By: Kelly Martin, M.S., ASID, RID
According to the recently published ASID 2023 Trends Outlook (Berens, 2023), a current trend impacting interior design practice is the use of neuroscience research to inform evidence-based design decisions. The ASID Trends Outlook cites a peer-reviewed article recently published in the Journal of Interior Design, entitled “Design Meets Neuroscience: A Preliminary Review of Design Research Using Neuroscience Tools” which was authored by Dr. Linna Hu and Dr. Mardelle McCuskey Shepley of Cornell University. Fascinated by this subject, I went back to the original article to read Hu and Shepley’s findings.
Interior designers have known intuitively for years that our design decisions about the built environment make an impact on the emotions and behavior of individuals within spaces. There is also a base of evidence for the impact of interior design through methods such as self-report and behavioral observations; however, this new frontier of neuroscience research provides physical evidence for how the human brain actually responds to design. In their recent article, Hu and Shepley (2022) conducted a review of academic literature available to date regarding neuroscience and design, as it is a quickly growing area that is being approached in unique ways by researchers across the country. Hu and Shepley (2022) noted several applications of “neuroscience tools measuring brain activation including electroencephalography (EEG), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) and positron emission tomography (PET)” to analyze the workings of the brain in relation to design (p. 31).
The neuroscience research that has been done so far in our field indicates not only the impact of specific interior design components on individuals but also the unique thought processes interior designers utilize in design thinking. Because of neuroscience research in social science, there is now physical evidence supporting the idea that the creative thought processes which interior designers employ may be distinctly different than regular problem solving. For example, Alexiou et al. (2009) conducted a study with 18 participants scanned via fMRI, observing the brain region activation for a regular problem-solving task compared to a creative design task. In one scenario, subjects were asked to arrange furniture in a room with specific parameters, for example placing a bed with the headboard on the west wall (Alexiou et al., 2009). In the next scenario, participants were asked to arrange the furniture so that it would create a functional and comfortable environment, which was aligned with design thinking (Alexiou et al., 2009). The researchers found that there was a clear pattern of brain activation for the creative design task in comparison to the regular problem-solving task (Alexiou et al., 2009). This evidence suggests that interior designers employ unique cognitive processes in our everyday work. To me, this indicates that interior designers and other creative professionals can be highly beneficial parts of interdisciplinary teams in business and research, as our minds are in a regular habit of developing solutions in a distinctly creative way.
In closing, I would like to state that there is a need for qualified individuals across the United States to conduct research and teach interior design students in university interior design programs. If you have ever considered teaching interior design students or conducting design research and are interested in graduate school for a Master’s or Ph.D., please feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would be happy to offer advice and recommend some resources to help you get started looking at different academic programs. There are many universities that are now encouraging research by social scientists with the tools mentioned earlier (MRI, EEG, etc.). At Auburn University, we have a Tesla T7 fMRI that researchers across campus, including social science, are encouraged to use. This means that interior design researchers who have an idea for a neuroscience study can team with faculty in other departments across campus who have expertise in conducting neuroscience research. The implications for this type of research are vast and exciting, and I cannot wait to see what the upcoming years bring in adding to the neuroscience evidence base for the impact of interior design. Please feel free to reach out if you would like to discuss this topic.
BIO: Kelly Martin, M.S., ASID, RID is an Interior Design Lecturer at Auburn University whose passion for teaching and research centers on interior design for human health and well-being.
Alexiou, K., Zamenopoulos, T., Johnson, J. H., & Gilbert, S. J. (2009). Exploring the neurological basis of design cognition using brain imaging: some preliminary results. Design Studies, 30(6), 623-647.
Berens, M.J. (2023). ASID 2023 Trends Outlook Report. Available free of cost for ASID members at: https://www.asid.org/resources/resources/view/resource-center/339
Hu, L., & Shepley, M. M. (2022). Design meets neuroscience: A preliminary review of design research using neuroscience tools. Journal of Interior Design, 47(1), 31-50.