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Hidden Truths (and How to Find Them)

Image © Gensler

This post is part of a series discussing the findings and implications of Gensler’s Research projects.

Research is a quest for knowledge; a way to discover hidden truths and challenge our assumptions. This quest requires a commitment to objective, systematic analysis focused on finding solutions to social and scientific challenges. When properly carried out, design research can be the difference between innovation, or simply maintaining the status quo. To achieve this, new knowledge—the currency of our era—needs to be created and freely exchanged so it can inspire new levels of expression and problem-solving. That commitment to both exploration and free exchange is central to both the Gensler Research Program and our Research Catalogue series.

With the publication of Gensler’s Research Catalogue, Volume 2, we are celebrating not only the research work of hundreds of Gensler professionals, but also the 10th anniversary of the Gensler Research Program. The program began as, and continues to be, an endeavor to connect design, business performance, and the human experience; to generate new knowledge that enhances our project work, thought leadership and client relationships. It has grown exponentially over the past decade, resulting in new insights and perspectives that are leading to even greater invention in the ways we conduct research and apply it to our projects.

Personally, it has been exciting to work with the design research teams, whose curiosity, creativity and passion are both the engine and heart behind the program’s growth. Professionally, witnessing the development of design research as an important part of practice, and how it runs parallel to broad shifts occurring in the field of research, continues to prove the value of the synergistic relationship between research and design. As I reflect on the last decade of Gensler Research, I’d like to highlight some of the ways that we conduct research, and how those methods have evolved.

Our Research Model

Gensler established its research program in 2007, recognizing the importance of research to creating innovative solutions for our clients. A founding principle of the program is that our research is practitioner-led, with participation from designers and professionals across Gensler’s offices and practices. The benefit of this model is that direct participation in research ensures a deeper understanding of research findings, accelerating application to project work. But the benefit goes far beyond understanding. Designers bring a unique talent to conceptualize and create, bringing form and expression to research insights in ways often lacking in traditional research.

Image © Gensler.

Our program is centered around an annual proposal process designed to generate ideas from the bottom-up—practitioners working on projects know the most important questions to ask: those whose answers will deliver the highest client value, and those that can best lead us toward solutions that may not be self-evident. Our research teams are collaborative and interdisciplinary, encouraging architects and designers to work alongside researchers and technologists lending complementary skills, ensuring research is applicable and relevant while also valid and robust.

As Gensler’s practices and expertise continue to evolve and expand, these collaborations are becoming more exciting and varied every year—and more global. The diversity of our teams and efforts allows us to uncover cultural and geographic differences, while seeking universal truths at the intersection of design and the human experience.

Cutting Edge Methods

According to a recent study by the Economic & Social Research Council, innovation in social science research is characterized by technological innovation, the application of existing methods in new ways, and inter-disciplinary practices. In the physical sciences, whether you’re a company or an academic institution, research approaches have shifted away from monolithic, internally-focused efforts to networked strategies that blend internal talent and resources with those from the outside. In parallel, policy shifts within the research field show an emerging focus on prioritizing research based on expected impact on people and society instead of a more traditional, top-down agenda. These factors—from new and more collaborative approaches, to a focus on impact—are also the hallmark our research efforts.

Our collaborations with outside research partners from industry, government, and academia are a fruitful source of debate and inspiration. Our Hackable Cities research seeks new ways to collaborate directly with communities to create impact. Rethinking Public Transit has sparked debates about new ways to use underutilized infrastructure both in London and in cities around the world. And our City/Building/Desk research represents the results of a dynamic three-year collaboration with the UCLA CityLab. All of these projects complement our broader vision to create places and spaces that will enhance the human experience.

Image © Gensler.

Our international survey work provides a good example of how innovations in information architecture and technology have allowed us to apply this tried and true research method in a new way—capturing inputs across very large populations on a global scale about how design impacts peoples’ lives. This has allowed us to uncover new and formerly unseen relationships between design and organizational innovation, the student experience and brand loyalty.

These quantitative methods pair with new and evolved approaches to qualitative research, which are connecting us to an even more nuanced understanding of people. Ethnography, a branch of anthropology, delivers insights only available by studying people in their own environment through observation and face-to-face interviewing. While the use of ethnographic methods is not uncommon in design practice, the rigor with which we apply it, and its integration with other research methods, offers amazing promise.

Ideas to Impact

A distinct advantage held by a design firm conducting research is that insights can be conceptualized to express not just findings, but how they can be applied to solve real-world problems. A picture is worth a thousand words, and visual expression becomes even more powerful when informed and enriched by deep insight. Our research projects focused on conceptualization and visualization tap strongly into the core of what we do, resulting in some of our most unique and thought-provoking efforts.

These projects—combining what is often called “trend research” and “scenario planning” in traditional research circles—exemplify how research can inform design innovation. Examples range from how a city can better support navigation for visitors who don’t speak the language, to envisioning new uses for abandoned hospital buildings, to creating ways for environmental graphic design to support learning.

After working decades in the field of design research, one thing is clear—designers are natural-born researchers who have developed deep expertise through the research they conduct as part of their project work. As a complement to these efforts, the Gensler Research Program simply provides a framework that allows lines of inquiry to go beyond the specifics of any one project. By enabling designers to more broadly explore topics and issues that are important to them and to their clients, the program takes research to a new level. It allows designers to see things not previously seen, and to solve problems in ways never before imagined.

Christine Barber is the director of research at Gensler. Since the establishment of the Gensler Research Program in 2007, she has overseen the completion of more than 100 practitioner-led research projects focused on generating new knowledge and insights to inform design strategy and promote design innovation that will add value to Gensler clients. Contact her at christine_barber@gensler.com.