Exploration of Evidence-Based Design (EBD) Project Approach across the Graduate Curriculum

Presented by: Dr. Caren Martin

In design practice, evidence-based design (EBD) is increasingly discussed though there is little evidence that EBD is applied beyond healthcare design (Martin, 2014). Pressure is mounting on practitioners engaged in multidisciplinary practice to provide evidence that their design solutions will have measurable outcomes. Often clients’ own disciplines use an evidence-based approach in their own work; they expect this from designers. Preparing practitioners requires the academy to educate students about EBD. As many will practice in multidisciplinary, integrative design teams, it’s imperative to model this experience in the classroom. Interior design is at the forefront of built environment practices’ pursuit of EBD (Nussbaumer, 2009). Educators must present problem-identification, problem-solving, solution generation, and theory testing to prepare students to practice an EBD-approach that results in solutions that support the design/human behavior relationship and demonstrate the value of design (Kopec et al., 2011; Martin, 2014). Value can be shown via productivity increases in workplaces, increased learning for students with disabilities, infection reduction in hospitals, or successful wayfinding through airports to name a few examples. In 2009, as the discussion about EBD was reaching the design community’s consciousness, a graduate level, multidisciplinary design seminar was created that focused on application of EBD. Over six years, this author found that the EBD process intrigued, challenged, and alarmed students, some of whom were also practitioners. The goal of the course was to expose students to other professions within and beyond design that rely on an evidence-based approach, understand any progress their own discipline had made towards EBD adoption, determine a personal viewpoint about EBD, and consider the moral responsibility to provide evidence-based design solutions. Graduate students across design disciplines (e.g., interiors, architecture, landscape architecture, apparel, graphic) and outside design (e.g., manufacturing, housing policy) enrolled in the seminar. Objectives were to understand EBD principles and tools and to apply the EBD process to their own studio projects, policy exploration, or work in their firms from a design/human behavior perspective. Course assignments were grounded in design discipline-specific readings and others from outside design (e.g., psychology, medicine, business). Research vocabulary and methods were discussed to establish a common language. The purpose, application, benefits/challenges, and operationalization of EBD were explored and grounded in innovation theory as a rubric for adoption of EBD by designers. As EBD is considered a challenge to a prior ‘ways of knowing’ (Pable, 2009), factors were examined from an epistemological perspective. Students were required to identify a theoretical framework to guide development of a design/human behavior focused research proposal that aimed to address a critical issue of interest, developed via an iterative process with their peers (see Appendix). Some utilized this project as the foundation for their capstone/thesis project or preliminary exploration of a dissertation topic. Project outcomes leveraged students’ experience in identifying the core problem to be solved, the role of the research question, the strength and integrity offered by theory as a framework in identifying key variables, and tangible and practical research and analysis methods—importantly, appropriate for application by a design firm engaged in evidence-based practice. The variety of disciplines represented in the classroom generated a breadth of perspectives resulting in lively debate, highly engaged collaboration on cross-discipline (mandatory) team work and peer-review assignments—and this unique exchange was repeatedly cited as the reason for the course to be highly rated. The course sequence, teaching tools, and student projects will be presented.


  • Kopec, D., Sinclair, E., & Matthes, B. (2011). Evidence based design: A process for research and writing. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
  • Martin, C. S. (2014). Implementation of evidence-based design (EBD) by non-healthcare design practitioners. International Journal of Architectural Research (Archnet-IJAR), 8(3), 165-180.
  • Nussbaumer, L. (2009). Evidence-based design for interior designers. New York: Fairchild.
  • Pable, J. (2009). Interior design identity in the crossfire: A call for renewed balance in subjective and objective ways of knowing. Journal of Interior Design, 34(2), v-xx.
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