Women, Leadership, Diversity, Interview, Q/A, Interior Design, Washington, DC
For Kia Weatherspoon, HiP for the Greater Good Small Firm winner, creating spaces that make design more accessible, especially for underserved groups, is the driving force of her career. After all, Weatherspoon knows a thing or two about the impact of personal space on mental and physical wellbeing from time spent visiting her incarcerated brother as a teenager and living in tight quarters while deployed as a member of the U.S. Air Force.
The designerâ€”who founded her firm Determined by Design in 2012, starting with a nonprofit project for domestic violence survivorsâ€”wears many hats, but chief among them is mentor and design equity advocate. Projects executed by her team often involve creating affordable and supportive housing units, such as Archer Park Apartments and Momentum at Shady Grove in the Washington, D.C. area. A veteran of the Air Force and current member of the D.C. Air National Guard, Weatherspoon abides by the mantra Service before self. In addition to running a design practice, she serves as student advisory chair for ASID, works as an adjunct professor, and sits on the board of directors for Room to Rebloom, a nonprofit organization that provides design services to victims of domestic violence, helping women rebuild their lives. Weatherspoon shares with Interior Design how her firm got its name, the secret to growing a business, and lessons learned from meticulously folding one T-shirt after the next.
Interior Design: What is your earliest memory of being impacted by design?
Kia Weatherspoon: When visiting my incarcerated brother as a teenager, every year I would question: Are spaces supposed to make you feel this way? How do these kids feel when they come into this place? How does the staff feel about being in this place? How do the men feel being in this place? For 15 years I questioned how space could shape others' life experiences before I even knew what interior design was.
ID: How did your experience in the Air Force shape your career as a designer?
KW: Two of the military core values are service before self and integrity in all we do. My leadership style has always been from a perspective of how I can serve and help others excel. This is essential because my design career has been focused on serving others, as well as building a company culture focused on uplifting the team so they can serve others. Integrity in all we do reminds me of basic training when we had to fold our T-shirts in perfect 6x6 squares. I would literally tweeze the corners to make sure everything was flushed. The lesson wasnâ€™t the perfect T-shirt, it was that the attention to detail matters to the bigger picture. Approach every task with integrity no matter how big or small. These values have been lasting and influential to my design career and my business.
ID: Youâ€™ve made some tough decisions, opting to go to design school rather than accept a full time job offer and, later, giving notice at one firm to start your own. What factors influenced these choices?
KW: Money and love of craft. If I would have taken the full-time position over school, it would have been about money. I am not motivated by money. Being motivated solely by money can keep you tied to opportunities devoid of any joy. Lack of joy is what led me to start my practice. Burnout culture is real in the A&D profession. I was burning out very early in my career and becoming disenchanted with my craft. I immediately began to question: Was it my craft or my job that I didnâ€™t love? It was the latter, obviously. I was so committed to my craft I knew if I built a company with a different set of values I could have bothâ€”joy of practice and make money.
ID: How did you arrive at the name Determined by Design for your firm?
KW: There is a very cleaned up marketing version. The short sweet and personal version... When I was younger I was expelled from high school going into my junior year. I refused to not graduate with my friends or class on time. For the next year and three summers I took two to three extra classes. I ended up graduating with my class in 1999. My mom was telling this story one time and when she finished, she said â€śI knew my daughter was determined to do anything she set her mind to.â€ť Hence, Determined by Design.
ID: What most surprised you about starting a business?