InformeDesign: Evidence-Based Design and the Validity of Intelligibility

 

InformeDesign is an interesting tool promoting evidence-based design (EBD) for designers at all scales and in various disciplines. It amasses academic and design research articles on subjects of interest to designers and provides a detailed abstract that translates each study into language that is decipherable and intelligible to non-academic practitioners.

 

This issue of translation for non-academic design practitioners comes up a lot in my research. For instance, researchers at the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (SUNY Buffalo) have done extensive disability anthropometry studies using methods developed for human factors research in the military and industrial design. To make the resulting quantitative knowledge legible to designers, they also developed anthropometric images, like those found in architectural manuals, that incorporate the new data into a visual format, showing for example the dimensions of a scooter in space.

 

Source: udeworld.com

 

I consider this to be one of the interesting things about Universal Design research and interdisciplinarity. Knowledge production can be translated by its producers, who themselves straddle several disciplinary familiarities. For instance, researchers trained as architects can produce anthropometric images that are useful to practitioners, even though they are not themselves practicing architects. This is one way of closing the gap between the theory of evidence-based design and the actual practice of design, which does not usually include the rigorous examination of evidence.

 

InformeDesign seems to be making a similar effort, but casting a wider net since it is translating research that is produced and published elsewhere. There seems to be an element of curation in which articles are included in the database, since there is work involved in translating and organizing findings and descriptions of methodologies. While the selection is somewhat comprehensive, the transmission of comprehensive information assumes that a designer reads most of the summaries on the website instead of searching for ones that may have relevant information. I worry that this will produce a kind of confirmation bias.

The demands of translation also seem to produce somewhat reductive outcomes. Consider, for example, a study cited as “Nature Improves Concentration for Children with ADHD.” Any science studies scholar might ask, what is Nature, and does the study imply that the built environment is part of or outside of it? How is ADHD a specific sociocultural phenomenon that takes up a liberal democratic and capitalist conception of the value of “concentration?” Might it be possible that the lack of exposure to green space in industrial capitalism produces children who do not pay attention in school? Furthermore, how does one measure and present evidence of the impacts of Nature on concentration? Does this study have cross-cultural application?

At the end of the summary, one finds the article’s actual title: “Children with Attention Deficits Concentrate Better After Walk in the Park.” Already, several new factors are introduced. The children in the study did not visit national forests or look at pictures of trees. They engaged in physical exercise in outdoor park spaces in an urban environment. The prescriptive design criteria provided, however, assume mere exposure to “natural” elements, such as outside shrubbery or views of green spaces from windows. From the summary, it is difficult to tell whether this logical leap is a result of the summary itself or whether it is in the study.

 

At this point, we might ask whether it matters that the summary exaggerates and slightly alters the results of the study. In one sense, there is not a huge danger or cost in providing more green space exposure to children with issues with concentration. This is likely true of many of the applications of the studies, which suggest the need for design features and practices that, for example, improve the lives of people with Alzheimer’s by providing clear signage in buildings. Considered from a different perspective, though, there is a danger in exaggerating what is and can be known through these studies. While the summaries do have a section on the limitations of the studies, listing these limitations for designers who are not trained to evaluate the credibility or validity of studies is not very useful, nor does it self-reflexively consider the limitations of the translation itself.

 

If the normative outcomes of the studies are low-cost, or if they are suggestions not supported by evidence, why is evidence even necessary for design? It seems that evidence and “science” are used to grant legitimacy to improved design practices, but in the reductive process of translating findings, the evidence itself is undermined.

 

Is there a way of doing this translation non-reductively? It seems strange to me that all of this design research is being done that is unintelligible to designers. In that sense, researchers should be thinking about application if that is there intention, and communicating it effectively as part of their knowledge production (as in the example of the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access above).

 

One possibility for InformeDesign might be to, in addition to providing the summaries of findings, also doing synthetic review guides of particular issues that bring together and do a literature review, explain common methodologies, and then use the inconsistencies in the studies to explain the problematics of reaching conclusions in this kind of evidence. This would provide a more rigorous account, and one that does not overplay the knowledge produced by these studies. Would it be applicable to design? It is hard to say without looking at a specific example, but I think that it is possible that a summary that presents a more complex picture could reveal things to designers that are not immediately intelligible in the single-study summaries. If one study shows that light improves wayfinding for folks with Alzheimer’s, but another shows that people with low vision later in life have better wayfinding abilities with large print signs and auditory signals, a designer may be able to produce multimodal wayfinding signals that take a range of abilities into consideration.

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