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 designer—who founded her firm Determined by Design in 2012, starting with a nonprofit project for domestic violence survivors—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 wasn’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: You’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 didn’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 both—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 “I knew my daughter was determined to do anything she set her mind to.” Hence, Determined by Design.
ID: What most surprised you about starting a business?
KW: It was not something I was planning. It was more an innate gut feeling—trusting my intuition has been key to the growth of the firm ever since.
ID: How has helping others shaped the mission behind Determined by Design?
KW: It's not how but who. Our first non-profit project for domestic violence survivors led me to our mission. When I first met with those 12 women, they didn’t think they needed my skill set, had access to it, or couldn’t even imagine someone would provide it for them. In serving these women, I [learned] the people who need access to well design spaces the most don’t know they don’t have it—they don’t know they need it, and they didn’t have an advocate. Determined by Design’s mission is advocating for design equity for all people.
ID: What advice would you give young people looking to get into design?
KW: Constantly, ask 'why?' Then ask again. Understanding 'why' allows you to approach design from a proactive stance, not a reactive one. This is important because it allows for empathy and softness in solutions. Remember, interior design is the greatest form of empathy in practice.
ID: What are you working on now?
KW: Selling our secret sauce, so to speak. I want more design firms to implement design equity strategies into their practice. Scratch that, our job as designers is to solve programmatic solutions that uplift all people. We are creating a series of programs that teach and remind our counterparts how to do this.
ID: This has been a quite a year, to say the least. Did you revisit any old hobbies or pick up new ones while staying at home?
KW: No! It is innate sometimes that we try to replace things or fill voids. I gave myself constant grace to not fill the void of things “lost.” I did give myself time to just be still.
ID: What most inspires you in this moment?
KW: There are several artists whose work is bringing me joy and inspiration. Artists like Nate Lewis, Maya Freelon Asante, and Alejandra Estefania. There is a depth to their work that's healing during a time where we are all transforming in our own ways for the better.