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Designing for neurodiversity

The workplace has become a more accessible environment than ever, but there is still a lot of work to be done in terms of designing for a neurodiverse workforce. We meet up with Franky Rousell, founder of sensory design experts, Jolie Studio.

26/10/2020 4 min read
Matillion Denver CGI

Simply put, neurodiversity is the diversity of our brains: an immeasurable variation of the way our brains function and react across a massive spectrum. Most people are neurotypical, with an estimated 15% of the UK population considered neurodivergent. Neurodivergent people face multiple challenges within the workplace – from sensory stimulation and distractions to wayfinding within a large space.

According to CIPD, one in ten organisations are now focusing on diversity at work, and by doing so can create better workplaces for all by understanding the nuances of our neurological differences. Alongside the collaborative and flexible successes of the fabulous open plan offices we have visited over the years, there are also downsides – from a colleague’s loud phone call to garish lights and even smells. For many of us this is a small annoyance but, to a large minority of the workforce, this is an impossible obstacle that directly affects their ability to work.

Matillion, Altrincham

Manchester-based Jolie Studio is no stranger to the role design can play in creating a diverse and inclusive environment that can benefit an organisation’s entire workforce. Founder Franky Rousell studied Architectural Technology in Bristol before making the move to Manchester; attracted by the thriving industry and growing prospects of the city, she took on the role of Head of Design at Bruntwood at just 23 years old.

Franky realised that her aim was to change the face of the typical interior design offering and take a more thoughtful approach to interiors. In 2018, Jolie Studio was born from a desire to move away from a traditional, trend-driven aesthetic approach and towards a more fully embodied, human-centred and multi-sensory experience.

‘In previous roles I met a lot of different customers and business types – and they would all say the same thing – ‘We’ve spent thousands of pounds on fit-out work, directed by the designer on what to choose and how to do it. But, six months down the line, after the initial success of the launch, the honeymoon phase had worn off and people were starting to moan. The space doesn’t feel authentic to their business and hasn’t actually done anything to help it apart from please people in the short term.’

Jolie Studio’s Mixology-award-winning work for Matillion’s Altrincham office is a perfect example of using colour, texture and smell to create an inclusive space for today’s diverse workforce. Setting cliches to the side of what would usually be expected of a tech company’s office space, the team instead put the unique story of the business and the human requirements of the workforce at the forefront, resulting in a completely bespoke and unique design.

‘When we started Jolie Studio it was about the emotional output of the human being in that space, no matter what sector or space we’re designing in,’ says Franky. ‘When you’re in an environment, there are so many inputs going on to determine how you feel in that particular moment – it’s a subliminal, multi-sensory experience. There are so many examples of terrible environments, like hospitals, which are supposed to be spaces for healing and yet so often do the polar opposite.

‘Thinking about things in a much more human way has allowed us to work on some amazing schemes, but it’s also allowed us to see the impact of that thought process,’ Franky continues. ‘We spent six months just meeting with neuroscientists. We’re never going to be the experts – we educated ourselves and then we reach out to them if we need them. It’s not a complicated science; it’s just thinking about things differently – when you’re picking a material, why? How does it make you feel? At the start of every project we sit down with the floorplans, and before we do any space planning or layout, we’ll circle areas that we call sensory zoning. We’ll establish the journey that we want people to go through.’

Having such computer heavy roles, Matillion needed a space that would allow the workforce to work more efficiently together, building their own culture, and feeling more at ease in times of high pressure. Each of the five human senses was considered in each area of the space; sensory zoning includes areas that focus on increased productivity, relaxation and everything in between.

The tech sector continues to be one of the fastest growing job sectors in the UK and beyond – and with that comes the temptation for employees to shop the employer market. This constant need to attract, retain and inspire puts pressure on Matillion and, as a British-based company with Silicon Valley aspirations (and investors), they are no strangers to retention strategies.

Matillion’s expansion into the US market once again called upon Jolie, predicting similar-minded employees as their UK base. Both spaces incorporate a soft and soothing palette of colours and materials, with a variety of enclosed spaces – small areas of refuge and sanctuary for quiet moments, and small soft seating areas for comfortable levels of collaboration and socialising.

Use of colour is an important consideration throughout both projects – neutral shades calm and relax, avoiding clashing colours that may be overwhelming to those not neurotypical. In addition to a sustainable-focused supply chain, the team used interior fragrances that were as natural and sustainable as possible, as well as allergy resistant. It is these small thoughtful nuances within both Matillion spaces that support diversity within the workforce – allowing for high retention and a competitive advantage.

‘We understand the way our clients want the space to make its users feel, and that they require longevity from their space design – so from tech companies like Matillion, who use colour and fragrance to create an atmosphere of calm focus to drive staff retention and wellbeing, through to hotels that need leisure spaces that encourage an experience of vitality, escape and energy…the way we plan and design a space is wholly directed by the emotional outcome that is required.’

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