Sydney Miller has learned that pushing the boundaries of interior design is key to standing out. Taking the time to learn and ask questions – not only of her friends and professors, but also of CEOs and creative directors in top design firms – makes Miller simultaneously humble and bold.

That fearless, go-for-it attitude brings ambition and innovation to her designs. It’s also one of the many reasons Miller was chosen as the Virginia Tech College of Architecture and Urban Studies 2020 Outstanding Senior.

While some may stop to admire the beauty of a building’s facade, Miller knows people spend the majority of their time inside those buildings, and so interior design must be centered around efficiency of space as well as human comfort.  

Those guidelines especially ring true as the COVID-19 outbreak keeps people indoors now more than ever, says Miller.

“I’ve researched resilient design for adapting to natural disasters, but this is a whole new level of disaster,” she said. “COVID-19 will bring a lot more attention to how we design, down to something as simple as the materials designers select, which are actually quite crucial. Now, we’ll be choosing surfaces that are easier to disinfect or inhibit the survival of bacteria and viruses."  

Like other graduating students, Miller is not finishing her final month of coursework in the School of  Architecture + Design studios with her fellow Hokies. However, being at home with her family and younger sister – who is a first-year Hokie – in Burke, Virginia, has given her plenty of time to reflect on the people and experiences that have helped shape her education and future career.

As a first-year student, Miller got involved with the student chapter of IDEAS, Interior Designers for Education and Sustainability, and now serves as its president. IDEAS was selected as the 2020 American Society of Interior Designers National Student Chapter.

“During my first year, I went on an IDEAS-sponsored trip to New York City to do a firm crawl,” explained Miller. “I traveled with four other interior design freshmen, who are some of my best friends now. We sit near each other in studio and we’re always bouncing ideas off each other. I think success in the design world is achieved with other people because it’s so subjective.”

Miller recognizes that having a group of friends who are willing to listen and critique each other has been key through her years as an interior design major. These friends challenged her to experiment with her submission to the Angelo Donghia Foundation Scholarship, which she won in 2019.

Miller’s professors have encouraged her to aim for more, too.

“I’ve had really influential professors help me along the way,” said Miller. “I got an A minus in studio the first semester of my sophomore year and when I asked [associate professor of interior design] Brad Whitney how I could improve, he told me I was being too safe. I threw myself into everything after that class.”

Lisa Tucker, professor and chair of the interior design program also made a huge impact on Miller. By taking independent research credits in her junior year, Miller had the opportunity to work with Tucker’s senior seminar course to design the interior of the lunar gateway, a new NASA Space Station planned for 2050. This work has now turned into her senior thesis.

interior design model for lunar gateway for the 2050 NASA Space Station
Rendering of Miller's design for NASA's lunar gateway, which became a cornerstone of her senior thesis. Image courtesy of Sydney Miller.

“It’s really encouraging to see somebody who is so interested in what they’re doing and the topics that they’re pursuing for their thesis,” said Tucker. “I don’t think she realizes what an impact she makes. She’s steadfast and reliable but also easygoing about it. It makes her have a big impact on people.”

Miller’s work ethic continued to grow the summer before her senior year during her internship at Gensler, a global design and architecture firm. When the summer came to an end, she prepared for her exit interview by asking how she could improve. Instead, her bosses surprised her with a job offer. Hiring typically doesn’t start until of March the following year, but Gensler didn’t want to miss out on top talent.  

During her time at Gensler, Miller learned to ask more questions, this time in soliciting advice from a design director. The takeaways she discovered were to be bold and take advantage of the opportunities that are given to her.

“Don’t be afraid to ask people who rank higher than you for advice and how they accomplished a task, because usually they want to help you succeed,” said Miller. “I think young people get intimidated sometimes, and I get it. I get scared, too, but every time I’ve ever asked someone for advice, whether it be a professor or a professional, they’re more than willing to help.”

During her time at Virginia Tech, Miller has developed a community with her peers and made space for incoming interior design majors. As she continues to ask questions and press the limits of design, she has become the one answering questions and encouraging aspiring designers with her impact. 

“Design really makes a difference to people’s health and to the health of the planet,” said Tucker. “I hope our students know that they can really make a difference with their designs – they have the power to make an impact. And Sydney has definitely found that ability.”

– Written by Colie Touzel