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Mix Roundtable: Designing for difference

We look at designing for diversity, unpick why good design is inclusive design, and ask what more can be done to ensure that our workspaces are actually working for everyone.

Feature in partnership with Autex Acoustics Ltd

17/08/2022 6 min read
This article first appeared in Mix Interiors Issue 221

Words: Harry McKinley


Neurodivergence: a term coined in the late 1990s yet more present – and more prominent – today than ever before. Its ascendance into the public consciousness is due partly to social media, but also increasingly mainstream advocacy by those who wish neurodiversity to factor into how services are provided and, even, how spaces are designed.

A whippet quick explanation: put simply, someone who is neurodivergent learns and processes information differently. In more specific cases this could mean a diagnosis of conditions such as ADHD, dyslexia or autism, yet broadly speaking it’s thought that between 15% and 40% of the general population could fall within the neurodivergence spectrum. It also typically means a greater sensitivity to certain types of environmental stimuli, in comparison to someone who is ‘neurotypical’ – think colour, lighting and acoustics.

What does this mean for how we conceive of and create workspaces, however? Well, it’s this that we’ve come together to discuss – at the Clerkenwell home of Autex, a global provider of acoustic solutions.

“We’ve been saying for the past 30 years that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to the office,” says Unispace’s Sam Sahni. “We’ve always recognised that there are different personas but, in probably the last two years, we’ve seen those personas morph into profiles – profiles that we want our workspaces to cater for. Neurodiversity has become a big part of that and I’m not sure leadership understands the potential for business, if they were to deploy neurodiversity properly.

“But the question remains, from a practical design standpoint: how do you test a space for neurodiverse people? We haven’t gone into the depth of that because we’re still beginning to understand what it means and how that relates to solutions. We need to be talking about it more and there needs to be more education.”

“Education is crucial,” continues Autex’s Alice Atiola, “because that lack of understanding leads to a lack of emphasis and a lack of importance placed upon it inthe design. We know that the likes of acoustics is one of the central aspects to creating more productive and more pleasant working environments for those who are neurodiverse, and yet it’s these types of things that get removed from a specification when they’re costed.”

Some organisations, however, are arguably ahead of the curve. “Let me firstly say that one of the greatest misconceptions is that if you’re neurodiverse you have a disability, when it’s the spaces that create the disability,” explains tp bennett’s Michelle Wilkie. “That creates a responsibility on the part of the designer actually, which is why we have neurodiversity checklists now. They take into account basics like spatial planning – for example, just making sure that you don’t have a retreat zone right next to a bank of desks; it’s things like contrast lighting and acoustics, as already mentioned.

They may seem obvious but they’re not obvious to a lot of people, and having that handbook, for want of a better term, ensures these elements are considered. We’ve even won a few projects recently talking about neurodiversity and how it’s built into our design process.”

For Gensler’s Collin Bury, it’s not just his own organisation that is carrying the mantle for neurodiverse-considerate spaces, some clients are holding themselves accountable.

“A UK-based bank that we work with audits each aspect of our designs,” he explains. “They audit the lighting, the colour palette, the patterns and so on, to make sure that everything is inclusive. It’s not the standard yet, but it does demonstrate a change in thinking and I hope more organisations will embrace this idea.”

“Because the focus has too often been on the how the person can improve,” elaborates Atiola, “rather than on how the environment can help the person improve.”

For all of the innovators, pioneers and early-adopters, however, there’s consensus around the table that the industry as whole is in its very early stages of understanding this type of diversity, let alone creating for it. From those who are leading the way, however, there are lessons for all.

 

“We’ve been working on a government project,” says Mariko Raouf, Aecom, “which means inclusivity and neurodiversity were unusually already on the agenda – even five years ago. What that means is that we’ve been thinking about real world applications for a long time now: pattern, lighting, smell and sound. We’re working on a zoning project now, where one zone features ocean sounds, another a forest, for example. Smells are being introduced that complement these. In our projects we’ve created colour journeys and colour zones, also, that impact on how we feel in those areas. A good lesson though is that, to a degree, everyone ‘carries’ a spectrum of some kind, whether that’s neurodiversity or not, and successful spaces accommodate as much diversity as possible.”

Thinking about how non-traditional design cues can be used to improve the experience of the neurodiverse is key for HLW’s Muriel Altunaga, as she explains: “These elements aren’t just about creating mood or moments of calm, they can have practical functions. When someone processes information differently, think about how colour can be used for wayfinding or for accenting facilities; it’s about using design in a clever way and making sure that the aesthetic serves a function.”

Giving users control of their surroundings and factoring in adaptability are also ways in which individual needs, as well as the requirements of the many, can be considered.

“The future of the workplace is in the ability to customise the environment,” says BDP‘s Maria Martinez. “We are all affected by different things and, with neurodiversity, that’s even more acute. It isn’t about giving users one option then, it’s about variety and, actually, giving those users the ability to create something more bespoke within a space or spaces.”

“It’s the triangulation between broader profiles, working styles and individual needs for those who sit within the neurodiversity spectrum,” agrees Iain Casagranda, Gleeds. “It’s taking it seriously enough to essentially ask: What do you need to perform and what do you need to feel good about yourself? Then giving them the kind of support to understand themselves, their needs and understand what’s available from a menu of design and usability options. The industry has no option but to adapt to this and I think the answer, as with most things, is more imaginative designs solutions.”

Our table is ready to rise the occasion, seeing creating for neurodiversity not as a challenge but an opportunity: “As designers, we have the opportunity to create a new world in the workplace and we have an opportunity to remove the stigma around neurodiversity, unlock its potential and see what that looks like,” says Wilkie, as Burry nods in agreement and continues: “Our future is immensely bright as an industry and we’re on the precipice of something amazing. We can even lead the way because it takes creative people to envision a future that a lot of people can’t.”

Acoustics and Neurodiversity:

  • Neurodiverse people are particularly susceptible to sound levels and poor acoustic conditions can manifest in reduced productivity and even
    an inability to communicate with colleagues as effectively. For those with more severe ‘hyper- sensitivity’, acoustic overload can result in physical discomfort – including migraines.
  • While loud, discordant noise is a commonly recognised issue, less considered is silence – with studies showing that the neurodiverse are also susceptible to a lack of ambient noise.
  • A 2018 study by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found just 1 in 10 HR professionals considered neurodivergence in their organisation’s management strategies.
  • Several techniques can be deployed to create an acoustically-considered environment. The zoning of spaces allows for the creation of high and low stimulation areas: panels, curtains and moveable acoustic pods are examples of flexible solutions. In open plan spaces, breaking up the distances that sound waves can travel is key to creating a space that is inclusive and conducive to productivity and wellbeing for all.

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