The first step to tackling this issue is to be conscious of it. I have no doubt that, as the wellness agenda continues to get traction and mental health campaigns gain further prominence, built environment professionals will be expected to understand how the design of spaces can promote healthy minds as well as bodies.
Many people find the modern workplace a challenging environment: the bustle and activity of open floorplates – whilst great for fostering collaboration – can be a significant hindrance to those suffering with autism as well as other neurological and mental health conditions. In some instances, these conditions make it virtually impossible to work in a conventional office environment. It is the job of forward-thinking designers and occupiers to redefine the definition of inclusivity, broadening its scope whilst not impacting the vitality of the interior designs.
As designers who work across corporate offices as well as spaces for learning and broadcasting, we are now seeing a shift in expectations, with project teams asking: how can we promote good mental health? And is it still possible to remain sensitive to neurodiversity issues without creating vanilla spaces? Colour, pattern and energy are key parts of a designer’s toolkit but they have to be applied in a way that is mindful of how a greater range of people experience spaces.
We have started to work with neurodiversity experts from the start of a project, which shapes how we approach the design of spaces. This started by putting ourselves in the shoes of others; we used virtual reality headsets to replicate how people with different neurological conditions experience space. This bewildering and uncomfortable experience illustrates just how disruptive specific design features are to some and actively shaped the design of the internal spaces.
This heightened sensitivity to how different people see the world means that we have to carefully consider how colours are used, particularly contrasting tones that impact some people’s ability to concentrate. This feeds into a project’s graphics and wayfinding strategy, challenging us to think more creatively about not just colour but how maps and symbols are used. By having this invaluable user feedback, we can design spaces that promote good mental health whilst still being exciting spaces to use.