Research by Design: Linking Student Researchers with Industry Needs

Presented by: Lisa Waxman, Amy Huber, Stephanie Clemons, Lena McLane

Problem As the design of interior spaces becomes more complex, the role of conducting and understanding original research is becoming an increasingly essential part of the design process. The 2014 CIDA Future Vision Report called designers to: “Guide design decisions through an understanding of research methods and findings” (p. 6). Yet, with the increased demand for higher standards and more skills, students in undergraduate interior design programs often lack time and opportunity to generate original research, understand its nuances, and apply findings to design solutions. Consequently, students struggle with how to best frame a problem and interpret needs of end-users. This unawareness can result in design solutions that appeal to the eye, but may not solve the design problem or create spaces that serve user needs. Dickinson, Marsden, and Read (2007) determined that students generally value design research, yet are unclear what the process entails. How can educators reshape student understanding of research using the studio experience? Early in a typical studio sequence, students are given a design problem that requires the analysis of precedent projects and/or seminal research. As students advance they are given more flexibility in determining programmatic needs and perform a more rigorous precedent study analysis (Maturana, 2014). Yet, students are utilizing the findings and work of others; often misinterpreting or incorrectly applying it. Experiencing the process of developing original research may change how students approach design problems by developing more of an understanding of the process and language of research while fostering a more empathetic understanding of the human experience. Educators will discuss the process of connecting with industry and shaping the studio project. They will outline situational factors and the process of drafting the learning goals prior to designing the project (see Figure 2). They will also discuss timelines (see Figure 3), expectations, the unique challenges and opportunities encountered in the process of conducting original research with students, and enhanced student outcomes resulting from the experience (see Figures 4 & 5). Method This presentation will discuss a case study completed by students in early-level studios taught at two universities (n=34 sophomores; n= 40 juniors) within CIDA accredited interior design programs. Each university partnered with a Herman Miller researcher, who helped shape the research questions and the site selection. Backwards Instructional Design (Wiggins, 1998, see Figure 1), and Integrated Learning Goals (Fink, 2003) served as framework for designing the project. The research question was: How does the design of non-classroom, work or study environments on a university campus influence students’ modes of work? The client was identified as each university’s campus library, both of which had been recently remodeled. The project had two phases: 1) conduct original research using qualitative techniques of behavioral mapping, personal interviews, observations, and photo ethnography. Analyze findings, and generate recommendations and 2) generate design solutions based on findings. Research methodology experts served as guest speakers. Participants were campus students utilizing the library. Presentations were made to clients and the industry partner at the end of each phase. Outcome While the students were initially more motivated toward the design of the project, they discovered they excelled in data gathering and analysis of findings. Their understanding of the process of research, terminology and methodologies increased as did their confidence in interpreting and presenting findings. Student presentations demonstrated stronger evidence-based design solutions. Including an industry partner interested in research findings communicated the importance of designs based on research.


  • CIDA. (2014). Future Vision Report. Retrieved March 26, 2015, from content/uploads/2014/10/FV_012315.pdf
  • Dickinson, J.I, Marsden, J.P., & Read, M. (2007). Empirical Design Research: Student Definitions, Perceptions, and Values. Journal of Interior Design, 32(2), 1-12.
  • Fink, D.L. (2003). Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Maturana, B. (2014). Where is the ‘Problem’ in Design Studio: Purpose and Significance of the Design Tasks. International Journal of Architectural Research, 8(3), 32-44.
  • Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.