Cheryl Durst

Meet Cheryl Durst: 

IIDA Executive Vice President and CEO 

Tell us your story. 

So, my genesis story. I went to Boston University and double majored in journalism and economics – nothing to do with design. I wanted to major in Art History. I had really typical African American middle class parents, both of them highly educated: my dad was a professor, my mother a microbiologist.  When I said I wanted to major in Art History and be a curator, they were like, “No way, you’re not going to do that.  Science, math, engineering.  Do something practical.”  They were very much of the generation where you need to do something that everyone has heard of. My dad had been a teacher, my mom a scientist- those were reliable careers, particularly as African Americans. They wanted me to have a super secure career and there was nothing about being a museum curator or majoring in art history.  They didn’t know any museum curators, but I had great exposure to museums.


I grew up in Toledo, Ohio. My dad taught at University of Michigan and then at public schools in Ohio. My mom worked for the state of Ohio. So, you know, I had this very Midwestern background. I always said that once I left the Midwest I would never move back. Never say never! Here I am in Chicago.


IIDA was only two years old when I started. IIDA was created in 1994, and I joined the staff in 1996. I thought, 'oh, it’s a not-for-profit, this’ll be just easy-peasy, part-time job working for a not-for-profit'. Fast forward eighteen years and I became CEO of the association. 

The board invited me to become CEO after three years. We were having some management issues internally, and I’ve always been a pull-it-apart problem solving person. You know, writing has always led me in that direction to think critically about things. And so, it sounds retrospectively when I tell the story, that I planned every step.


Tarra: Oh, totally, doesn’t it always work like that? You’re like, “Oh, yea, that was what was supposed to happen.”

What's your 5 year plan?

I’ve never had a five-year plan.  I’ve never answered an ad for a job, it’s always been through connections, relationships, or someone coming to me saying, “Have you ever thought about…?” I’m a firm believer in the word “yes,” which is both a great and terrible thing. But it’s gotten me to where I’m at.

what stands out in terms of where the industry is now from when your frirst started?

One thing that I find really fascinating is that 90 percent of our members are commercial interior designers. And so this evolution of the workplace has been utterly fascinating, from 1996 until now, and really focusing on commercial interior design, not just being about place, but being about people. So this human-centric focus of design. And designers at their core, at their heart, design is about what happens on the receiving end, it’s about the people.But watching other industries acknowledge that, so watching this shift in the workplace when it became less about cubicles and you started to really see the focus around sustainability. People making this leap in an attempt to understand what happens in the built environment has an impact on the rest of the world. That was probably the first signal. And then now, with this focus on wellness and well-being, it is all about the people who inhabit the space. 


I think once upon a time we thought about the workplace, it’s where we go from nine to five, it’s what we produce, it’s what we do.  Companies are understanding that a branded environment is about the experience that happens there. And then you layer in social media where the places, where we are, the places that we work become a part of our story. 

Tarra: Oh, totally. The places you eat, the bars, the restaurants. It’s kind of crazy how design is on display everywhere like instantly. 

And for decades, I’ve heard designers talk about how clients, consumers, and users have become more educated about design, they start to become more aware of design, but now you’re seeing this kind of design literacy. Everyone has a voice in design. And I think, once upon a time, there was an attitude that only designers can have that voice. But you’re starting to see more of a shared voice between clients and designers and manufacturers as well. 


shifts in the designers from when you started t0 now?

With designers coming into design, there’s been at its core, designers are incredibly altruistic.

Designers design not just because they’re creative and passionate about the pursuit of design, they are passionate about making something better for someone else.

Again, design is what happens on the receiving end. So, I still see that kind of beautiful silver line of altruism running through designers whether they’re 65 or 25. Where I’ve seen a shift though, in younger designers, seeing design as an activist expression. That design can not just improve lives for people that can afford it, but design can improve lives for everyone. So rather than it being an economic pursuit or an economic concern, forced, or just changing appearances, design as a social force is a much larger conversation. And you’re seeing young designers becoming very activist about what they’re creating.

Do you think that young designers coming out of school have the same passion for being in organizations?  

That’s a fantastic question because every association out there is struggling with,  “How do we recruit members? Why do we recruit members? Once we have them, what can we give them?”  Because there’s so many ways, once again, social media, technology. You can connect with anybody, anywhere, anywhere in the world, at any point. Do you need to belong to an organization to do that? An organization, IIDA, to me it’s formalized networking. IIDA was founded on the principal of networking, first of all acknowledging that designers need a community. Sometimes I like to say that IIDA is 70 percent support group because designers need one another just purely as a community. But then you still need the ability to connect with other designers for the purposes of finding that next client, finding that next job, expanding your own professional network.  Network, I have a love/hate relationship with that word.


 Through IIDA, the very simple structure of having chapters who do events,  every event is a networking event because it’s putting you right in the middle of your own design community and connecting you with those folks who will be crucial to your career, or should be crucial to your career.


What do you think are the most successful events? 

Tarra:  Both of us are in the networking event world, but Cheryl, what do you think has been the biggest success for IIDA? Because when I’m talking to Next Gen’ers we always ask about Associations, “What do you like? What do you not like?” Sometimes they say the events are successful, and sometimes they’re not, and so we have to decide what defines a successful event.


Cheryl: You’ve got to be comfortable. No matter what the situation is, even though networking might be hard, at least you’ve got to set up the feeling that you’re going to be comfortable when you’re walking into the situation.  And then it flows. And then maybe you get to that 700-person event, eventually. I think a lot of people get thrown into it.  I’ve heard this from a lot of our younger members, they get thrown into these larger events that are just way too overwhelming or all the sudden you find yourself in a sea of sales reps and you’re looking around and it’s like, where are all the designers? You’ve got to find your crowd.

Tarra: I think the message that I want to preach through Network Next Gen, I’m sure you want to preach through IIDA, is you’ve just got to do it. You’ve got to practice and you’ve just got to do it. I think the people who miss out are the ones that are so scared and they just don’t join any Associations and think they just don’t need it. But I think everybody needs a lot of Associations, I think they need to push themselves to join things. Join things, do stuff!


Cheryl: Well and it’s that for a lot of people, even just joining an organization is overwhelming. I look at the kind of series of events that our chapters do across the country and it’s even more than just joining IIDA.  Maybe your passion is Design Awards, maybe your passion is Design Excellence. Then join the committee that is doing the Design Awards program. We do mentoring every month, you can join that.  It can be the low-hanging fruit, low-impact events even, but start with something. I think sometimes when people hear “join an organization", that becomes overwhelming, but when it’s joining a committee or participating in a event, you’re more interested in it.

" Comfort zone is really important and I think in this moment that we’re moving into now, things are right in front of your face.  Look for those moments where you’re comfortable, where it’s something that you can wrap your head around because networking is work.  The word “work” is in there for a reason. "

Tarra: So mentorship...That is the number one thing that I hear from the Network Next Gen crew when I talk to them is that everyone wants a mentor.  But like you said, it’s kind of this weird word that’s in the air for some reason. They want a mentor, they don’t know how to find it. We talk about different firms that have different mentorship programs, right? A lot of firms do. Some of them are effective, some of them are extremely not effective. It’s hard because these large firms, you try to set up a program that’s going to help people, but if it’s not, how do you tailor that to each individual? Because everyone needs a different mentor for different things. So I think it’s something we’re trying to figure out, how to do it.


Cheryl: Like everybody else. Mentoring is this weird thing, I think of it as formalized stalking in a not-creepy way. 


Tarra: That’s what I think about sales, you’ve got to do it sometimes. 


Cheryl: Where you find a person or people, and it’s not like you’re emulating them, but there are patterns there that you want to observe.  It's “How did you get from Point A to Point B?” And I just think there is this observational aspect, a shadowing program sometimes, or shadowing someone and spending a day with them. So that’s the way the IIDA mentoring is kind of the wrong word for our mentoring program and we’re working on changing that.  Essentially, we have the professionals make themselves available to students and young professionals for a day, and you spend a day with that person. And the best mentors are often sales reps who take young designers and students from firm to firm to firm and give them a taste of what life is like at a firm.  They're like “Hey, here’s what I do, as a sales representative.” As a student, they often have no idea what sales reps do, the level of engagement and sheer amount of knowledge required to be on the A + D side of this industry. So that’s a shadowing program and I’m a huge advocate of shadowing. Obviously it’s a little tough to shadow somebody when you have a job and try to shadow someone at another firm, don’t quite know how you could pull that off.


Tarra: Right, that’s tricky.


Cheryl: Sometimes I think people get stuck looking for mentors who do exactly what they want to do. There might be a collection of traits or habits or characteristics of somebody who does something utterly different than what you do but you still admire them as a person, because I think that trajectory, and I’m trying to stay away from the word path, because path just sounds too formal, that it has to be A to B to C to D, but looking at someone’s trajectory, about how they do what they do, how they got to that point. And I always encourage students and young professionals to look at people who have traits that they admire and characteristics that they admire, not just jobs that they admire. 


Tarra: Has IIDA tackled that, or what are your personal opinions?


Cheryl: We haven’t, and that’s such a great question because when you get to a certain point in life and in your career, you are very prone to saying, “Well, ten years ago…” or, you become kind of this self-acclaimed expert on whatever the topic is.  But you’re right, you just have to do it.  You have to put your ego aside, your assumptions aside, the way that you did it in the 90s, you have to put that aside. I sat next to a woman on a flight who was an engineer and she told me she was at her company investigating reverse mentoring. And she said, “Well, you know, there’s a 25-year-old in my office, and I admire her utter courage and how she will tackle something.  She’ll tackle a project, she’ll ask a thousand questions, and it’s obvious to everyone that she has no clue about what she’s about to do.  She has this completely courageous, in not a reckless way, but a completely courageous, balls-to-the-wall, “Give me this project, I want to tackle it.”  And so this woman is my age, she’s like, “I don’t have that, because that just wasn’t bred into my generation. I was taught to sit back and watch and observe.” And she said “I’m going to have this young woman mentor me on her courage.” And I thought that was amazing because it wasn’t a task, it wasn’t a position, it was a quality. And I think that we all should become more courageous in looking at qualities that we admire. I mean, I’ve had it with the millennial bashing, and the “They don’t do this –”


Tarra: “They’re entitled,” and all that jazz.


Cheryl: "Because you can have a millennial mindset and be 65. Or you can have a senior status mindset at 25 and be stuck. But I think it’s the attachment to the more humane things where we can find mentoring best habits."


Tarra: I think that’s great. I’ve never heard this whole idea of the traits, I think that’s really brilliant Cheryl.  I love that.  And I think that’s something that can transfer into so many different areas.


Cheryl:And I just think it’s so perfect for Designers.

Because again, the art and science of Design is the human condition.  Human beings aren’t a collection of positions, they’re a collection of traits, qualities, and experiences.  And I think designers are so well-positioned to look at the more humane aspect.  We are all very focused on careers, but I think younger designers are particularly focused on what they can do to help others and what they can do to create a better quality of life for themselves.  And that’s one of the things that I absolutely kind of love about this new next generation. 

Future of the Design Industry?

Tarra: Ok so, future...moving forward in the industry, you know I came from the media side, so I know there’s a huge discussion around where the future of media is going, specifically in the design publication world. But just in design in general, do you have anything you want to share in terms.


Cheryl: The future is female, and the future is multidisciplinary. I think this era of looking at, it's almost like a tapas of experiences. And so Design firms are becoming, and they already are, much more multidisciplinary. So you’re seeing not just designers, not just project managers, you’re seeing behaviorists, you’re seeing futurists, you’re seeing cultural anthropologists, you’re seeing people who formerly had a career as a nurse who have become designers. So I think the future of design is multidisciplinary, and I threw in the future is female just because. 

WHAT message do you want to give to Network Next Gen?

Design is an incredibly rewarding profession. It requires a complete and total investment, not just intellectually, but your heart and soul. So the minute you’re investing brain power and your heart and soul, it’s like, what’s that song? Hokey-Pokey. You put your left hand in. So with design, you put your whole self in, right? It’s exhausting. It can drain you as a human being. And what we see as IIDA, and I know you’ve seen it too, is that so many designers get burnt out. And so here I am advocating that you belong to an organization where you have this "put your whole self in'' profession and being a volunteer, you don’t really half-ass that either.

 My advice to designers is always take a moment, take a breath. Be discerning about how much of your whole self you are giving and then don’t forget that connecting to other people is critical to your emotional and intellectual education.

With design you’re using both sides of your brain, right? It’s right side, left side, whole heart, whole brain, whole nine yards, whatever the cliche is.

Being a designer can be exhausting and I don’t mean that in a negative sense, because it just requires so much. But all great design begins with a question “why,” and I think designers should continuously ask themselves that question “why.”   Be discerning about what you do, be discerning about how you’re doing it, be discerning about the organizations that you belong to because the organizations should fulfill you intellectually and personally, they should make a difference in your life They should keep your brain moving but the organizations you belong to should also give you a place for respite and oasis and fun, all those things that we need as human beings. I go back to that, being a huge advocate for the person.  I think that at IIDA we are really focusing on not just being a big organization but focusing on the people that populate the organization.  Just like when designers are creating a space, you’re focusing on the people that are populating that space. It’s just all personal.  I think we’re in a great moment now from a social and a cultural standpoint where we’re focusing on people and on ourselves.  An organization should not be exhausting, it should elevate you just as it’s elevating the profession that you’re a part of. It should elevate you, it should energize you. It should make you feel like a better person as it is giving you content, as it is giving you community, as it is giving you other people and other things to be a part of.  But just like I encourage both of my kids:

Take a moment for yourself. Give yourself a break.

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