Wayfinding study provides unique research opportunities for undergraduates

Dr. Hessam Ghamari has long been interested in evidence-based healthcare design. In recent years, his research focus has shifted specifically to wayfinding, or the ability to find one’s way without getting lost. First-time visitors to large public organizations such as hospitals, airports, schools and shopping centers often face wayfinding challenges, and these can be magnified in healthcare settings by adding to a visitor’s heightened levels of anxiety and stress.

As an assistant professor of interior design in the Department of Applied Design at Appalachian State University, Ghamari knew that wayfinding had become a hot topic in healthcare design, and he saw an opportunity to make a difference locally. He contacted Watauga Medical Center about conducting a wayfinding study on the premises, with the goal of using his findings to improve the current layout and design of public spaces. To do this, Ghamari aimed to identify elements of the designed environment that attracted eye fixation during wayfinding, and objectively track eye moments and fixation as participants navigated through the hospital setting using a special tracking device called the EyeGuide®.

 A strong advocate of hands-on learning as a method to help students identify areas of interest and explore careers, Ghamari also saw a perfect educational opportunity.

“During my mentorship of undergraduate students I have witnessed many students discover their passion for research and continue on to graduate studies and/or apply evidence-based design to their work,” he said. “I believe exposure to research can assist students in finding their path after graduation.”

He reached out to a few of his star students to act as research assistants. Several jumped at the chance, and he quickly formed a small team to assist with the project. He felt it was important to include students in this study specifically because of its unique balance between science and interior design.

“People talk about design from their experience; there are a lot of studies where they look at behavioral aspects of people, but some of that might be subjective,” he said. “I think scientific methods, if you use them in the right way, can be wonderful tools to figure out human interaction with the environment.”

One of his research assistants was interior design major Sarah Dickert, who will graduate in May of 2017. She was intrigued by the opportunity.

“Before this project, I hadn’t been exposed to much healthcare design,” she said. “It was the perfect opportunity to learn more while contributing to research.”

Eva Clauss, a technical assistant and also a senior interior design major, concurred. “The opportunity to participate in a project like this is rare for an undergrad,” she remarked.

Dickert and Clauss, along with three other undergraduates, worked with Ghamari on various aspects of the project.

“I was part of the team that conducted studies with volunteers, Dickert said. “We used the eye tracking device to evaluate what visual cues people look for when navigating the hospital and the level of difficulty in doing so in the process.”

The study followed 24 participants of various ages and genders as they navigated five different routes in the medical center. Based on his previous research, Ghamari hypothesized that signage, as opposed to other interior design elements such as maps, furniture, color and lighting, would be the primary wayfinding tool. He was correct, finding that participant eye fixations focused on signage more than 60% of the time. He also noted that younger participants navigated more quickly than elderly participants, and males were slightly faster than females across all ages.

Clauss, who recorded numerical data for study, saw a whole new world of interior design. “Although I love the creative elements that go into our design projects, I loved being able to focus on the technical, research driven elements that we sometimes take for granted,” she said. “My favorite aspect of this study was learning about something I had never really considered to be part of the major.”

“It is so interesting to learn how people interact with the space and how they navigate it,” Dickert added. “Thinking specifically about times of emergency or stress, it is fascinating to see how architecture and interior design play a role in the public’s experience in a healthcare environment.”

Best of all, Dickert believes this opportunity helped her land an internship this past summer at CallisonRTK, a prestigious design firm in Washington, DC. With this project under her belt, she was a perfect candidate to work in their healthcare studio. Now, she’s considering healthcare design as a career path.

“One thing that has surprised me is that I’ve enjoyed healthcare more than I anticipated,” she shared. “The research was all very hands on and I’ve been able to play several roles in the process thus far.”

Clauss agreed. “I anticipate moving towards healthcare and education design, both of which rely very heavily on the type of findings we gathered” she said. “This experience will definitely give me an advantage in the job market.”

Ghamari and his research team presented the preliminary findings of the study in 47th annual international conference of Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA 47) in May.  Next up, Ghamari, Dickert, Clauss and the other research assistants will work on the final report to publish in Journal of Environmental Psychology. Ghamari also has plans to meet with the Watauga Medical Center to discuss ideas for wayfinding improvement in the facility.

“Eighty percent of human interaction with their environment is through their visual conditions,” Ghamari said. “Our goal with this study is to help design a more navigable environment for patients, families and visitors.”

Interior Design at Appalachian State University

The Interior Design program at Appalachian State University is housed in the Department of Applied Design and provides an educational foundation that trains students to seek professional status through the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) exam as well as state‐specific licensure.

In the program, students will participate in lecture and studio courses while learning a balance of theoretical and pragmatic approaches. Environmental responsibility in design is a focus of the program and is woven holistically throughout the curriculum.

The Department of Applied Design also includes the Industrial Design program (with concentrations in both furniture and product design) and the Applied Design and Merchandising program, and is one of seven departments housed in the College of Fine and Applied Arts. To learn more, visit design.appstate.edu.

Dr. Ghamari and a study participant
Published: Sep 6, 2016 8:25am