Caroline Hughes


Early in my career, I worked at a number of different design firms in the city and started to notice a worrying trend: as a new mother I was being passed over for promotions and rarely was I assigned to the plum jobs where the challenges were interesting and the clients fun. Turns out I had an entrepreneurial streak - so after four years in the industry and with the support of my husband Ron I decided to set up shop and go it alone.

Despite the steep learning curve, I loved the challenging work and the independence of making my own way. I also learned that I work best in collaboration with talented people, and often joined forces with other designers to manage increasingly large projects over time. But it was the sudden death of a close friend who left behind a young family that acted as the catalyst to take my business seriously. I recognized that I needed to double down on educating myself on the emerging computer-based design programs that hadn’t been a part of my design degree. Having recruited a group of ten designers, we approached the University of Toronto and worked with them to craft our ideal syllabus and sourced government grant funding for us to take the year-long courses at a price we could all afford. One of those classmates became my business partner in Network Design. We got our first really big break with an unknown start-up called Air Miles through our working relationships with BMO, an early sponsor of the rewards program. That was the start of a 20-year long account relationship – and a rock-solid foundation for our firm of three women partners and ten staff over the next decade. Knowing we needed to give back to our industry, I decided to become more involved with the wider interior design community, joining ARIDO as treasurer working alongside Allan Guinan as president-elect. ARIDO at that time was at a crossroads, facing regulatory issues and a financial crisis. Managing through those association challenges gave Allan and me an unexpected gift of an opportunity: not only did we get to know each other well, we also came to understand that we worked very well together. After a lunch here and a dinner there, we faced up to the obvious: combining the talents of two strong firms would help us both prosper through a tough, long recession. Six months later we’d merged our companies into Figure3 Network, and six months after that we felt like a finely tuned machine, our partnership naturally evolving for each of us into roles that played to our strengths.

For me that’s always been strategy. Corporate workplace design is so much more than just selecting furniture and arranging it, it’s about how an interior environment supports the work that the people are gathered there to do. Layered onto that is supporting all the various ways we as humans behave, interact and communicate to get that work done. Today, our work is always informed by that fundamental caring of people. I believe it’s only through a robust strategic approach that our interior design profession will get to where I’ve always felt it deserved to be: at the tip of the spear of the built industry. We may admire architecture but we live inside our buildings. That’s also why I’ve continued to be actively involved with the Council of Interior Design Accreditation helping to steer the course of interior design education; and with the Interior Designers of Canada to offer advanced learning courses in upcoming Summits. As the partner who took on the creation of the succession plan, it’s been incredibly gratifying to see the new partners evolve and grow as they’ve taken on the mantle of running the business. It’s so rare in our industry to see a successful business preserved and passed on. I’m incredibly proud we’ve been able to do that.