Unraveling the Complexity: The Interwoven Threads of Spatial Design Disciplines

As someone who has dipped their toes into various aspects of the design world, I can confidently assert that these disciplines are akin to living organisms, constantly evolving, adapting, and changing to meet our needs and the demands of the world. We live in an era where rigid boundaries that once demarcated different professions are gradually morphing into mere suggestions. Consider my journey as a multidisciplinary designer, where I’ve navigated smoothly from graphic to yacht design, treating them as stepping stones in a stream.

Today, we find ourselves at an intriguing crossroad in the world of space design. In my preceding article, “Something Spatial”, I delved into what spatial design is and how it merges multiple disciplines, from the physical to the digital and even mixed reality. In this article, however, I will set aside Extended Reality (XR) and roles involving digital spaces and interactions, such as Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR), and Mixed Reality (MR). My focus will be on traditional and emerging disciplines that deal with physical spaces, including interior architecture, interior design, environmental design, and of course, spatial design. These are no longer stand-alone entities but integral components of an interconnected archipelago, each taking cues from the other, enriching and expanding their practices.

Transitioning between design roles and amalgamating diverse tasks has never been an issue for me. The challenge arises with a highly specialized industry and the increasingly niche roles we encounter today. As an educator in interior and graphic design, I’ve encountered many students who bear misconceptions about what the field encompasses.

It’s vital to demystify the roles and comprehend whether certain titles are merely grandiloquent labels aimed at distinguishing some designers from the pack. I also discern that certain “new” roles are essentially rebranding of existing disciplines, albeit with a focus on new domains. This can be bewildering for both clients and students trying to discern roles and responsibilities. However, if there is an authentic opportunity to carve out a meaningful specialization, I’m all for it.

Interior Architecture

Let’s commence with interior architecture. I’ve encountered numerous architects who have a longstanding disdain for this term, and honestly, I don’t blame them. Architects are responsible for the comprehensive design of buildings, including factors such as structural integrity, safety, functionality, and aesthetic appeal, encompassing both the building’s exterior and interior. The interior consideration for end users is paramount. Hence, the term “Interior Architecture,” which many use to refer purely to the functional aspects of interior space, can be misleading, especially when interior considerations are already part of the architectural discipline. Some employ this term to distance themselves from interior design, presumably because it conveys a loftier status. However, this is a misconception.

Interior Design

Interior design has often been conflated with decoration or styling, which is likely why many interior designers engaged in technical work prefer the term “Interior Architect.” Interior design is a complex field that goes beyond mere aesthetics. It involves the creation of functional spaces that consider people’s relationship and behaviour within these spaces. It encompasses technical planning, refurbishment, installations, and styling. Therefore, styling is just one facet of the interior design role. An Interior designer is a certified professional, while a stylist, who is tasked with defining the appearance and creating the look of the space, doesn’t necessitate certification.

There are indeed specializations within the interior design industry. While an interior designer possesses broad knowledge to develop an interior design project, they can further specialize depending on the project’s requirements. Some professionals specialize in styling, technical development, lighting design, kitchen design, bespoke furniture design, and so forth.

Blurring the lines between architecture and interior design merely for distinction is, in my opinion, misguided. Both fields have their unique attributes, and they can thrive symbiotically in diverse projects. They should each be acknowledged for their distinct contributions.

Environmental Design

Then, we have environmental design, a term that merits a clear definition. Some use it interchangeably with spatial or environmental graphics, referring to the overall experiential and atmospheric design of a space. This extends beyond mere graphic interventions, weaving together various design elements like spatial configurations, lighting, materials, colours, textures, and graphics to craft immersive, cohesive experiences. It necessitates a multidisciplinary approach, fusing architecture, interior design, graphic design, and other creative disciplines to shape the mood, brand identity, and narrative of a space.

Conversely, environmental design is also viewed as a discipline that amplifies the principles of spatial design to contemplate our broader ecosystem. It explores the environmental impact of our buildings and spaces, and investigates how we can mitigate this impact through sustainable practices.

Equating environmental design with spatial graphics could be misleading due to varied interpretations of the term. Spatial graphic design is a discipline unto itself, covering a wide range of graphics deployed in space, hence the term seems more appropriate (I’ll be writing an article about it very soon). Considering sustainability and environmental impact is now imperative for any designer. Just as lighting designers possess a deeper understanding of lighting than interior designers or architects, an environmental designer, equipped with extensive knowledge about the subject, can play a pivotal role in large projects and even offer consultancy to smaller studios on environmental and sustainable considerations.

Spatial Design

Lastly, we arrive at spatial design. This relatively new discipline is not merely about creating spaces; it’s about curating experiences. It links architecture, landscape design, and interior design, honing in on human interactions within spaces. From bustling cities to the smallest room in your house, spatial designers investigate how spaces influence our behaviour, emotions, and even thought processes. User experience is a fundamental part of any design job, so is there a need to extricate it from any discipline as a specialization?

As I detailed in my prior article, spatial design feels more like a field than a specific role in a project, as it encompasses multidisciplinary roles all around the Space — spanning physical, digital, and mixed reality spaces. It includes interior designers, architects, landscape and environmental designers, spatial graphic designers, and AR, VR, MR designers. It’s such a broad spectrum that simply calling someone a “spatial designer” seems vague.

All these disciplines are becoming increasingly intertwined, much like threads in a tapestry, signifying our progression towards a more unified, holistic approach to space design. In this paradigm, aesthetics, function, psychology, and the environment are all considered in one comprehensive sweep. The blurring of roles and the fluid transition between fields can often be beneficial, as it fosters dynamism and versatility among designers. However, as we have seen, adopting trendy new titles without a clear purpose or defined specialization can lead to confusion. We need to be precise about roles and their responsibilities to provide designers with clear objectives and areas of study. This will foster true collaboration as experts in their respective areas without overlapping tasks.

The cross-pollination of disciplines, where designers have clear tasks and objectives, can foster a multifaceted perspective of space design. This, in turn, leads to more innovative, sustainable, human-centric, and aesthetically pleasing spaces. And ultimately, isn’t that the goal we are all striving for?

Something Spatial

Since I can remember, I’ve always been fascinated by space and its aesthetic appeal. As a child, I would evaluate places I visited, pondering whether I liked them or not. I would constantly decorate my room, adding new items, creating themes, and hanging posters. Sharing a small room with my brother made efficient use of space essential. It had to look cool, but functionality was equally important, considering the numerous belongings we had in that tiny area. Everything, from furniture to wall decor, bedding to how we interacted with the space, was part of the whole.

Becoming an interior designer seemed like the natural path for me, despite initially studying Business & Economics. However, once I began my program, I realized that interior design alone was somewhat limited. Space was influenced by numerous elements beyond layout and FF&E selection. Surface design and environmental graphics played crucial roles as well.

If you’ve read my first article, “How AI is Reshaping the Design Field”, you’ll know that even before completing my Interior Design Diploma in 2000, I started delving into web and graphic design. While computer games existed earlier (which involved 2D and 3D virtual spaces), it didn’t have a true interaction with the real world. The internet emerged as a new portal by connecting people together, a digital space in need of shaping. Interestingly, that year, while taking a 3D Max course, my teacher, aware of my keen interest in new technology, introduced me to VR. He said, “You have to take a look at VR; it’s the next big thing.” That was 23 years ago, and while VR didn’t take off, I continued my journey in digital and web design, a path I haven’t strayed from. During this time, we have experimented and created what we now know as the internet space — a digital 2D version of traditional print media, but with interactivity and connectivity.

When discussing space, we typically refer to physical environments. We’ve also encountered and experienced digital space through screens and technologies like VR, AR.

If you’re not an astrophysicist, have you ever wondered what space truly is?

At its core, space refers to the extent and dimensions in which objects and events exist. While we often associate space with three dimensions — length, width, and height — there are instances where it can be represented and understood in a two-dimensional context. Thus, space can exist in both 2D and 3D forms.

In a 2D space, objects and events are defined by their position and relationships within a flat plane. Surfaces such as canvases or sheets of paper serve as platforms for representing drawings, designs, or plans. Graphic design, for instance, employs 2D space to arrange elements on posters or design webpage layouts. It’s worth noting that even in 2D representations like drawings or paintings, techniques like shading, perspective, and foreshortening create an illusion of depth, conveying a sense of three-dimensional space.

In contrast, 3D space incorporates depth, enabling a more immersive and realistic representation of the physical world. It accurately reflects how objects exist and interact, accounting for height, width, and depth. Spatial concepts are essential in 3D design and architecture, enabling the creation of realistic renderings, architectural models, and virtual environments. Interestingly, to create 3D, we rely on 2D space to define layouts, composition, and more. Interiors and graphics go hand in hand without us even realizing it.

In a broader sense, space serves as the backdrop for our experiences and perceptions, acting as a container for everything that exists. It facilitates movement, interaction, and the presence of various elements within its boundaries. Whether it’s the space within a room, the gaps between objects, a vast landscape, or a blank canvas, understanding space is crucial for comprehending the relationships, arrangements, and dynamics of the world around us.

Spatial design encompasses the practice of creating and shaping environments, focusing on the arrangement and organization of physical spaces. It involves strategic planning, layout design, and the consideration of interior and exterior spaces to optimize functionality, aesthetics, and user experience. Spatial design factors in spatial flow, ergonomics, lighting, materials, colors, and textures to craft harmonious and engaging environments. This multidisciplinary field spans areas such as architecture, interior design, and urban planning, among others. The goal of spatial design is to create spaces that are visually appealing, functional, efficient, and conducive to desired activities or experiences.

Although Spatial Design is a relatively new discipline, it surprisingly overlooks the digital realm. As we’ve seen, the definition of space extends beyond physical spaces and tangible objects. Technologies like VR and AR enable the seamless merging of physical and digital worlds.

vr headset
“The Sensorama was a machine that is one of the earliest known examples of immersive, multi-sensory technology. Introduced in 1962 by Morton Heilig, is considered one of the earliest virtual reality (VR) systems.” Wikipedia

Let’s delve into the realm of digital space.

VR and AR have been around for some time now, and most of us have a basic understanding and have experienced them in various ways. Virtual Reality design focuses on creating fully immersive digital environments that users can explore and interact with. VR designers utilize spatial design principles, 3D modelling, texturing, lighting, and others to construct realistic virtual worlds.

Augmented Reality (AR) design involves overlaying digital information or virtual objects onto the real world through a screen, usually a smartphone. AR designers seamlessly integrate virtual content into the user’s physical environment, enhancing their perception and interaction with reality. AR design finds applications in fields such as education, marketing, industrial training, interior design, and navigation systems.

But what happens when we combine VR and AR? This is where Mixed Reality (MR) design comes into play. Mixed Reality combines elements of both virtual and augmented reality, enabling users to interact with digital objects while maintaining a sense of presence in the real world. This blend of realities is currently where the battleground lies — not in the Metaverse. Meta’s new headsets, Quest Pro and Apple’s Vision Pro, take the game to a whole new level. These headsets enable users to interact with virtual objects in their physical surroundings. MR design finds applications in interactive storytelling, immersive art installations, collaborative design, industrial simulations, and many others.

Extended Reality (XR) encompasses the creation of immersive experiences in Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), and Mixed Reality (MR). XR design combines elements of traditional design disciplines with interactive technologies to craft engaging and transformative experiences for users. XR design involves careful consideration of spatial layout, interaction design, visual aesthetics, and audio elements to create compelling and realistic virtual experiences. It also intersects with other design disciplines such as user experience (UX) design and user interface (UI) design. XR designers focus on creating intuitive and user-friendly interfaces, smooth navigation, and meaningful interactions within virtual or augmented environments. They consider factors such as user comfort, ergonomics, accessibility, and feedback mechanisms to ensure a seamless and engaging XR experience.

Considering this new paradigm, how do we define Spatial Design?

Spatial design can be defined as a multidisciplinary field that focuses on the organization and arrangement of spaces to create meaningful and functional experiences for individuals across physical, digital, and mixed reality environments. Spatial designers consider the interactions between people, objects, and the surrounding environment to optimize the functionality, aesthetics, and user experience of a given space.

With the advent of XR technology, AI, real-time projections, motion trackers, and more, physical spaces must adapt to integrate virtual objects, UI displays, and other digital elements. Likewise, current UI designs must adapt to physical spaces. Regardless of the environment, whether physical or digital, designers must aim to create environments that are functional, visually appealing, and optimized for human experience. By considering factors such as layout, aesthetics, usability, and the integration of technology, they play a critical role in shaping the way we interact with and experience our surrounding environments, both in the physical world and the digital realm.

Spatial design now requires a focus on spatial mapping, interaction design, and seamless integration of virtual and physical elements to create cohesive and immersive mixed reality experiences. This can be seen in applications such as architectural visualizations, interactive art installations, virtual training simulations, as well as educational, retail, and gaming experiences.

This is all Something Spatial.

With the advancements in XR technology and AI, designers can now visualize and test design concepts more effectively, simulate user experiences, and create immersive and interactive environments that were previously unimaginable. This new realm of physical and digital blend, experienced through immersive presence rather than a mere phone screen, opens new doors for interior and graphic designers. A new type of designer is needed — one that understands space, volume, composition, UI, UX — Spatial graphic designer. It’s a path that aligns perfectly with my profile, and it seems my career has been leading me toward it.

For a while now, I’ve had the idea of creating a platform where we can discuss and learn about innovation in spatial environments, spanning from physical to digital or mixed reality. Ranging different fields from interior design, environmental graphics to interaction design or user experience, showcasing top-notch projects. Welcome then to Something Spatial.