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Post-pandemic spaces: control or release?

As humans, we need both a sense of control and the joy of release. Spaces must acknowledge this tension, and either resolve it, or pick a side.

28/07/2022 2 min read
Part of Chiara Vascotto’s Human Insight series, this article first featured in Mix issue 220.

In my work as a commercial anthropologist, I have often seen people inhabit conflicting inner worlds and trying to negotiate opposite needs. One example is our daily dance between control and release. The imperative to stay on top of it all and the yearning to cut loose.

Now, more than ever, we are having to carefully manage finite resources – be it time, money or even fuel. We seek products and solutions that help us save on bills, cut down on waste, reduce calories and so on. Brands that offer this become powerful allies, peoples’ champions, helping us face the growing challenges of everyday life.

But there’s only so much restraint humans can take and post-pandemic most of us feel like coiled springs. Many have embraced life again, from going out-out, to choosing bright colours for their wardrobes and their homes. Of course, brands want to occupy this space. It’s where consumers feel off -the-hook, unbridled, joyful. These are aspirations that, incidentally, can justify a premium price.

This dynamic applies to commercial interiors, too. As individuals furiously ping-pong between the two needs, it pays for the built environment to take a clear stand and meet one or the other.

In terms of release, it’s all about raising the bar. We will re-enter commercial spaces with a heightened awareness and a more complex agenda. When you can work, shop and exercise from home, doing it elsewhere is a choice that seeks greater gratification to warrant its investment. We will expect a greater sense of reward from the spaces we choose to visit. We will want each experience to count.

This new hunger for reward can be leveraged with exuberant, luxurious hospitality spaces. Offices may need to become more enticing and to offer more spaces for collaboration. Retailers will need to seriously rethink their physical environments and invest more boldly in flagship stores. ‘Sip and shop’, literally throwing booze at the problem, is an interesting new development, but clearly not the answer.

Whilst perhaps less sexy, the ‘control’ benefit is no less needed. We will prefer transforming, flexible spaces that let us do more with less; we will welcome agile pop-ups, zero waste shops and no frills everything, from gyms to coworking.

And then, the unicorns. Those concepts that manage to resolve the tension, delivering a sense of release without negating the need for control. Think IKEA’s Wonderful Everyday, with its nod to both our wallet and our need for aesthetics. Primark’s price point, allowing for experimentation and playfulness, now teamed with environmental efforts. Budget restaurants, where cash-strapped parents can declare that nothing on the menu is off -limits.

So, it pays to acknowledge the tension, pick a side, or, if you are really brave, resolve it.

Chiara is an anthropologist working in consumer insights and branding, and is part of Hologram, a design and research collective.




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