Connecting Design to the Bottom Line

Interior designers need to advocate the value of both qualitative and quantitative advantages of good design.

09.02.2014 by Rachelle Schoessler Lynn, FASID, CID, LEED AP BD+C

The questions we ask about the buildings we build and the spaces we design have an impact on the quality of our work and on the ability of that work to improve lives. We all ask the fundamental questions: Where is the property? What is the scope of the project? What is the budget?

But how often do we ask: For whom are we designing? Why is the space necessary? Can we design a space that transcends its physical boundaries?

I believe when we design and build for the human experience rather than for the mere function of a space, design can transform lives. Evidence-based design shows us this is true by enabling us to measure improved health outcomes, test scores, happiness, and wellness relative to specific design interventions. And I’m heartened to find a gradually increasing number of clients who are receptive to conversations about these outcomes during the design process.

But sometimes the value proposition is lost, and a project is reduced to a real estate transaction. When this happens, decisions are made solely for the sake of budget and timeline, without anyone taking full responsibility for the well-being of those who will occupy the space.

We’ve all seen this happen more than once, I’m sure. (And that’s even if design services are fully utilized. This is not always the case, especially when so many clients view design as a cost instead of as an investment, or more, a revenue source.)

Clearly our industry has an ongoing need for research to communicate the cost-savings and revenue-generating potential of design services. Specifically, we need the kind of studies that make the connection between design solutions and improved outcomes. From employee productivity, satisfaction and retention, to health, well-being and performance, these numbers have a direct impact on our clients’ bottom line.

But too few of us are having meaningful conversations that make the connection between design services and potential financial returns during the design process. I long for a world where designers can calculate the return on investment of a design proposal in terms of revenue/profit gains and include that forecast as part of the real estate transaction.

But it’s not that simple. For one, interior design is laden with intangible, qualitative factors. Quality of space is difficult to quantify, making it complicated to communicate the value proposition of good design.

To remedy this, we need to continue to find ways to talk intelligently about beauty and the measurable impact it has on our well-being. When asked, most people say their favorite place to be is somewhere outside—at the lake, in the forest, in the mountains—and the reason is because it is beautiful.

Although we can celebrate the beauty of interiors and how thoughtful design can improve bottom-line performance, this isn’t enough.

We also need to help consumers understand the many interlocking factors that lead to design solutions that produce improved health and happiness, productivity, reduced real estate costs, and more. Our work is much more than calculating energy efficiency, and these nuances mean we have to advocate for both the qualitative and quantitative advantages of good design.

In my work, I’ve sought to engage with a diverse array of stakeholders—including real estate, human resources, information technology, and finance professionals—to have conversations about the value of design decisions throughout the process. Although we nearly always navigate through competing interests, understanding the intertwining impacts of each of these issues has enabled my team to provide the expertise needed to maximize resources—from reducing real estate costs to increasing productivity, enhancing collaboration

and connectivity to managing technology costs, improving employee health and wellness to decreasing environmental impact, and so on.

This approach has enabled us to work together to measure results through post occupancy evaluations that document the value of design solutions. We plan to share these results more broadly with our stakeholders to communicate the hidden value of design services. Through this work, I’ve been able to take one of my interests—employee advocacy—to a new level by making stronger connections between design and health insurance costs, nonproductive time, turnover, recruitment, and retention.

Earlier this year, the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) Foundation awarded funds through its Transform grants for applied research in interior design and human behavior to study workplace design and to demonstrate its return on investment, with the goal of quantifying the financial effects of design practices on employee retention, engagement, and productivity. 

Cornell University researchers are in the midst of studying employee interactions to develop best practices for workplace design, while researchers at Michigan State University are evaluating the role design plays in high-performing businesses. When the studies conclude in May 2015, both projects will recommend design principles and suggest approaches to capture return on investment for putting those principles into practice.

And, while workplace design is my passion, it’s important to remember these ideas are relevant to all practice areas. Although each practice area has different goals and metrics, the premise for determining the value of design is the same.