Design Guidelines

The "Human" in Human-Centered, Evidence-Based Design for Education

A picture is worth a thousand words. It’s a moment in time that its creator tries to capture as accurately as possible. The problem is that viewers naturally craft a counterfeit. What do I mean by that?

Close your eyes, and imagine a photo of an active learning environment. What do you see? Flexibility? Yes. Digital and analog tools? Maybe. Mechanical tools? Sometimes. Buzzwords on writeable surfaces? You bet! Students are learning, and teachers are teaching. All is right!

small classroom with three children sitting on puffs 


Now, look more closely at the photo. Do you really know what’s going on? While the photo tells a story about learning, personal stories are also captured. Somewhere in that photo is the “why” behind the personal interactions and the physical space.

Why is one student seated at a desk using paper and pencil while another is standing at a table, swiping away on an iPad?

You notice groupings of desks, cubbies for storage and chairs stacked in the background. How will the furniture be used to achieve the teacher’s goals?

The personal stories inform the larger picture, but they all too often are lost. The photo becomes one of the thousands of images we see daily. Our eyes deceive us, leading to a “me too” moment: “I’ve been there, seen that. I know what’s going on in that learning space, and I want the same thing.”

What does human-centered, evidencebased design for schools mean?

This situation demonstrates the importance of human-centered design in education when creating solutions, products and services.

A human-centered design process simply means that we design for the humans who will use the solution. A process developed by Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, better known as the, it posits that design is not based on our “me too” inclinations or preconceived notions of what makes an effective learning environment. Human-centered design identifies the “why” and establishes the foundation for authentic creation.

The impact of furniture within the classroom

What is “authentic creation”? Innovation and change are driven by understanding how and why people will use a design solution – evidence, if you will. Authentic creation leads to real change much faster than a “me too” strategy. That’s the end game.

A recent study (Ruckus Grant Program, developed and executed by KI in 2017-2018) examined the impact of furniture on teaching and learning. Nine schools and universities across the country agreed to participate. Through a survey, information was gathered on pedagogies and current classroom configurations to establish a baseline. Teachers and students rated the following statements:

  • Move “however I want”
  • Work comfortably with technology
  • Work in groups
  • Engagement/participation
  • Enjoyment/retention

After teaching and learning in their existing classrooms for six months, each institution was provided with furniture to create an adaptive, human-centered learning environment. No other variables (such as flooring, lighting or technology) changed. After isolating furniture as a variable, participants were surveyed again to gauge the level of impact on the learning experience.

The results showed increases between 30% and 60% within each area. That's an incredible impact, and the results heavily support the efficacy of furniture to drive positive change within a learning culture.

Where do designers and educators start, and what is the process?

Start with empathy, and ask to observe a learning environment in action. Firsthand observations of education goals bring perspective, removing ideas generated by “me too” tendencies. Collecting qualitative data about behavior helps uncover design drivers that make human-centered design possible.

One of my favorite empathy exercises is the “backpack of the future” exercise.


Pass out the notecard above to students when you're reimagining learning spaces. An open question allows you to receive feedback on likes, wishes, wants and needs.

The exercise imposes no limitations on student mindsets. It allows for the flow of curious, uninhibited thoughts. After finishing the exercise, gather everyone’s “ingredients” and group them into common themes, synthesizing the information so commonalities and differences easily surface.

Synthesizing the information is usually the most difficult part of the human-centered design process. I recommend you approach this process with a team of trusted experts. The insights and outcomes require more than a single perspective.

Below is a photo of a workshop where a wall of ideas was created through a similar exercise: single ideas grouped together by large, common themes. The results revealed design drivers rooted in empathy.

hallway with post it notes on the wall

Once design drivers are identified, move on to physical space. For example, if technology integration surfaces as a need, maybe a makerspace would be of benefit. Review what furniture solutions would make for a successful space.

Finally, prototype and create a physical learning environment that embodies the design drivers captured in the human-centered design process. You’ll discover the importance of each driver, establishing the tools and products needed to make that vision come to life.

The human-centered, evidence-based design process is fundamentally simple, but it can be difficult to dive deep into human behavior, organizational implications and cultural limitations. The work is intense, but the end result leads to “we are” instead of “me too.”

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Spaces4Learning.

About the Author

Jonathan Matta is KIs National Education Leader, supporting organizations in their pursuit of solving complex challenges by applying the power of design.