Interior Design Research

Sustainable Interior Environments graduate students (from L-R) Michael Wickersheimer, Alina Coca, Shannon Leddy and Christine Kwon chat with keynote speaker Dr. Stephen Kellert at the annual FIT Sustainable Business and Design Conference on March 27, 2012

As designers we are constantly asking questions, both large and small, general and specific. Who are the users of a space? What kind of design will provide them with a functional yet beautiful interior environment? When can those tiles be shipped? How long is it going to take them to get here? Where can I find some inexpensive reclaimed wood for a client asking for sustainable building strategies but doesn’t want to spend a lot of money?

To answer these questions, we perform what we think of as research. We make some phone calls or log onto the Internet to find the information we seek – often with wildly varying degrees of success. To address the bigger questions, we consult programs and meet with clients and users and delve into our own creative pasts to develop design solutions that are uniquely suited to a particular place at a given time. There’s one question, though, that we don’t seem to ask ourselves nearly often enough: Why?

Why, for instance, does the built environment affect patient outcomes in hospitals? Why is there a disconnect between what design students think they know about sustainability and what they actually know about how it works? Why do green buildings seem to enhance worker productivity? Why are suburban communities seemingly less interested in developing sustainable building strategies than urban and rural ones? While these are all interesting questions, none of them has an even remotely simple answer. In fact, answering each one would take a significant amount of research above and beyond an afternoon spent surfing the web. And who has the time?

Well, I do. I’m making time. I am a graduate student in the first year of a brand-new MA program, Sustainable Interior Environments at FIT. My classmates/colleagues and I are all working design professionals and educators with a common interest in how sustainability and design intersect and interact with the social, ecological, economic and behavioral sciences. And we are currently in the process of developing our capstone project (thesis) proposals similar in scope to the questions outlined above. As we maneuver through these next months, some of us will share our experiences here in order to shine a light on what it takes to begin to ask the necessary questions and what kinds of skills, other than design, we need to develop in order to be effective and successful researchers.

This will be a struggle for us, but I mean that in the best possible way. Our explorations in the program so far have included ecology, environment behavior research, chemistry, and sustainability best practices – things that for most design students are a far cry from weekly studios and perspective drawing, but really allow for an integrated and holistic understanding of sustainability to begin to develop. We might not be used to writing research papers and taking midterm exams, but the challenges we face in taking on this material effectively mirror the challenges inherent in a new way of design that fully embraces the many facets of sustainability.

It was the multidisciplinary nature of this program which initially drew me in; it’s what keeps me going when I hit a dead end in research or can’t find exactly what I’m looking for – there’s always another way to approach the question or a new angle from which to frame it. The resulting skills can only help me as a designer, since flexibility and resilience are extremely beneficial when dealing with things like new technologies and the ever-evolving strategies of sustainability in the built environment. Join us here for more posts on the topic of research in design and learn right along with us: we’ll discuss what we’re working on, what we’re learning, how we go about it, and why it’s so important.

Michael Wickersheimer is a freelance interior designer who specializes in health & science spaces. You can contact him directly at

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