Interior Design vs. Urban Design

Joan-Blumenfeld_headshotMost people would say that these two disciplines (interior design and urban design) are at opposite ends of the spectrum of scale, of skill sets, and of personal areas of interest. What could be more different than the stereotype of a superficial, decorating fabric swatcher vs. a super-earnest bureaucratic planning nerd? But for some reason, to me, they have always appeared much more similar than different; and it is only recently that I have been able to articulate why that might be true.


1) Both disciplines are concerned with the “ground” in “figure/ground.” Both are looking at a field, not an object. Interior design takes the two dimensional plan as a starting point, and design occurs “within.” Urban design takes the existing landscape/cityscape in two dimensions, and design also occurs “within.” In both cases, there is a two dimensional field mapping that limits and defines context.

2) Both disciplines require complex associations of the relations between things. Within the field that acts to define context, preferred adjacencies create priorities for physical connections. There is a similar syntactical methodology for the requirement that a cafeteria be next to a freight elevator as for the requirement that a manufacturing zone be next to a railroad.

3) Both disciplines require the study of the movement of people and things. Circulation and desire lines at both scales will create plan diagrams and hierarchies of circulation paths. There is a reason that we call both roads and corridors “circulation;” the same orderly progression in size from capillary to major artery that occurs in a body is respected and accommodated in the planning of a city or inside the buildings that embodies it.

4) Both disciplines have a messy, iterative, and nonlinear process involving many stakeholders. Community groups, political entities, regulatory agencies and zoning boards are matched by end users, senior management, facilities people, project managers and building departments. There is an intensity of engagement at an individual level that is almost intimate at times, because it will eventually touch how people live and work.

5) The end result in both cases is quite time sensitive, and will frequently change and morph over time. Cities are sometimes described as living entities; new buildings, roads, and other construction are the positive faces of this fact, urban blight and decay the negative. Interiors are also relatively evanescent; homes and apartments are constantly renovated, commercial interiors experience “churn” and adjustment because of the changing needs and nature of culture and technology.

The kind of thinking being described here could be called "systems thinking" rather than "object thinking;" there is also some relationship between the two with the “architecture” of networks. This architecture requires a highly diversified and immersive structure of patternmaking and design application, one that contains natural feedback loops in an iterative process. Both disciplines have always incorporated this type of approach, without giving it a philosophical identity. As we learn more about systems thinking, it has become apparent that scale is sometimes not as important as we may have thought, thus further diminishing the distance between the two disciplines. The nature of many systems, in a fractal sense, is in itself scale-less.

Both disciplines, when successful, result in what one might term “place-making.” During the 1970’s Edward Bacon’s “Design of Cities” established place-making as the hallmark of good urban planning and moved the study of cities beyond technical land use. But interior designers have always understood the importance of place in providing spaces that are inspiring, that foster community and that serve both public and private interests together.

 By Joan Blumenfeld, FAIA, LEED® AP ID+C, Interior Design Director, Principal at Perkins+Will


  1. Thoughtful comparison. I have felt the similarities, but you have articulated them so clearly. Thanks.

  2. I comploetely agree with your thoughts, but why not identify interior design, architecture and urban design in your analogy. You may consider that architecture and interior design are one discipline, as I do, but there are still so many fractious issues separating the two sets of practicioners, I feel that the closeness of those relationships needs to be stated again and again, untill the thought becomes commonly understood.

  3. Years ago during another big recession I was so close to going back to school for a Masters degree in Urban Planning. Interior Design and Urban Planning are all about space design. Absolutely similar! Decided to stay with ID and even in this recession I am still plugging along!