Interior Design Professor Focuses on ‘Empathetic Moments’

Tina Patel leads with empathy in the classroom, the design studio and every space in between.

Tina Patel leads with empathy in the classroom, the design studio and every space in between.

Tina Patel is an assistant professor of interior design

Patel is an assistant professor of interior design in Kent State University’s College of Architectural and Environmental Design and was recently recognized as the 2022 recipient of the International Interior Design Association Educator Diversity Award.

Patel has spent time working and learning in India, Canada and the United States, which has contributed to her diverse perspective on interior design and her “empowering” teaching philosophy. 

“The city I grew up in, Jaipur, had a lot of beautiful, old architecture,” Patel said. “There were forts and palaces that people lived in to literal slums, so I was always intrigued by that built environment, and I wanted to understand the stories behind it. It made me really question who are we designing for and why we are designing. Who are we marginalizing by design?”

Fabrication of Sensory Well-Being Room

While Patel’s experience in India sparked the first of many questions that she would encounter on her journey through the industry, her experience in Canada began to offer some answers.

“Canada made me realize how beautifully they accept diversity and also some of the harms which we've done,” Patel said. “When we think about the land and indigenous population, how they acknowledge it and what they are doing, that was a really beautiful moment of acceptance of diversity and resilience of the community.” 

Before becoming an educator, Patel spent time working in the interior design industry and pondering greater social matters. That time in practice shaped her future in teaching.

“I realized how our education prepares us for trade, but never makes us see these in-between spaces, which are so important,” Patel said. “When I switched gears and came to education, I took it upon myself that social responsibility is an important thing. What design touches is that 1% of the population, but what about the rest of them? How can we design for them?” 

Patel now brings her practical experience and global perspective into the classroom to guide her award-winning teaching philosophy.

“My personal teaching philosophy is teaching with empathy,” Patel said. “I believe in bringing the issues that are in our backyard and that our communities are facing into the classroom and creating a robust dialogue by engaging the community members, the activists, et cetera. My teaching philosophy is essentially being very focused on communities, focused on my students and almost inverting the equation by giving them all agency and a voice.” 

Patel operationalizes this philosophy by actively seeking a role in pro bono projects for non-profit organizations and community needs. One especially memorable project is the work Patel and three research assistants completed for Roberts Middle School in Cuyahoga Falls.

With 250 square feet of space and a “very limited” budget, Patel and her team created a sensory learning space tailored to the needs of neurodiverse students.

Laina Brozost in sensory room designed by the origami screens

“We went and surveyed the school, and we found out that when there are neurodiverse students, teachers either will pull them out in the hallway or some random space and make them sit on a bean bag in a very sterile environment and try to educate them. But their sensory needs are different,” Patel said. 

Patel continued to talk about the research process that informed her design.

“To acknowledge those different sensory needs, we got input from the intervention specialist at the school as well as the students themselves. We transformed it into a sensory learning space, and that project is very near and dear to my heart.”

Out of everything Patel teaches, she hopes that students take one thing with them as they break into the industry: an empathetic moment.

“If a student takes from my classroom a moment to pause and reflect and think about who we are designing for and why we’re designing rather than just quickly designing a beautiful, aesthetically pleasing environment that will be successful for me,” Patel said. “Because then they realized, for a minute, about their environment, where they are, the context and who they're designing for.”

Tina Patel Senior design students

Though she spends a great deal of time teaching, Patel often finds herself learning from her students. Patel says working with her students is her greatest achievement and her “happiest decision.”

“Sometimes when you're working on these community projects, you don't realize that some of our students have gone through those things. It becomes a mutual journey and a process of learning from each other and even discovering things. It's developing deeper empathy for our own student body and what we can do for them to create a stronger sense of belonging at Kent State,” Patel said. “The happiest decision of my life was to become an educator and constantly learn. Learn from everyone, and especially my students.”

Learn more about Interior Design at Kent State.

POSTED: Wednesday, July 12, 2023 10:49 PM
Updated: Friday, July 28, 2023 01:58 PM
Caroline Willis, Flash Communications