Good design starts with good process. But in a world where technology and demographic shifts are constantly in flux, how is an interior designer to know what is “good?” The key is in our principles. As narrative-based and user-centric design approaches become more prevalent—something for which I am grateful—I’m also passionately committed to the role evidence-based design plays in helping to arrive at successful design solutions. Because, while data can’t give us all of the answers, they can help give each iteration of a design the feedback necessary to getting closer to good.
I see this in practice and through the work of ASID.
In practice, I’m lucky to work for a firm that values evidence as much as I do. At MSR, we’ve developed a culture of asking difficult questions and using data to make informed decisions—something not always available to a firm of our size. In partnership with the University of Minnesota Research Consortium, colleagues and I have worked with graduate students, first to develop energy modeling tools designers can integrate earlier into the design process, and then to evaluate life cycle assessment tools that consider both the embodied energy in the products we specify as well as the performance of the materials and systems.
In the end tally, a Revit plug-in developed by KT Innovations, a KieranTimberlake affiliate, brought the necessary life-cycle data into the design process. That data, when overlaid with our energy model, shed valuable light on the impact of our design of a biological sciences laboratory in Iowa.
An internal research team has also taken on the question of materials—but from a human health standpoint, rather than a performance standpoint. In the design development of a 90-unit affordable housing project, whose goal is eventually to be net zero in terms of energy, our client chose to focus on where residents will spend most of their time—indoors. In an effort to ensure the best possible indoor air quality, we’ve embarked on a path to achieve the materials Petal Certification of the Living Building Challenge. Our research has taught us a great deal: about the differences between product categories around willingness to share information, aesthetics of preferred products, and where alternatives encounter pushback from budget or maintenance considerations. This information, when analyzed in conjunction with LCA information, allows for an entirely new decision making process.
Recently, we’ve engaged with the public health community to make scientific connections between indoor air quality and asthma, hoping to further demonstrate that through smart design decisions buildings have the power to make us well.
In time I see the convergence of information like this helping to paint a more complete picture. But I’m also learning that it can result in having to make difficult decisions—between products that use less energy in production or those that have the lowest costs in use, and between those that protect workers and inhabitants and those that stand up to the demands we place on the built environment. I envision a day where fewer and fewer of those decisions need to be “either, or” and instead are “yes, and.” It takes more of us asking questions—of ourselves, our clients, and the industry more broadly.
That’s why ASID continues to invest in a robust research agenda. From the role space design plays in mitigating the effects of dementia to the capacity for open spaces to influence productivity, engagement and retention, the ASID Foundation awards more than $100,000 each year to support the work of interior designers who are asking the questions necessary to move us forward—as professionals and as a group of people capable of transforming lives through the decisions we make.
I encourage each of you to continue to ask these questions in all of the work you do. And be sure to visit www.asid.org to learn about the next round of research funding which will investigate design’s role in promoting wellbeing. Announcements about the grant cycle will be available in the weeks and months ahead.
Sometimes the evidence we seek is quantitative, objective, and rooted in science, often controlled laboratory studies or surveys. They provide scientific credibility, but at times are removed from the actual design context and may not account for the nuances of a particular situation. On the other hand, qualitative tools like interviews and observation can help to provide context, clarity, and provide deeper detail.
ASID staff members are engaged in such a situation, as they are working in a temporary collaborative work space in Washington, D.C. called WeWork. I recently had the opportunity to visit the space, which will help to inform the programming for ASID’s permanent home in the months ahead. Working in an open environment, exposed to individuals from diverse fields, is providing amazing insight into the future of work for the organization. From collaboration and branding, to sense of personal space and the role of technology, light, and sound—the lessons, while garnered with less scientific rigor, will create an invaluable body of evidence.
In revisiting the opening question about what makes design “good,” I’m reassured by my belief that informed design is good design—and you only learn the answers to the questions you ask. So that’s my advice to myself and my friends and colleagues in design: to ask more questions, consider the evidence, and learn from what you gain in the process.
Rachelle Schoessler Lynn, FASID, CID, LEED Fellow, is the national president of ASID and a senior associate with MSR in Minneapolis. ASID can be reached at (202) 546-3480 or firstname.lastname@example.org.