Professor Julie Bernhardt
Julie is Professor of Neuroscience at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health and has a background as a rehabilitation practitioner. Julie is passionate about the role of the built environment in healthcare and about combining the evidence-based practice of neuroscience with design
I recently peer-reviewed an academic paper that explored how well architects and other designers understand and value ‘research’. The author also looked at the degree to which architects engage in or initiate research studies, and then apply original findings to their projects. Reading this paper led me to reflect on how architects define research, and the place of it within the myriad of other information sources that influence architectural work. It also led me back to some research that I conducted earlier in my academic career in conjunction with the then Royal Australian Institute of Architects that investigated the sources of information that architects preferred to use to support their practice.
Definitions of research
Research can be defined as the search for, and creation of new knowledge. There may be a problem to solve, an idea to be tested, or facts to be established. Research requires more than simply the compilation of existing knowledge to answer a question or to provide evidence for a design decision. In other words, more than simply reading design magazines or trade journals looking for ideas – although this can be useful. Research findings should also be shared, tested, and hopefully evolved by means of further research. Yes, it never ends!
Research for designers
Design research has its own characteristics and application of it to design decision making is different to how research findings are applied in other fields of practice. Some designers are suspicious of research perhaps thinking that using its findings will reduce their creativity or cramp their methods of working. Healthcare designers cannot afford to think this way as they must work with clinicians and other users who use research to guide their practice for example, Evidence-based Medicine (EBM) that relies on the outcomes of scientific, and usually quantitative research. Evidence-based Design (EBD) is often promoted as the design equivalent to EBM. This is a simplistic response that often fails to appreciate how design practice differs from clinical practice especially in terms of how decisions are made by practitioners in each professional area of expertise. This is an important topic that I will talk about in future posts.
How does research fit with the sources of information that designers use?
My study was undertaken in 2005 and published in 2007, but I suspect not much has changed in the meantime. The results of a survey showed that healthcare designers most preferred to use their own experience from previous projects plus their own ‘research’ followed by information provided by their client. Guidelines and standards came next. The nature of ‘original’ research was unfortunately not further explored by the study but would have been an interesting question to ask at the time. Research summaries by others were tenth in the list as can be seen in the table below.
So what does all this mean?
The 2007 paper discussed the findings shown in the table, and suggested that personalised and subjective approaches to information use are common among healthcare designers. The pressures of practice and time constraints also work against the use of more research findings by design practitioners. Further digesting the research findings to inform design decisions may require interpretative skills that not all designers possess as a result of their previous professional training and practice. Yet these days, the increasing use of EBD means that more designers are accessing research findings and quoting them in their submissions and to support their design decisions.
Hopefully, design students are increasingly being initiated into the world of research and given the opportunity to conduct small scale research exercises as part of their studies. In the world of practice, post occupancy (POE) and other forms of design evaluations offer the opportunity to gather research data. These opportunities offer healthcare architects the means to contribute towards developing a body of knowledge around how to improve healthcare design projects in Australia and other countries. Project clients such as Health Infrastructure (HI) NSW use POE to inform development of health facility guidelines and this is highly appropriate. To understand more about how HI NSW undertakes POE, you can view the presentation on the subject (available to members only) in the Australian Health Design Council past presentation archives.
POE is also relevant to practice settings, for disseminating information and ongoing education of healthcare design practitioners as they go about their daily work. So let’s have a conversation about designers and research as an introduction to using the research showcased by this blog.
What does research mean to you? And how do you do it or use it to inform your design decision-making on healthcare projects?
 Carthey (2007), Healthcare designers and information use, Connected 2007 International Conference on Design Education, 9-12 July, UNSW, Sydney, Australia.