Thursday, June 27, 2013

Key Design Issues Are Research Questions

Four years ago Thomas Fisher, Dean of the College of Design at University of Minnesota, wrote a short essay for the Boston Society of Architects Research Grant program entitledResearch in the Design Studio. His essay and the following exerpt reminds us that research opportunities are everywhere in our design work.

" Research occurs in design studios and offices all the time: historical research, precedent studies, programming analyses, form explanations, functional evaluations and so on. But we don't think of this as 'research' and so we rarely frame our work using research protocols, such as hypothesis statements, testing methods, evaluation criteria or generalized conclusions. Nor do we document and share the results of research with colleagues very often. If we transform architecture into a more evidence-based, value added discipline, we desperately need to see design as a form of research..."

Based upon this narrative, Thomas Fisher is providing us a method to expand our definition of design and our understanding of our emerging Market Smart approach.

Last fall Mardelle Shepley, FAIA, Texas A&M, wrote an article with a similar theme for AIA California Council entitled, How to Convert Key Design Issues into Research Questions.  She too has long observed that design professionals and process are a great, but sometimes unexplored, opportunity to capture research questions. The introductory sentences set the tone for the article.

"Architectural designers are prolific generators of research topics. The very essence of the design process is to identify questions and pose answers."

She suggests the strongest connection and most important part of the design project, the initial stage, is also the most fertile for identifying possible research questions. Whether you call it planning, visioning, goal setting or programming, it is here that the design approach is framed.

"The distillation and prioritization of design research questions occurs during the programming process, where primary design goals are generated. While the uninitiated may consider a building program a mere list of spaces, designers are aware that the crux of a good program is the identification of project objectives.These objectives are the equivalent of research hypotheses."

As noted there are a number of ways that project or design goals can be generated: overall client specific outcomes; design team design strategies; pressing or ongoing research topics; or novel, untested design innovations. Any of these categories can spawn specific large and small scale design goals. They can each become a hypothesis when the designer or team collects data and draws conclusions about the intended or possible outcomes of the design idea.

To assist and structure the process of converting a design goal into a research question/hypothesis, Mardelle states that most design hypotheses contain four components.

1. The design intervention/design feature or the independent variable
2. The outcome/result or dependent variable
3. Subjects, all of the occupants or users
4. Responses, all of the environmental resultant conditions

As we all know, design decisions are numerous and vary widely in scale from planning strategies to furniture and graphic selections. But whether formally documented or not, all designers know that these design decisions are intentional even if the outcomes are unstated. To aid in clarifying the nature of these possible outcomes, four general categories are offered with a couple examples.

1. Psychological:  satisfaction, emotional impact
2. Behavioral: frequency of use, interaction, collaboration
3. Physiological: heart rate, pupil dilation
4. Mechanical: air quality

When we combine the design intention, the IF, with the anticipated outcome, the Then, the result is a simple If-Then hypothesis statement for any or all of our design decisions.

So in their essay and article what actions are Thomas and Mardelle advocating?

1. Create and document clearly constructed design goals/design intentions on a full range of scales.

2. Create or otherwise establish expected outcomes or results from design decisions or features. Some that are quantitative and some qualitative.

3. Conduct assessment during the design process through simulation or other analysis and/or upon completion and occupancy to confirm the relationship of the intention with the reality of the actual outcome.

4. Repeat the process, building the results of the design feedback into the design process.

Design is a research process and research is a design process.

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