Designing Better Spaces: Dana Vaux’s research focuses on connection between people, places


UNK Communications

KEARNEY – A friend once asked Dana Vaux why it’s important to research interior design.

How’s that going to help you choose a living room couch, they wondered.

Vaux, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska at Kearney and coordinator of the interior and product design program, is happy to explain.

Interior design is far more complicated than what people see on their favorite home makeover shows, she says. Yes, it can include picking paint colors and selecting the right furniture, but the process is “a lot more involved than that.”

“It’s really the interior side of architecture where you space plan,” Vaux said. “You’re thinking about human behavior in the building. You’re thinking about how people interact with the space and how that interior space can best meet the needs of the user. We know a lot about interiors, and we’re learning more and more all the time because of research.”

As an educator and scholar, Vaux focuses on the intersection of people and physical environments. She wants her students – the future professionals in this field – to understand how space impacts our psychological, emotional and relational well-being.

“That’s one of the things that really pushed me into wanting to be a researcher,” said Vaux, who worked as a professional interior designer and adjunct instructor at Washington State University before earning her doctorate in architecture, design and environmental history.

“People spend 90% of their time indoors, so why don’t we make spaces that are healing and help build communication rather than creating barriers and making people sick? I wanted to be one of those people who learns more about the physical environment, how it impacts people and how we can make it better.”

A UNK faculty member since 2014, Vaux uses hospitals as an example of buildings that have evolved thanks to this research.

“There’s a lot of research on health care environments, and one of the things they’ve found is that patients who have a view heal faster and use less medication,” she explained. “This research shows how the interior environment impacts humans and how you can make design decisions that truly help people.”

Now, most hospitals are designed with patient rooms that feature exterior windows with an outside view and access to natural light. Many other buildings are planned the same way. In UNK’s Discovery Hall, which houses interior and product design and other STEM programs, every office has a campus view and plenty of natural light.

Vaux weaves this type of research into her classes so her students start thinking about spaces the same way.

“I believe meaningful design education and successful design practice are inherently linked with research and scholarship,” she said. “When we teach and practice design based on theories of aesthetics and human behavior grounded in proven research, we do so in a way that makes a difference.”

Fortunately for UNK students, Vaux literally wrote the book on design research.


While teaching her first research methods class, Vaux discovered there wasn’t a textbook covering interior design research that was written at a level that’s accessible to undergraduate students.

She solved this problem by designing her curriculum. Vaux teamed with David Wang, her former architecture professor at Washington State University, to co-author and edit “Research Methods for Interior Design: Applying Interiority.”

Published in 2020, that textbook offers an expanded vision of interior design research, emphasizing the shift from home decoration to a focus on the impact of health and safety within interior environments. The book’s subtitle, “Applying Interiority,” identifies one reason why the field of interior design is expanding, namely, all people wish to achieve a subjective sense of well-being within built environments, even when those environments are not defined by walls.

Vaux also worked with Wang and architect Sue Lani Madsen to co-author a textbook that covers real-life ethical dilemmas students may face in the professional world. Instead of using a more than 20-year-old textbook, they decided to write an up-to-date version for undergraduates that included both architecture and interior design. The result, “Practical Ethics in Architecture and Interior Design Practice,” was published this spring.

Each chapter begins with a fictional story that includes an ethical issue professionals encounter in the real world, whether it’s related to a contract, project delivery method, sustainable design, cross-cultural collaboration or another topic. Then the book walks students through the practical elements and “unpacks” the ethical dilemma before they’re asked to discuss the decision.

“Obviously people know they’ve crossed the line if they’re breaking the law, but there’s kind of a ceiling and floor when it comes to ethics,” Vaux said. “You can kind of squeak by and do something that’s not ethical, but should you do it or should you choose a higher ground? Can you sleep at night if you make that decision?”

Vaux uses both textbooks in her classes to expose students to different aspects of a design career.

“The commonality between the two is that I wanted things that would be very real to students and could engage them,” she said.

The UNK faculty member doubles down on this philosophy by bringing her students outside the classroom for experiential learning projects.

Last spring, 11 seniors in the interior and product design program gained valuable hands-on experience while creating design concepts for a 135-year-old downtown Kearney property that’s currently under restoration. Each idea – from a child care center/coworking space to a bakery and boutique hotel – was inspired by the building’s historic elements and the students’ research interests.

Her students have also worked with the Holdrege-based South Central Economic Development District, which acquired a house from the Nebraska Prairie Museum property to relocate and renovate, and the Robert Henri Museum and Art Gallery in Cozad, where they developed designs for a gallery expansion.

After seeing a startling statistic about domestic violence victims – nearly 50% of these men and women don’t leave an abusive relationship because they can’t take their pets with them – Vaux and UNK colleagues Rebecca Hermance and Tami Moore partnered with the S.A.F.E. Center to address this issue.

“That’s a design problem,” Vaux said. “It’s a design problem because we are not providing safe places for people where they can also bring their pets.”

In fall of 2021, junior and senior interior and product design students created renderings for the Kearney-based nonprofit to support a fundraising effort for the project. Once enough grant money is secured, the S.A.F.E. Center plans to expand its housing for domestic violence victims, adding units for people and their pets.

“The goal of that project was to give back to the community and for students to also understand that as designers they see things differently and have a different skill set than a lot of people, so they can come into situations and impact and contribute in different ways,” Vaux said. “I don’t just want them to know what I know. I want to give them the tools to do things way beyond what I can do.”


In addition to design pedagogy, Vaux researches place theory – how a community’s historical, social and cultural elements draw people in and create a sense of belonging.

“People make emotional connections to certain places,” she said. “Places also have their own characteristics. Kearney is very different than Grand Island. And people who live in these places describe their communities in different ways.

“I think research is showing more and more that place matters. It matters to people. People make emotional connections that keep them in places, or sometimes it leads them to leave places.”

As a master’s student, Vaux began researching third places – those locations outside home and work where people gather to socialize and connect.

Whether it’s a coffee shop, beauty salon or bar, third places all share the same characteristics:

  • They’re open to people from all walks of life.
  • Economic and social status don’t matter.
  • Conversation is the main focus.
  • The atmosphere is playful and unpretentious.

Vaux took this research one step further by asking another important question. Can a third place exist outside the physical world?

She partnered with former UNK colleague and current Baylor University faculty member Mickey Langlais to find the answer. Together, they studied Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter to determine whether these social media platforms met the specifications of a third place.

“Our research shows that people use those, not necessarily to replace face-to-face, but to augment face-to-face social connection,” Vaux said. “Now these social environments on the internet have become third places, as well.”

Their findings were published in the International Journal of Technology and Human Interaction and the Journal of Interior Design, with the latest article focusing on environmental changes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vaux won the 2022 Midwest Regional Best of Award for Scholarship of Teaching and Learning-Pedagogy from the Interior Design Educators Council (IDEC), 2021 Midwest Regional Best of Award for Scholarship of Design Research-History and Theory from IDEC and 2019 Best Paper in Family Studies/Human Development from the American Association of Family and Consumer Services. She’s also editor-in-chief of IDEC Exchange, a biannual publication for interior design educators.

Moving forward, she plans to refocus on the heart of her research – the importance of physical places and good design.

“I think we saw during COVID that virtual is never going to replace physical places,” Vaux said. “It’s never going to replace face-to-face communication. It’s never going to replace face-to-face learning. It’s never going to replace humans’ need to interact with nature and places and people in person – at least not in my lifetime.

“I think we know that we all still need that connection to the real world.”


Title: Associate Professor, Industrial Technology
College: Business and Technology
Education: Ph.D. Interdisciplinary: Architecture, Design and Environmental History, Washington State University, 2015; Master of Arts in interior design, Washington State University, 2010; Bachelor of Arts in interior design with a minor in architecture, 2009.
Years at UNK: Nine
Research in My Words: My research focuses on the interface of current culture and place theory in the built environment as well as design pedagogy, which resulted in two recent textbooks: “Research Methods for Interior Design: Applying Interiority” and “Practical Ethics for Architecture and Interior Design Practice.” I believe meaningful design education and successful design practice are inherently linked with research and scholarship. When we teach and practice design based on theories of aesthetics and human behavior grounded in proven research, we do so in a way that makes a difference.
Courses Taught: Application of Basic Design for Interior Design, Design Technology I, Lighting for Interior Design & Product Design, Furniture, Finishes, Materials, and Components of Interior Architecture, Interior Design Studio III, Interior Design Studio IV, Design Research Methods, Design Thesis Project, Professional Practice for Design, Building Codes and Inspections.
Recent Published Articles: “Reframing Third Places: Examining Environmental Changes During COVID,” Journal of Interior Design, 2023. “Polanyi and The Revised Taxonomy: Teaching Technology for High-Level Creative Thinking and Risk-Taking,” International Journal of Technology in Education, 2022. “Establishing a Quantitative Measure for Virtual Third Places,” International Journal of Technology and Human Interaction, 2022.