Elevating Design Through Research + Development

Nov. 16, 2017

A discussion about the role of research and development in the fields of interior design and architecture is interesting. In a way, design practice is by its nature entirely about R&D. In this sense, every design project is an instrument of testing and each project offers findings useful for future decision-making by the designer. 

Of course, beyond this daily, largely personal research lies the planned-for, intentional research that is more formal in its structure and in its fullest expression, distributed publicly for mass consideration. This is the heart of evidence-based design undertaken to advance our field, grow our knowledge, and give future projects heightened chances of success. Research of this type, once seen as a value-added anomaly, is now a virtual requirement for competitive practice for several reasons. First, clients’ heightened exposure to data and metrics in many aspects of their lives often conditions them to demand more assured outcomes on expensive building projects. Second, research that shows results on issues that matter to clients—fewer sick days, reduced turnover for employees, and fewer medical errors—are compelling reasons to design spaces that react to such research findings.  

It follows that design firms that conduct their own in-house research  have much to potentially gain from this undertaking. As indicated by their white papers, presentations, and other writings, large A&E firms often have in-house R&D capability, including Gresham, Smith and Partners; Perkins+Will; Gensler; and HKS. Product manufacturers, such as Herman Miller and Steelcase, have been long-term producers of disseminated research as well. It is also exciting to see many organizations like Donghia, ASID, IIDA, and IDC, as well as accreditation organizations such as the International WELL Building Institute, USGBC, and CIDA, referencing, curating, or offering funding for external research.

Exercising Caution in Evidence-Based Design

While the value of producing research and/or referencing research in design practice has pretty much been settled, it is worth considering some cautions:

  • It is tempting to cherry-pick research to support choices in a design project. Research should be carefully considered for its applicability to the project and having several studies to lend support is prudent.
  • Conducting credible research does not have to be overly complex but does require professional preparation and adherence to sound practices such as appropriate sample size, effect size, and well-chosen methodologies. 
  • It is wise to consider that evidence isn’t everything. Every project will be different, making perfect applicability to a new project difficult. Also, important aspects of a project may not have research evidence to back them up, such as cultural and historical influences, but this does not lessen their necessity. As the saying goes, not everything that counts can be counted. 

Expanding the use of Research + Development

So where might interior designers and architects go from here? Right now, R&D is primarily benefiting the office, healthcare, and education sectors and making more limited forays into residential, retail, and hospitality. However, one area that would tremendously benefit from research guidance is “social design,” design that addresses our social issues such as poverty and isolation.  

For example, psychology and social work researchers, in addition to clinicians, are currently rethinking their approaches to assisting homeless persons from a top-down authoritative method to strategies that are more collaborative and empowering. Movements such as the Sanctuary Model (Bloom & Farragher, 2017), Psychologically Informed Environments (Keats et al., 2017), and Trauma-Informed Care (SAMHSA, 2016) are transforming programs and treatment protocols. There are architectural ramifications for these changes, but substantive research has yet to be conducted to determine architectural interventions that could lend support. Similarly, new ideas regarding how people think differently when they are in a position of scarcity (Mullainathan & Shafir, 2013) are also calling for a fresh look at how space planning in built environments should be more deeply intuitive.  

Lastly, it is necessary to consider how actionable research findings can be delivered to the design practitioners that need them most, especially as specialized knowledge is expanding exponentially. In the area of homelessness, this need has led to the creation of Design Resources for Homelessness, a non-profit website dedicated to sharing research-informed applied strategies for designing shelters, day centers, and low-income supportive housing.  

It is clear that R&D for designers adds value and helps progress human betterment. To fully serve our public, the continued creation, dissemination, and application of research within design projects is no longer an option but an imperative.  

Jill Pable is a professor in the Interior Architecture & Design Department at Florida State University and a fellow and past national president of IDEC. She is also the facilitator of Design Resources for Homelessness, a free resource for creating housing and facilities for people recovering from homelessness. Pable is an NCIDQ-certified interior designer and has practiced design in her own commercial firm and with Universal Studios Florida. 

1 Bloom, S. & Farragher, B. (2013). Restoring Sanctuary: A new operating system for trauma-informed systems of care.
New York: Oxford University Press
2 Keats, H., McGuire, N., Johnson, R., Cockersell, P. (2012). Psychologically informed services for homeless people
good practice guide. Retrieved from www.bit.ly/2Abpamw.
3 Mullainathan, S. & Shafir, E. (2013). Scarcity: Why having too little means so much. New York: Time Books.
4 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2014). SAMHSA’s concept of trauma and guidance for
a trauma-informed approach. Retrieved from www.samhsa.gov. 

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