How to Do Interior Design Project Research

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Today we’ll explore what an interior design project brief is, and what information you will need in order to write one.

A table containing all of the information is provided at the end of this post.

Hi and thanks for joining us!

Every new interior design project should begin with a clean mental slate for the designer. In other words, you shouldn’t have too many preconceived notions about the direction for the project or the details of design until you have explored the job parameters.

Of course there are some elements of the existing conditions which are “set” (such as the building envelope and certain fittings), but there can be no concrete ideas moving forward until all the information is considered.

As an interior design professional, you are bringing your knowledge, expertise and design talent to the table, but without a good, initial design brief, the project can’t be a success.

Using the idea of first principles, designers can be sure that they are operating on facts and not merely assumptions or whims.

What is Project Research in Interior Design?

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The Programming Phase

Research for interior design projects is known as “programming“. In this phase, all of the necessary information relating to the project will need to be collected and organized.

The research phase of a new interior design project is extremely important, and it’s also fun!

In this preparatory stage you will be collecting and analyzing the data for your new project. This helps get you in the right frame of mind to start designing.

-Research begins with looking for information.

-It helps you to ask the right questions about what you will be designing.

-It ends with a clearer concept of the design direction.

The Design Brief

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What is a design project brief?

Simply put, the project brief is the introductory keynote to the project. It should state in clear terms a) who the job is for, b) what the scope of the job is, c) what needs it will serve or problems it will solve, and d) what the desired outcome is.

New Project Energy

Starting a new design project is a rush! It’s exciting to tackle a new design ‘problem‘, and energy is usually high at this stage. However, it’s important to note that you haven’t actually gotten the job yet, at least not officially.

This early stage is actually about assessing whether you and the client are a good fit for one another, as well as whether the project is even feasible.

Good Design Project Programming Includes a Feasibility Study

Before agreeing to take on the project, you’ll want to be sure that you can, in fact, solve the problems of the project. You will need to be confident that you can offer a design solution in the time given and according to the budget stipulated by the client.

For this, you are going to need to do some digging.

In some cases, depending on the type of project, you might be going up against other design firms who are competing for the same job.

From the moment the first inquiry comes in, all the way up until you get your design proposal into the clients hands and do your first presentation, there are no guarantees.

Your mission is do the most thorough research you can and compile all of the information into an easily digestible and clear document that explains what the initial exisiting conditions are and how you think the project should proceed.

This is known as the project brief.

So now that we know that you need a project brief, what should it include?

Client Data

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Who’s the Boss?

First things first.

Who is hiring you to do the job?

It sounds so basic, but you need to be clear on who you will be communicating with and who is actually approving the project and the budget.

You will want to sit down in person or at least get on a zoom call with your client or client liaison. If you are following up on an initial design query, this is the time to introduce yourself to the client, assure them of your qualifications for doing the project and set the tone for working together.

Have a Welcome Package

Make sure you have a welcome package which explains how your process works and what the client can expect from working together. This can be a PDF which you email to them or it might be built into your website or design software platform.

An example of a welcome package cover from my design firm, Saskia Interiors

Design Client Onboarding

Remember that at this early stage you are “onboarding” your client. The sooner they can get a sense of how you can help them, the sooner you’ll be able to get them to sign off on the job.

Your goal: Make it as smooth and as painless as possible for them.

My top tip for early client outreach:

Don’t assume that the client “knows” how the design process works. Most non-design professionals find design jargon confusing. Explain it like they are five, but find a way to do it professionally and courteously.

Less misunderstandings at this early stage mean a better, smoother and more budget friendly outcome for all. Get it right.

Client Questionnaire

Here is the most basic set of questions I use when interviewing a residential client. This could be used over the phone. Some firms will send the questionnaire out and ask the client to fill it out and return it. In my case, I have an online questionaire which is integrated with my design management software, which is part of the onboarding process.
However, I find it best to ask the client the questions in person when possible. This helps to clarify any parts that the client may not understand or where you might need further insight. After compiling the client’s answers, you can combine the information with the later site survey information in order to create your official brief.

My design questionnaire paper version.
Please sign up at the bottom of the post if you would like to download this template for your own use.

Notes on Creating Your Own Questionnaire

There’s a lot more that can be said about client questionnaires!

If you are new to professional design practice, it makes sense to use a sample questionnaire tailored for your own needs and as you gain more experience, you can add to or subtract from it until you have something tailored to the needs of your practice.

In my case, I created mine from compiling the best of three different examples provided in interior design business and professional practice textbooks and following the advice of other designers who I follow on social media.

I further “personalized” it by adding questions I felt were important, such as the architectural style of the building as a consideration. I also added questions for individual aesthetic preferences, such as color and pattern.

My design questionnaire has worked great for me so far; especially when the questions are delivered in person. Not all jobs require such a detailed questionaire, but it’s there as a base for when I do need to get in depth.

Site Survey Data

a man sketching on a white cardboard

Do Your Own Survey

There’s no denying that the client’s wishes and visions for the space are important, but without information about the real, physical site, there’s no “design”.

It’s time to visit the site and do a site survey! While we won’t cover how to conduct a site survey in this article, I will link to some useful resources for this if you are interested in knowing more, or need a “refresher” on how a survey is usually done.

Remember to ask the client for any existing blueprints or plans for the building, but don’t rely solely on those, unless they are recenlty drafted by a professional and you are one hundred percent sure that they are accurate.

Ideally, you can use existing plans as a basis for adding information to when you do your survey. Double check all measurements!

Site Specific Measurements and Photo Research

Your main goals for site surveillance are:

  1. 1. Total footprint square footage or metrics, including all floors
  2. 2. Number of rooms and their current usage
  3. 3. Measurements for each individual room, including height
  4. 4. Measurements for any architecural features, built in cabinetry or furniture fittings
  5. 5. Audit of all furniture currently in use, unless these are going to be removed entirely
  6. 6. Locations of windows and doors, exits and fire escapes
  7. 7. Locations of all plumbing fixtures, existing HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) fittings and power points
  8. 8. Notation of all finishes and their condition

Accuracy is Important

Besides measurements, you should take detailed pictures (and even video) of everything on the site to avoid having to come back and check measurements and existing features.

It can be embarassing to have to revisit the site because you missed important measurements. It’s even worse to create detailed plans which are based on wrong measurements.

Take your time now in order to avoid costly mistakes later.

Assign Responsibility for the Accuracy of Data

Note: There may be times when projects are conducted virtually, in which case the onus and responsibility should be on the client to provide accurate site survey measurements and information.

Make sure you include a clause in your contract which states who is responsible in case of any changes to the initial survey dimensions. Hint: It should be the person who provided them and declared them as accurate at the start of the project.

Site Contextual Data

city houses water building

Architectural Site Data vs Interior Design Site Data

I borrowed some of my design philosophy about site context from architecture.

In standard architectural designing practice, the site data is extremely important. It includes seasonal solar and wind factors, as well as topology of the ground that the site is built on, in many cases.

For interior design, where the building is situated and in what context in the community, is a useful study to do.

Zoning and Community Context

While this type of site contextual study isn’t strictly needed in interior design, I feel that if you are doing a large scale commercial project, that site context is extremely important.

In order to be sure that you are making the best use of the site, you should factor in the zoning of the site (is it office, retail, commercial?) and have an idea of what the surrounding area offers in terms of amenities and resources.

Examples of How Community Context Affects Interior Design

Here’s an example: If there are a large number of coffee shops in the area, the office kitchen, break room or coffee station might not get used as much as it would if there was no where else to get cofffee.

Another example: Will your client really need that large photocopy machine room if there is are two excellent printing shops within walking distance?

Perhaps the space you would have used for a copy room is better used for something else.

Environmental Factors

Coming back to the site’s orientation, knowing where the light will be coming from at diffferent times of the day is very useful for knowing how to treat the windows (will you use blinds or curtains? or perhaps you don’t need any treatment in some cases) and where additional light sources may be needed.

Remember that a designer’s job requires that he or she use empathy. Empathy, putting youself in the position of the client and the user; helps you to consider all of the possibilities and spot problems before they arise.

Occupancy and Usage Data

people walking inside building

Important Considerations

Another very important consideration for larger projects is how many people the space will serve, and in what particular ways.

-What is the legal maximum number of occupants?

-How many permanent employees?

-What are the different departments and services you’ll need to cater to?

-Who will use which area?

-What are the differences between the way the building will be used by employees vs the way it will be used by visitors?

This impormation will be important for later space planning design and adjacency studies.

Writing a Preliminary Project Report

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Fine Tune Your Research and Report Writing for Your Needs

How much research you do, how you write your report and what you include in it depends on the scope of the project and also the usual practices of your firm.

There are many things you could include in your programming, but it will depend on the needs of your project. For example, a lot of what I’ve included in this article might be more useful to a commercial contract project than a simple residential one.

The following are some of the studies which may be done for a new project and the findings which can be included in a New Interior Design Project Report.

While I have tried to ensure the information is correct, the following should be seen as a useful example. It is not the only way (nor indeed the most correct way) to write a project research report.

Information is provided for educational purposes only.

Research for New Interior Design Project Programming

1. Site Context Studya) Look at the site’s location in context of the city, community and any existing zones and adjacenies.
What community facilities or neighborhood amenities does the building have access to?
-What’s in the near-by area?
-What is the building’s zoning restriction?

b) Look at environmental factors affecting the site.
-What are the primary views?
-What is the solar path and the typical direction of the wind?
-How does the building’s acesss the street and parking lot?
-Where are the main entrance and exit points?
2. Site Survey Studya) Total footprint square footage or metrics, including all floors
b) Number of rooms and their current usage
c) Measurements for each individual room, including height
d) Measurements for any architecural features, built in cabinetry or furniture fittings
3. Space Planning Studya) Expected usage of individual rooms and their adjacencies to one another
b) Foot traffic and circulation paths through the premises

c) Minimum space required for each use
d) Which spaces will combine uses and which ones
4. Services Studya) Locations of main water and sewage line and all plumbing fixtures
b) Locations of main power lines, electrical room and all existing electrical hubs and electrical outlets
5. Occupancy Studya) Information on the number of expected occupants
b) Information on distribution of occupants and service adjacencies
6. FF&E Studya) Audit of all fittings, furniture and equipment currently in use
b) Which are to be removed entirely and which are to be incorporated into the new design
c) What further furniture, fittings and equipment are likely to be needed
7. Accessibility Studya) Is the premises currently compliant with ADA (American Disability Association) or other universal access requirements?
b) Are people using wheelchairs or other special equipment able to use the entirety of the space?
c) What further measures need to be taken to bring the building up to good accessibility standards (railings, signage, etc.)?
8. Fire and Building Code Studya) Locations of all windows and doors, exits, fire escapes, sprinkers and fire extinguishers
b) Information on present code compliance
9. HVAC Studya) Type and locations of all heating vents and sources
b) Type and locations of all ventilation points and outlets
c) Type and locations of all air conditioning units and extractors
10. LEED or Environmental Studya) Notation of all finishes and their currrent condition
b) Total life cycle assessments
c) Material safety data
d) Material recycling and upcycling
e) Material best practicces
11. Adaptive Reuse Studya) What will be kept of old design?
b) What needs to be updated?
c) How will the character of the space be affected?
d) How will harmony be preserved?
12. Feasibility or Precedent Studya) Has one or several similar designs been created successfully in the past?
b) What were the difficulties with those project?
c) What useful parallels can be made?
d) What about this project is different?
e) What information from the precendent study project might be adapted for the needs of this project?

What is a Precedent or Feasibility Study?

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Precedent Studies

Precedent refers to what came before. A precedent study in interior design is a study of other similiar projects. These are very useful for new designers or for anyone tackling a new type of project.

Just as in law, where judges may be advised by other important similar cases in which judgments have been made using a precedent case study, in interior design there are ways to find out whether this type of project has been done before and how it was accomplished.

Preccedent Study Sources

This is usually done through exploring projects covered by interior design, construction and architecture industry media.

Some good places to look are Arch Daily, Dezeen and even Houzz, for residential projects.

Don’t forget to check books in your local book shop or library for inspiration and information! Are there any real world examples you can visit and study up close?

Feasibility Study

A feasibility study might be needed if what you are attempting to do hasn’t been done before. What are the challenges and how will you address them?

Are there problems you’ve discovered during the site survey concerning the electrical wiring, roof integrity, load-bearing walls your client wants removed or issues with building safety and code compliance?

-Is what you or your client wants to do even possible?

-Does your client need a reality check?

Better to find out now than further down the line when you are already committed.

Next Steps

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Combine Your Research with an Early Concept for Creating Your Design Proposal

Once you’ve done your new project programming research, you’ll use this report to inform the next step for you: your conceptual design.

Most of the design programming data you’ve collected is for your internal use, however presenting a well-researched and written report combined with an early concept for how the project might proceed is a great sales tool for making sure you land the job.

Lay it out nicely and add in some graphics and data visualization and you’ve got half of your design proposal!

Ready, Set, Design

The interior design project research you’ve just completed is an invaluable part of beginning a new project and you will refer to this data frequently in the next phases of design conceptualization and design development.

With your first client interview and discovery session out of the way along with your programming research, it’s time for the real fun stuff.

We are now ready to start designing!

Want a bird’s eye view on running and interior design project from start to finish? The 10 Commandments of interior design will clue you in!

Happy designing!


Designer, writer & educator living in East Asia since 2001

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