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There’s been robust discussion on my “Going all the Way With Evidence-Based Design” blog post update that I shared with the Healthcare Innovation by Design LinkedIn Group earlier this month.  You can join the group and read the full string of comments and post your own, but here are the two questions being debated:

1. What role should design professionals play in a research design process?

Stephen Orfield, President of Orfield Labs, said that many architects and designers — even those who are EDAC certified are still struggling with executing a scientific process.

“…the best designers are wonderful at translating definitions into concrete solutions,” Orfield wrote. “But designers of buildings and interiors, much like industrial designers, have generally not been trained in or studied the process of measuring people. This is why most large product companies have a research department, a market research department and a user experience department”

Kirk Hamilton, a Professor at Texas A&M University and co-editor of the HERD Journal, agrees that most designers lack the skills for “searching, collecting, analyzing, and interpreting evidence and research findings…” and that “these things are not taught in professional degree programs.”  He wrote that we should “adopt a bit more rigor in introducing the evidence-based design concept and offer courses that prepare students to work in the evidence-based design world of the future.”

Hamilton also envisions a future where most large design firms will have “a research department, market research department, and a user experience department.”

2. Should research and design be separate?

John Trenouth, Principal at Spire Innovation raised this question by reminding everyone that Don Norman made this claim a while back. “Norman suggests that design research should be an ongoing activity funded and resourced independently and outside the context of any particular project, and thus available to all projects all the time. In this way research both precedes and runs in parallel with design,” he wrote.

Orfield argued that the “skills are clearly different skills, and they are often different parties, but…to optimize design, both need to be present at the table.”

“Architects and designers have long used the term ‘research’ to name the almost casual investigation and data gathering that precedes the actual process of design,” responded Hamilton. “It is easy (much too easy!) to say time spent interviewing the client, getting a site survey, seeking information about utilities, looking up data about sun angles, copying an article about a similar project, and making selections from manufacturers’ catalogs is time devoted to project research. This needs to be done for any project.”

“For me, design RESEARCH is a rigorous investigation involving review of previous published material, including scholarly papers, interpretation of the credible findings, documenting statements of one or more design hypotheses, development and testing of design alternatives, implementation of the project, and measurements after completion to see whether the hypotheses were supported or not,” Hamilton wrote. “It is possible for practitioners to be involved in serious research, which I enthusiastically encourage.”

Well said, guys.  A few other folks also posted comments. What’s clear to me is that evidence-based design is still an emerging field and we still have a long way to go to understand the process and build teams that can successfully execute it.

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Andy Law

8 years ago

As an architect it is hard not to be amused at the efforts of people to reduce the infinite complexities of creative activity to a simple evidence based process. The term “evidence based” has its roots in medicine, where there is a mass of evidence to show that for certain conditions, certain treatments will generally produce certain outcomes. This evidence is viable because it comes from studies involving thousands of people, and, by and large, the variation in people’s reaction to treatments is small and, given the scale of these studies, can be assessed. Thus, the reliablity of the evidence can be defined.
None of this is true of architecture. Design cannot be based on evidence. Each building is a one off, and its design is an endless struggle to find an appropriate compromise between competing requirements and desires. Available evidence will indicate conflicting paths to go down and the decision as to which is chosen will always involve a value judgement.
This is not to denegrate architectural research. Design can and must be informed by the evidence which this provides, but it is, and will always be, based on ideas.

Sara Marberry

8 years ago

Hi Andy — I don’t think the EBD process is trying to replace the creative process; rather to provide a framework for using the best possible research. Design is based on ideas, but often ideas are informed by research, as you correctly point out.

Dr. Susan E. Mazer, PhD

8 years ago

I think that we could derive one more conclusion from the above discussion: Evidence-based design needs to integrate with other disciplines, use various methodologies, and embrace a living-systems approach to doing the research and, more important, understanding the implications of the resulting data. Design and architecture do not live alone nor do the have an insulated impact. Rather, the results of designs and architecture live in people.

Sara Marberry

8 years ago

So true, Susan. The EBD process, does, however allow the integration of other disciplines.

Naomi Sachs

8 years ago

At EDRA (Environmental Design Research Association) in May, I attended an all-day session on post-occupancy evaluation. A lot of these points came up. We found that one stumbling block was the proprietary nature of “research” done by firms (several researchers and designers from firms were there). Many conduct POEs and other research, but most of it stays in-house. We could learn so much more if there were a way to share more of the information. One researcher also remarked that even in her firm that markets itself as EBD-centric, most of the designers don’t have the time or the interest to keep up with the research. She now boils recent findings into one-page summaries, with images, and that seems to work best. So maybe it’s not just about speaking the same language (or understanding each others’ language); maybe it’s also about how to meet and learn from each other in a way where everyone feels like they are getting and giving something valuable without it costing them too much.

Sara Marberry

8 years ago

Great points, Naomi. Love the one-page summary idea.

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Sara Marberry, EDAC, is a healthcare design knowledge expert, thought catalyst, and strategic marketing and business development consultant. The author/editor of three books, Sara writes and speaks frequently about industry trends and evidence-based design. She can be reached at sara@saramarberry.com.

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