrase for 2023?

DURST: So I've been playing around with this a little bit and I think that we are, as a society, kind of obsessed in a good way with identity ... owning our personal identity, our corporate identity, you name it. I'm really kind of playing around with 2023 is the year of being. This idea that designers create place. I love the term placemaking because place doesn't just happen. So in all the things that I want to be and express, are there places where I can just be? I can work, I can live, I can play, but what are the places that are going to amplify being? I think of all the ways that people end the sentence, "I want to be ___," you know, I want to be safe. I want to be healthy, I want be happy, I want to be a meteorologist—whatever it is, however you fill in that blank, knowing that the people and places that surround you are supporting you in the being, I think, is going to be more critical this year and the years ahead.

GRAY: Thank you Cheryl Durst, for visiting with us.

Learn more at IIDA

Recorded at The Studio at North Rim

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In the Design Lounge is a digital series of casual, 1:1 conversations with designers and industry leaders who are making waves in their field. Unexpected and thought-provoking questions coupled with our host's vivacious energy provides viewers with insight into the most tantalizing aspects of design. Guests include leading experts and designers from brands such as Adidas, Google, Microsoft, Schmidt Naturals, Herman Miller, Marvin, Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), and so many more.

ABOUT THE HOST Brandon Gaston is GRAY’s senior digital content strategist, host of GRAY’s In the Design Lounge digital series, and the founder and creative director of PALATTE Agency, a full-service luxury lifestyle marketing agency.


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