NCIDQ News: Designing Learning Environments for (Gasp!) Designers

June 23, 2009

Students of all levels, including aspiring A&D professionals, should reap the benefits of a more collaborative learning environment.

The impact of a child’s environment on his or her learning has been a widely studied issue. InformeDesign (www.informedesign.com) has hundreds of research topics specifically relating to the design of school environments. Titles range from “Primary School Furniture Sized Incorrectly” to “Noise Affects Pre-Reading Skills” to “Private Spaces in Preschool Classrooms.” Most readers would agree that a child’s physical environment should be carefully considered when designing a school building.

Those of us schooled in the ’60s and ’70s, or even the ’80s and ’90s, may wonder how we survived the asbestos-ridden, poorly ventilated and cramped classrooms of our youth. Would we be smarter today if we were taught in the transformative learning environments now found throughout the country? What is the correlation between school design (not just school environment) and intelligence quotient? I hope researchers are tracking this data so that we can understand the impact of good design on learning (hopefully, it will become as clear as the now known correlation between good hospital design and recovery rates).

Researching school design at the elementary level for children is a noble and worthy cause, but equally important, to my mind, is understanding the impact of good design on adult learners— especially adult learners studying design! I attended a traditional four-year interior design program at Kean University in New Jersey. Part of a design college, our program had students enrolled in graphic design and interior design. Unfortunately, we did not have an architecture program. I say “unfortunately” because now that I have practiced interior design for 11 years, I realize how beneficial a collaborative learning environment—with architecture students and interior design students spending time side-by-side in a studio—could have been.

If design studios in colleges and universities were built and furnished to support inter-disciplinary collaboration, how would this impact the way architecture and interior design are practiced in North America? I have thought about this for years and, although there are many benefits to studios designed for collaborative work, the two primary benefits are:

  • a better understanding of each other’s role in the design process
  • an enhanced focus on human-centered design

A reader may argue that it is not the physical design of a studio that would achieve these goals, but rather the academic approach of an interdisciplinary program. I counter, however, that to achieve true collaborative success, the facility and pedagogy must be considered equally. Fairly common design studios have row upon row of either computer monitors or drafting tables, all facing toward the front of the room. A collaborative interdisciplinary studio could have the desks or monitors facing the perimeter and round tables in the center to support team interaction. Furniture on casters, wireless terminals, hard surface flooring, great lighting, and wall color would all contribute to a well-designed design studio. (See figure, above)

A New York Times article reported on prototype stand-up desks that are being used in elementary school classrooms. Researchers are discovering that the adjustable-height desks, outfitted with swinging footrests and adjustable stools, allow students to move, fidget and shift their weight from foot to foot, which can lead to improved concentration and retention. Teachers that have the desks in their classrooms comment that, “The desks help give children the flexibility they need to expend energy and, at the same time, focus better on their work rather than focusing on how to keep still.” A director of the Education Minnesota Foundation, which provided grant funding to the schools to purchase the desks, stated, “We’re talking about furniture here; plain old furniture. If it’s that simple … if it turns out to have the positive impacts everyone hopes for … wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing?”

As interior designers, we already know the positive impact of well-designed furniture. Isn’t it time we apply that knowledge to the environments in which we teach future interior designers and architects?

Patty Blaser, a member of the NCIDQ board of directors, is a full professor and founder of the interior design program at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, NJ. She is also a member of the New Jersey Board of Architects Interior Design Examination and Evaluation Committee. More information about NCIDQ is available at www.ncidq.org.

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of I+S Design, create an account today!