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Research Goes Digital

More and more designers are doing product research online, but does that spell the end of the traditional material library? Some design pros give their take.

By Margie Monin Dombrowski

More and more designers are doing product research online, but does that spell the end of the traditional material library? Some design pros give their take.

Now that we’ve arrived in the Digital Age, we’re officially living in the future. With a few keyboard taps and a click of the mouse, you can turn up almost anything online. Eighty-one percent of American adults are now online and 91 percent of the time they’re hunting down specific information through a search engine, according to the Pew Research Center.

So how is this changing how designers learn about products and materials (or is it)? We spoke with a few design professionals to learn about their product research preferences—online and off—and what this means for the industry as a whole.

“I definitely think the younger generation goes straight to the internet,” says 23-year-old recent grad Rebecca Warren, an interior design consultant for Saxton Inc. in Des Moines, Iowa. Although Warren has a large material library within reach, she finds herself going online first and to the library second. “Usually, that’s where I jumpstart a project.”

She’s also noticed a divide among fellow staffers. When requesting samples, older designers tend to phone in fabric sample orders, while younger designers order them online (unless, of course, one option isn’t user friendly).

“If [a manufacturer] doesn’t have a functional website, I just skip them,” says Cyanna Goold, a 32-year-old interior designer with NBBJ in Seattle, Wash., who almost always researches products online first, then calls a rep for samples. “I don’t use catalogs at all unless I absolutely have to.”

“I’m still kind of the old-school mentality—I’d rather pull a binder off the shelf than look on the internet,” says Melissa Salamoff, president of Salamoff Design Studio in Burbank, Calif. Salamoff, who worked for a variety of large architecture firms for 15 years before starting her own design firm in 2010, doesn’t have much storage space, so she finds manufacturer websites helpful in narrowing down her product search before letting sample orders overtake her library. “I would never specify something without touching it and seeing it, but it’s impossible to keep your library stocked with the latest things,” she says.

“We still use catalogs and magazines, just not as much as we used to,” says Klas Eklof, a senior associate with MBH Architects in Alameda, Calif., who has been with the firm for 15 of his 20 years in the field. “Five years ago, looking online was 10 percent of the time. Now it’s maybe 60 [percent], but we haven’t reduced our in-house library,” which is constantly replenished with new catalogs and periodicals by a full-time librarian.

Although Eklof finds himself doing more product research online, it’s not always ideal. “It’s more of a shotgun approach, where you tend to hit some things you didn’t expect. Often that can be good, but it’s also a little less focused than going to my library or looking at catalogs.”

"I don't use catalogs at all unless I absolutely have to."
—Cyanna Goold
To meet designers’ expectations, manufacturers are getting creative in how they distribute product information. NanaWall, a glass wall and door manufacturer, produces 120-page photo books with commercial, hospitality or residential design ideas, available in both digital and print formats. “It spurs a discussion,” says Matt Thomas, NanaWall systems marketing manager.

“Over the past year we’ve actually increased the amount of physical books we send out. People will flip through it online and then request the physical book for their archive.”

Ross Leonard, vice president of marketing for flooring manufacturer J+J/Invision, is finding that easy online access to product details is helpful in generating initial interest, but there’s still demand for physical catalogs. “Now, it’s expected that every major manufacturer every year or two is going to have a multi-page catalog,” says Leonard. “We wanted ours to stand out, to have more shelf life and tactile significance, so we made it a hardback edition.”

J+J/Invision’s Good Product Guide is available as a hard copy, PDF and a digital version on iTunes, with QR codes that allow users to order samples straight from their iPads. “As manufacturers, we can simplify the selection process because it’s all about saving time,” says Leonard. PageBreak

Many designers learn about new and exciting products through trade shows and Salamoff is one of them. Because reps are more likely to approach larger firms than hers, she relies on shows like NeoCon in Chicago and HD Expo in Las Vegas to introduce her to new products. She also signs up for e-mail alerts to hear about new products, but admits she doesn’t always have the time. “Sometimes I’ll look at them but as busy as I am, it’s hard.”

Various interior design blogs are popular sources for designers to learn about new products and find design ideas. Goold, whose blogs of choice include Design Milk and Dezeen, starts her mornings checking out “out-of-the-box, crazy stuff in other countries” while she waits for her files to open.

Eklof, who visits Designboom and Spoon & Tamago for design inspiration from Europe, Japan, China and South America, admits blogs can be a time suck if you don’t keep yourself in check. “There’s not enough time in the day,” he says. “You have to curate and focus what you’re looking at.”

With so much product information available online, Warren finds it convenient to learn everything she can about products by doing a little internet research. “In our office, we rely on whitepapers, metrics and stats,” she says. “More than ever, our clients want to understand what they’re getting for their money and expect us to be experts.” The major downside to online research: negative product information isn’t easy to find online, according to Warren.

These shifts in design research are showing up in design school curriculums as well. Charlene Reed, an associate professor of interior design at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, Calif., says that the interior products and materials course is the one that’s changed the most in recent years. Although physical material samples are frequently donated to the school, they’re mostly outdated or discontinued, and students typically don’t bother with them.

What is being taught, however, is how to investigate products further. “We want to find out who’s the manufacturer, where it’s manufactured, how it’s manufactured and if it’s sustainable,” says Reed. Digital design boards are becoming de rigueur, but Reed teaches that “you still need to have a physical sample in the real world. It would be hard to get a client approval based on just a picture.”


Margie Monin Dombrowski is a freelance writer and interior design student based in Orange County, Calif. She frequently writes for interior design publications and creates copy for businesses on design topics. Find her online at


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