NCIDQ News: Prescribed Design

Jan. 1, 2008

Employing evidence-based design ensures public welfare while building on the Body of Knowledge.

By Ernest Rhoads

Can you imagine a doctor prescribing a medication simply because he or she liked its color? (E.g. "Here Joe, these little purple pills will coordinate with the larger blue ones you are already taking.") Doctors prescribe certain medicine because there is documented evidence that shows it works to cure a specific illness or infection.

Franklin Becker, Ph.D., of Cornell University, writing in a recent InformeDesign® article, calls for the interior design profession to close the gap between research and design. He muses, "Doctors don't prescribe penicillin because they love the color pink or because no one else is doing it and the results would be novel." (Implications, October 2007). How does interior design get to that point ... where designs are "prescribed" because we have valid evidence that they make a difference-a difference in human behavior, health, well-being and productivity?

Caren Martin, Ph.D., and Denise Guerin, Ph.D., co-authors of the Interior Design Body of Knowledge, will tell you that there is no more important focus for defining our profession than contributing more documented research to the interior design Body of Knowledge (BOK). But, what is a body of knowledge and how can you contribute to it?

Every profession-be it doctors, lawyers, engineers-has a body of knowledge that lends credence to the profession. The term is defined in the interior design BOK as, "The specialized knowledge a profession requires to achieve and maintain its purpose; its jurisdiction." This knowledge is considered "abstract"-not necessarily the concrete skills individuals need to practice interior design. Therefore, consider that the BOK content may be different from the content of the NCIDQ Examination. This makes sense, as the Examination tests for minimum competency in interior design in order to protect the public. The BOK includes "imbedded" knowledge from interior designers who have been practicing interior design for a few years and who have already passed the NCIDQ Examination.

There are six knowledge areas identified in the BOK. These areas were weighted for importance to practice using a scientific method, and then further reviewed by a panel of experts. The six categories are:

  • Human Environment Needs
  • Interior Construction, Codes and Regulations
  • Design
  • Products and Materials
  • Professional Practice
  • Communication

The panel of experts agreed that Human Environment Needs, ranked as the highest in its scientific weighting, reflecting their consensus that this category "belongs" to interior design. The emphasis on "understanding human behavior and how humans interact with the built environment" is apparent in the first phase of interior designers' work: Programming. The BOK states that, " ... human environment needs are about identifying and analyzing the clients' and users' needs from the broadest view possible so that the natural environment, context, human values, function and aesthetics are all recognized as contributing to people's well-being." (BOK p. 52).

I believe one of the challenges facing interior designers is to use language that lends credibility to the amount of research and educated thought that goes into our design solutions. Explaining the programming process to a client and emphasizing how our research dictates a design solution is vital. We need to do this in order to break through the public perception that design is novel and subjective.

What are some concrete steps to achieve this research-based use of language? One way is to refrain from sharing any images or plans with a client until well into the project. The perception of our profession is image and style. What would happen if we shared only written reports with the client and withheld drawings until the client affirmed our written research was a correct summation of their needs? A professor in an interior design program states that his students' plans for a studio look more like a thesis document because of all of the citations on the drawings. Can we, in our practices, put more emphasis on research and, further, share that research with the authors of the Interior Design Body of Knowledge and InformeDesign?

This last step requires more work on our part. Although many interior designers have the best intentions of conducting post occupancy evaluations (POEs) with their clients, often the process turns into a cursory check to make sure the client is satisfied. A more rigorous constructive criticism process documenting what has worked and what can be improved ensures our understanding of the implications of our designs. Additionally, a consistent method of reporting our findings-encouraging us to share our knowledge with other interior designers-is one way for us to contribute to the Body of Knowledge.

Sharing the results of research is not a foreign concept in the realm of healthcare design where the use of evidence-based design is used to solve client problems. Evidence-based design supports the link between healthcare facility design and increased health promotion and patient satisfaction while reducing infections, nursing errors and patient falls. In fact, one can surmise that the healthcare field is already so familiar with prescribing medicine because of documented research (rather than because the drug is novel or aesthetically pleasing), that evidence-based design has become a natural extension of that work.

Evidence-based design is a movement that emphasizes use of past data to design for the future. Sharing this data will eventually help expedite solid design solutions in the design studio ... and keep designers from having to repeatedly reinvent the wheel to access this data. Our challenge is to use research-based language with clients-to employ a rigorous consistent post-occupancy evaluation process and embrace a willingness to share our findings with interior designers in order to build on the Body of Knowledge. A full copy of the Interior Design Body of Knowledge can be found at

Ernest Rhoads is a member of the NCIDQ board of directors and is the director of interior design for MultiCare Health System of Tacoma, WA. An NCIDQ Certificate holder, Rhoads has been a member of NCIDQ's Practicum Examination Committee for the last three years. He has worked as a corporate manager of interior design for Fortune 500 Companies such as Boeing, U.S. Foodservice and Safeco Insurance. For information about NCIDQ, visit

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