7 Design Process & Research Tips for Aspiring or Beginning Healthcare Interior Designers

The pandemic has challenged every professional to approach and solve problems in new ways—especially healthcare interior designers. Now more than ever, it’s important to make research-based decisions, but also understand that “research” in design has several meanings.

“It could be, for example, a Google search, a sophisticated simulation model of a emergency department, an observational time and motion study of nurse workflows, or a survey of physicians about their workspaces,” explains Alice Gittler, Director of Healthcare Design Research for EwingCole. It starts with curiosity and an open mind, she says.

An applied researcher with an MPS in Healthcare Interior Design from New York School of Interior Design (NYSID) and an MS in Health Systems Science, Gittler collaborates with healthcare teams and her colleagues to help ensure optimal solutions that support operational and experiential objectives.

Below, she shares seven process and research tips that will help any healthcare interior designer up their game.

1. Adopt a curious mindset. “A survey by Harvard researchers found that most people believe that curiosity sparks new ideas. It can be an opportunity for engagement. It improves performance and puts meaning to our goals. The best way to activate your curiosity? Ask questions. Request an opportunity to spend a day in the unit you are redesigning (post-COVID). Keep asking why and how throughout the design process.”

Courtesy of EwingCole

2. Look to the design literature for ideas, but also look elsewhere. “Be sure to explore research studies relevant to healthcare design that are found in the literature of many other disciplines—such as operations research and systems engineering, as well as medical journals. Not only will you find inspiration from broadening your research, you’ll also improve how you communicate and collaborate with professionals across fields.”

3. Don’t shy away from complexity. “Most facilities operate as a system, not as a department. A client recently challenged my team to think about designing for value streams—that is, for the care journey as it is experienced by the patient and not how we organize our department or jobs. Some advice here: Draw a patient or staff journey map. Document the different spaces a patient visits during typical visits; many times this path doesn’t stick to departmental boundaries. Ask staff who they interact with on a daily basis, who comes in and out of the unit, where they are transporting patients, and how often.”

4. Use research as a way to open conversations about how to improve design rather than as a strict recommendation. “For example, there are a number of studies comparing centralized, decentralized, and hybrid team workspaces in clinics and inpatient units. But you won’t necessarily find the answer for your facility there. What you will be able to do is to synthesize and present the pros and cons to find an optimal solution.”

Courtesy of EwingCole

5. Strive to quantify your design outcomes. “Designing a more efficient unit can be thought about in terms of, for example, reducing the number of required locations a nurse visits when caring for a patient or reducing the time required for retrieving supplies. When you can translate efficiency into something people can see and experience, rather than a loosely defined concept, that translates into value. Ask if the team can share operational performance dashboards (de-identified to remove protected health information) or key performance indicators. That way, you can demonstrate how your design solutions support those KPIs.”

6. Take steps to learn some basic analytic techniques in Excel. “Even without a statistics background, you can produce very useful
“what-if” scenario comparisons that compare estimated square footage requirements against benchmarks (lots of tutorials online). Or, you could run a sensitivity analysis to help predict the impact of certain changes on the outcome of a decision (or how sensitive the outcome is to changes in certain assumptions).”

This depicts a visual snapshot of EwingCole’s proprietary tool, DOTT®, used to map how families use different spaces to assess the functional performance of a pediatric clinic. Courtesy of EwingCole

7. Invest in a specialized academic program. “My passion for design research really started at New York School of Interior Design, where I had the good fortune of being in the first cohort of the Master of Professional Studies program in Healthcare Interior Design. I was working as a patient liaison at Hospital for Special Surgery, while simultaneously spending an intensive year learning from NYSID’s faculty design practitioners. NYSID provided me with the education and professional connections that launched me into a second career and my first opportunity (in a design studio) to work with EwingCole.”

Intrigued by Gittler’s MPS experience? Get more information on NYSID’s one-year MPS in Healthcare Interior Design now. All classes meet in the evening, and the program is designed for the schedules of working professionals.


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