Research has become a hot topic lately in interior design, mostly due to the desire on the part of both designers and clients to substantiate claims of performance, especially in the arenas of sustainability, healthcare, and workplace environments. Clients are looking beyond “bang for the buck” to “triple bottom line” indicators of desired economic, social, and environmental outcomes. How much energy will they save? How much more productive and creative will their workers be? How much faster will patients heal?
Designers to a large extent have responded to these demands by Googling. When designers talk about doing research for projects, usually they mean they are looking up information, searching for products, or doing programming. Some turn to clearinghouses like InformeDesign and Design Research Connections to gather findings from engineers, ergonomists, behavioral scientists, gerontologists, and others that they can use in developing their solutions. Most designers, however, are not trained in the use of secondary research and thus tend to cherry pick those studies that are easily accessible or conform their intuitions.
A study published last year in the Journal of Interior Design found that most interior design educators do not engage in research, and most interior design programs do not offer courses in research methods, at least not at the undergraduate level. Although nearly all the educators in the study said they believe research adds value to design practice, many perceive that the ability to conduct good research is not valued in design firms. There are several reasons, I think, why this is so.
Designers first and foremost think of themselves as problem solvers. And almost exclusively, the problems they seek to solve are those given to them by their clients. Interior design is very pragmatic. It draws upon the knowledge of a plethora of disciplines but lacks a theoretical foundation of its own to provide a framework for that knowledge. Designers will work and rework a solution to make it the very best it can be, but in my experience, designers do not spend a lot of time thinking about design itself. Take a look at the program for just about any design conference, and you will see what I mean. Most sessions are about marketing and other business issues, new products and technologies, and case studies. Research presentations, if there are any, are usually delivered by an industry company or a professional from a related field.
Furthermore, designers are learning on the run. Client schedules and budgets leave little opportunity for pre- and post occupancy evaluations, prototyping, or in-depth analysis of alternative solutions. In many cases, designers never know how well their designs have performed and thus have little incentive to reflect on what could have made them better. Consequently, interior designers often fall prey to what we might call the “effective fallacy,” attributing outcomes to a design based on how it is intended to perform rather than on objective observation and criteria gathered over a period of use.
For years designers have been telling clients that investing in good design is a wise decision, because design is good for business. Well-designed spaces have been shown to increase productivity, boost sales, improve occupancy rates, fill seats, promote healing, and transform a location into a destination. All these claims are legitimate to some degree, but they are difficult to measure or quantify. Although documented, they often derive from intuitive, deductive, and subjective conclusions.
The widespread adoption of LEED and the growing interest in evidence-based design suggest that, in some fields at least, designers are beginning to recognize a need for more understanding and documentation of the causal links between design choices and desired outcomes. Dr. Caren Martin, the director of InformeDesign, has argued that it is just good business sense for firms to invest in training designers to become good consumers of research, because research stimulates designers to be more creative and responsive to the needs of the client.
Interior designers might take a page from the product designers’ playbook. Doing more of the same will not make better designs or better designers. It turns design into a commodity and lowers its value, as has become evident in the current economy. Research drives inquiry, which contributes new knowledge, which drives innovation, which lays the foundation for future developments. As they face a shrinking and more competitive marketplace, the best way for designers to generate more work is to create a demand for better design. For that, they will need real evidence to give their clients.
Michael Berens is director of research and knowledge resources for the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID).