Jan S. Merle
Interior Design Instructor
The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale
Get out of the classroom. Network with local designers. Learn what they do and how they do it. Jan. S Merle , Interior Design Instructor , The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale
Was there a defining moment when you knew you were destined to become a creative professional?
My father was an interior designer. It must have rubbed off on me from an early age, though I never intended to follow in his footsteps. I still have my childhood sketchbooks filled with highly detailed freehand pencil sketches of rooms in our home. Furniture, lighting fixtures, architectural details, all in proportion. As a child I could sense spatial relationships quite naturally.
How do you weave your professional background into the classroom experience?
I tailor lectures, assignments, guest speakers, and especially field trips, whenever possible, around my industry experience, whether in a lecture course or design studio. With so many years of industry experience, it’s sometimes hard to refrain from sharing “war stories,” but personal anecdotes that illustrate a relevant point can be very effective. Students won’t find that in their textbook. I want students to know how a local design industry actually functions and changes dynamically over time.
What class assignment exemplifies your approach to teaching and mentoring?
In Introduction to Interior Design, I start by asking students to visualize a completely furnished, three-dimensional interior space that doesn’t yet exist by looking at architectural plans and photos of proposed furnishings and finish materials. I tell them that anyone who can’t do this may want to consider another profession, because this is what interior designers do every day. Many interior design skills can be learned, but you must first have an innate foundation of creativity and spatial visualization. My role in the classroom is that of a mentor...getting students to ask the right questions, then providing guidance as they do the hard work of answering those questions. In my Professional Practices course I introduce the concept of SWOT Analysis—strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats. It’s a commonly used decision-making tool that forces people to examine forces that contribute to their success or failure. Based on the question: “Am I ready to open my own interior design firm?” students objectively evaluate their personal strengths and weaknesses, along with the external opportunities and threats over which they have no control. Students who take this assignment seriously find it to be an enlightening, insightful experience.
How does collaboration contribute to students’ success—particularly when students from various programs work together?
Collaboration helps students learn the language, activities and expectations of other professionals with whom they’ll interact on a regular basis. The interior designer works with the client, architects, engineers, building contractors, tradespeople and product vendors, government officials, and specialists in acoustics, lighting, kitchen and bath design. Our Bachelor of Science in Interior Design students have been involved in a number of volunteer community projects where they collaborated with Industrial Design students, such as designing and building a professional quality museum display for a local non-profit organization’s exhibit facility.
What’s the most important thing you impart to students to help them succeed in class and the real world?
Get out of the classroom. Network with local designers. Learn what they do and how they do it. Participate in local industry events. Join your program’s student club. Go to a professional association meeting. Do an internship. Begin to truly understand if this is the right career for you. At a minimum, you’ll learn what aspects of the profession appeal to you most, so you can channel your creative energies and your education most effectively.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Every day, my deep roots in the profession and the local interior design community directly enrich my students’ classroom experience.