As one of the only 262 licensed, black female architects in the U.S., one could say that Dina A. Griffin, president, Interactive Design, Inc. (IDEA), is at the top of the A&D game. Holding a diverse career portfolio, which includes positions at Perkins+Will and OWP/P and projects such as the International Terminal at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport and, most recently, collaboration with Renzo Piano on the new Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago, Griffin consistently strives to be a mentor for the next generation of minority architects. Here, she speaks with Contract to share her insights, experiences, and offer some advice to young designers.
1. What is your definition of design?
In the field of architecture, design is intent, with thoughtful consideration to use (or function), environment, and impact on society as a whole. Without proper consideration to culture and environment through design, then a project does not serve society well and becomes obsolete for its intended use. That obsolescence results in the waste of time, money, and valuable resources, which ultimately impact us all.
2. As a minority architect and a woman, what specific challenges, if any have you encountered throughout your career?
My answer to this question is often a surprise because the challenges have been few in my professional career, other than trying to encourage more minority women to enter and stay in architecture. The real challenges occurred when I was a student and encountered a professor or two who made it their career to discourage me from pursuing architecture as a profession. Of course, the harder they tried, the more I wanted to succeed…and did! I also give credit to those professors who specifically encouraged me, and others, on the path to becoming an architect.
3. When did you first know you wanted to be a designer?
My selection of architecture was by “accident,” or so I thought. I was a junior in high school and had no clue as to what my major would be in college. At the time, one of the mandatory classes for girls included home economics, along with industrial education. My strong dislike for learning how to bake (yes, that was my idea of what the class entailed) led to my selection of industrial education. That year the focus was architectural drafting. After taking the class, I knew I wanted to be an architect.
4. What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment?
Delivering the commencement speech at my alma mater, the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, with my family in the audience, as they were almost 25 years earlier…The pride I felt at simply being asked to be the keynote speaker was easily surmounted when numerous graduates and parents came up to me after to tell me how my story resonated with them, how they are now more hopeful about their chosen career path.
5. Is diversity important in architecture and design? Do you feel there is enough of a focus on minority architects in the professional sphere?
This is a topic that deserves much more than I can answer here. The short answer is YES, emphatically! The importance of diversity goes back to the basic element of design and my definition, intent, with thoughtful consideration of environment…In the United States the numbers of black architects is only 1,782. Of that, only 262 are black females! There is a disconnect somewhere between graduation and career development. It is incumbent upon us, as current professionals, to draw attention to the issue and help to resolve it through mentoring.
6. What are your favorite types of projects to work on?
My favorite is not so much a type as it is providing a solution for a client. My aspiration for the firm is where my ego comes in: I would love to design a high-rise here in Chicago! But what architect doesn’t?
7. If you weren’t a designer, what field/career do you think you would have pursued?
There is no doubt that I would’ve pursued aviation and geology. I have always been fascinated with flying and even have two hours of flying lessons under my belt. My fascination with geology stems from a curiosity of the constant movement of the Earth’s crust. I am always amazed.
8. What advice do you have for other young designers and those who are minorities in the A&D field?
Seek a mentor! It is so very important to have someone guide you through this wonderful profession who has walked before you. The second piece of advice I can give is: Be true to yourself. Architecture is not static; there are many avenues in this profession that may not include in its entirety what you learned in school. I realized that my love for technology was my guide through this career. Others use their love of math, art, or languages to carve out a niche in this amazing profession.