Interior Design Program changes lead to ongoing discussions about course work

Discussions with students have prompted course adjustments and a monthly conversation series.

Senior interior design student Irina Berman works in a McNeal Hall studio on Tuesday, Oct. 29. 

Nur B. Adam

Senior interior design student Irina Berman works in a McNeal Hall studio on Tuesday, Oct. 29. 

Dylan Miettinen

More often than not, University of Minnesota third-year student Madelyn Mitchell spends her free time working in the Interior Design Program’s studio space. There, she drafts, draws, designs and renders, sometimes spending upwards of 20 to 30 hours per week on a single course’s work. In the airy, light-filled classroom, she often works well into the night.

Mitchell said the strenuous workload is not atypical for students in the program. Last year, students in the University’s interior design major formed a petition calling on faculty to reduce student workload. The petition prompted a discussion within the department and resulted in course changes, such as reduction of busy work and monthly student-faculty meetings to check in on the workload.

Though department heads have acknowledged that changes are ongoing, some students say that not much has tangibly changed in workloads since the petition.

Irina Berman, a fourth-year interior design student, said each year revolves around a four-credit studio course. Students work on around three major projects per semester, with work culminating in their junior year. 

“Outside of class, I want to say I worked like 25 hours a week [on one studio class],” Berman said. “The work that we’re doing isn’t difficult work necessarily, but the amount of time it takes … it’s unreal. We’re practically in the same workspace all day long.”

According to Tasoulla Hadjiyanni, professor and Interior Design Program director, the workload is to be expected from a demanding program.

“Every credit hour is three hours of work outside of school for an average student to get an average grade,” Hadjiyanni said. “Average” is a very subjective term, she said. 

As defined by school policy, the Interior Design Program’s workload is acceptable: “Professional norms and the nature of the academic work may necessitate spending more than three hours of work per week on average … and some studio activities may require more than an average three hours per week.” 

However, Marlisha Carter, another third-year interior design student, said the labeled credit hours per class can undersell the amount of work actually necessary for an average grade.

“The workload is already super heavy, so most of us don’t have the time to even attempt to go above and beyond,” she said.

For Berman, professors recognized that classes were stressful and daunting, but she said she thinks they haven’t done enough to wholly address the problems. One proposed solution a professor gave her to cope with the demanding workload was yoga. Berman laughed it off.

“I don’t even have time. No, I’m not going to get up at five o’clock after working until 2 a.m. on other assignments to do yoga,” she said.

Expectations of accreditation

One of the primary reasons for the program’s rigor is that the University is one of only two in the state of Minnesota to be accredited by the Council for Interior Design Accreditation, which sets high academic standards for interior design programs across the nation. 

According to Elizabeth Bye, department head for the University’s Department of Design, Housing and Apparel, the rigorous coursework is expected of an accredited program. 

“As in all accredited, professional degree programs, students are challenged to think beyond the surface and to deeply engage with their coursework,” Bye said in an emailed statement to the Minnesota Daily. “Current credit and workload is comparable with those of other accredited interior design programs at research universities across the country.”

However, when told about students’ experiences at the University, Julie Lo, a student in Dunwoody College of Technology’s interior design program — the only other accredited design program in the state ⁠— seemed surprised at how the University’s work compared to her experience. 

“I do not experience this extreme amount of workload. The most for one class per week is about 15 hours — and that’s for [similar studio classes],” she said. 

Not every student in the University’s design major struggles with the program’s structure. Third-year University student Hannah Koch noted a more demanding workload this semester. However, she said that’s not surprising, as the aim of the program is to produce designers who are able to manage the high-stress demands of the field.

“I have no problem completing tasks ahead of time or even getting ahead,” she said. “It is all about time management and the energy and time you put into your work. We have all shed tears of frustration, confusion, happiness and relief, as do many in strenuous programs.”

For Koch, success in the Interior Design Program is a question of individual time management. She said she is able to work two jobs, including one at a local design and architecture firm. 

One flag multiple students raised in regards to expectations was the fact that their professors and academic advisers warned against getting a job their junior year. If they did, they said keep it to less than 10 hours per week. 

“I have a dog, I have bills other than just for myself. As far as finances, my parents can’t really help me, so I’m basically just taking out more loans,” Mitchell said. “But for those who can’t even do that, what do they do then?”

Berman agreed with this sentiment, adding that the advice is unrealistic for college students.

“A professor said, ‘This is going to be the hardest semester, and I don’t recommend you have a job.’ That is not a viable option. We have financial needs,” Berman said. “We all work. I work two jobs. It’s not impossible, but they definitely don’t make it easy.”

Designing the future 

Program director Hadjiyanni said administration of the program recognizes that it takes strict dedication and prioritization in order to be successful — traits necessary in the workforce, she said. 

“There’s not the same expectation for a non-accredited program as a professional, accredited one. None of the studio classes are easy. It’s a lot to learn and a lot to grapple with,” she said. 

The reduction of course expectations, prompted by the petition, now include less busy work, fewer weekly reflections for some courses and adjustment of lecture to class work-time ratios for others. Four-year plans were revised in February in an effort to alleviate student stress.

Student feedback also inspired the Interior Design Conversation Series, a set of monthly meetings where students can meet with faculty to discuss curriculum, career paths, research and more. 

According to Hadjiyanni, the program has its difficulties in the moment, but many students find it worthwhile. 

“I recently had a meeting with one of our seniors who said what a great experience they had last semester and … how they learned to manage a lot of different projects at the same time,” she said.

Both Hadjiyanni and Bye said the program’s workload is heavy and demanding, but is evolving to suit student needs. Creativity takes hard work and time, Hadjiyanni said. 

Berman said she knew what she was signing up for when she enrolled. She and others hope students and faculty can have more open discussions going forward that make both parties happy.

“The program is so small,” Berman said. “Being able to talk to [faculty] is very important. I think we deserve to be a part of the change and be a part of helping them understand what we need as students.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified a source. Tasoulla Hadjiyanni was interviewed for this story.