Design firms are increasingly adding researchers to their staff as they venture further into the realm of an evidence-based model for design. Numerous firms are seeking experienced researchers who can champion an evidence-based process and effectively lead design teams in the delivery of better projects.

Good luck trying to achieve the virtually impossible!

I have come to believe that firms seeking one person to fill all three roles will almost all be disappointed. There is a need for the champion to be a respected senior member of leadership, few of whom will have had meaningful research experience. At the same time, few researchers have serious design experience in firms while few designers have rigorous research experience. I believe the three roles will have to build strong, respectful, collaborative relationships if the firm is going to make a new research-informed model work effectively.

Unfortunately, many firms still think they can find a single research messiah to lead them from the wasteland.

Research in practice

What are firms seeking? I am personally convinced that most firms are more interested in the potential competitive advantage research can give them than they are in increasing the rigor of their practice or improving outcomes for their clients. They are therefore especially interested in collecting information that can be used in articles, publicity materials, marketing presentations, and, to a lesser degree, in public presentations that may spread their reputation. Of course, if this means that they ultimately develop success through additional rigor in their practice, improved outcomes for clients, and contributed knowledge to the field, then I will not complain.

Firms need to develop the ability to effectively find and use research on projects. I believe this means one or more members of the firm must clearly understand the role of research in the design process. It would be even better if one or more members of every project team had this kind of understanding. They must have, or acquire, the ability to find and interpret relevant research evidence. Interpreting the implication of the research findings for each unique project is a creative skill. They must become adept at collecting feedback from completed projects that will be useful on future projects or that could be shared with the field.

Firms also need to develop the ability to perform some types of research. The research a firm conducts will need to be useful to the firm, and useful to its clients. Some research will be conducted to answer an important project-related question prior to completing design. Other research conducted by firms will naturally follow the completion of projects. Applied research by practitioners can be conducted with the firm's resources, in collaboration with the client's resources and academic or university researchers, or as part of a broad collaborative/research group that crosses boundaries. Collection of data on completed projects will often feed the marketing effort of the firm.

Making it work

What are the roles firms must fill? The characteristics needed by firms wishing to optimize an evidence-based practice model include enthusiastic champions, competent researchers, and skilled, research-informed designers. I suppose firms have wanted to find all these characteristics in one individual for understandable reasons. It is of course the obvious first idea. The firm may hope to minimize the cost of something they fear may be unbillable, and be tentative about an unknown process. This will be especially true if the firm currently lacks a champion.

The champion must have clout and respect within the firm. Without clout, the effort to introduce an evidence-based practice model can fail for lack of support. Change-even change that doesn't appear to threaten-will be resisted. For this reason the best champions are found amongst respected leaders that are already part of the firm. It is hard for a new player to immediately make a big difference in a firm without strong backing from the highest level. Not many of these high-level practitioners have any experience with serious research. Some may not even have much recent experience with hands-on design.

The designer must believe in the evidence-based model. A designer who can lead the research-informed process will need to have a passionate belief that the results will be better than if subjective criteria are used in the decision making. Most designers will not have had any significant training in serious research methods or analysis. It would be difficult to find skilled designers who also have the highest level research credentials. Therefore, they must be eager to collaborate with researchers who have those skills. Designers can become successful applied researchers if they acquire a few additional skills, such as the ability to search the literature, an understanding of research methods, and the ability to evaluate research findings.

The researcher must have strong academic research and applied research skills. The skills required to evaluate research findings and to perform credible research are not generally found amongst a firm's typical staff. These skills were not part of the training at most design schools. There are growing numbers of academic researchers from Architecture, nursing, psychology, and other design or clinical fields who have become interested in having potential roles within firms. In addition to doctorates in the various design fields, I recommend consideration of clinicians with research backgrounds who have developed an interest in design. Firms can also look to professional research librarians for many of the skills firms will need in the future.

In addition to assisting designers in the use of credible research and the ability to perform applied research on behalf of the firm, these practice-based researchers will need the ability to write about the research results, submitting to both the popular press and peer-reviewed journals. These researchers may be more ideal if they are able to publicly represent the firm in marketing and business development activities, as well as with presentations at industry conferences.

What are potential practice-based researchers seeking? Young graduates who had recently earned their doctorate used to be inevitably tilted toward a teaching career. Today there is a new option in the design field. Many of these young researchers want a career in practice, not in teaching. They want to actively and meaningfully participate in projects while performing interesting research. They are eager to use their hard-won skills effectively and want to publish in respected journals. They wish to represent their firms by presenting at conferences. They understand that they have more to learn about the design process and stay current in the field; they want to see a clear career path for advancement and recognition within the firm and the profession.

Conclusions

It should be clear that the combination of all of these types of backgrounds, experience, and skills will rarely be found in one person. Does this mean firms will never be able to successfully launch an evidence-based design process or gain the competitive advantage they seek? No. Rather, I suggest that firms seek this combination of resources in multiple individuals who are prepared to work together.

Firms that intend to develop a practice model that uses and produces research will ultimately need to build a research team with many players and complementary skills. They should focus on finding some combination of leaders who can individually fill the roles of enthusiastic champion, competent researcher, and skilled, research-informed designer. These leaders must be committed to developing a research culture within a design organization.

There will be a need to convince many members of the firm that this is a new and positive path for the future. The leaders and the firm must encourage interested and willing designers to acquire new skills. If the firm is already seeking these individuals and hopes to increase their practice's involvement with research, there must be someone who is at least an interim champion for the idea.

Building a firm culture that values research is a big step in making the firm attractive to a potential new hire. As you seek to find or develop these characteristics and individuals, consider the possibility that you can convince someone already in the firm to develop such skills.

There are many paths to success in building the capacity within a firm to adopt and excel at evidence-based practice. One of the first requirements is to understand which skills and experience can be found in which individuals, either already part of the firm, or to be recruited. It is important to quickly abandon the notion that one new player can make it happen. Look to fill all the required roles with eager and enthusiastic individuals who are convinced that an evidence-based model will produce superior results.

I wish you success in finding your enthusiastic Champions, competent Researchers, and skilled, research-informed Designers. HD

D. Kirk Hamilton, FAIA, FACHA, is an Associate Professor of Architecture and a Fellow and Associate Director of the Center for Health Systems & Design at Texas A&M University. He is the co-author of Evidence-Based Design for Multiple Building Types, published by Wiley & Sons. He serves on the board of The Center for Health Design and is a past president of both the American College of Healthcare Architects and the AIA Academy of Architecture for Health. He is the co-editor of the Health Environments Research & Design Journal and Founding Principal Emeritus of WHR Architects. Healthcare Design 2009 July;9(7):12-15