Designing for the Mind

Design experts came together to discuss how to provide a neurodivergent-accommodating workplace

Taking part were

Collin Burry
principal, Gensler
Helen Berresford
partner and head of ID:SR, ID:SR / Sheppard Robson
Theresa Dowling
(Chair), editorial director, FX magazine
Tom Hofton
senior associate, LOM Architecture
Mark Jackson
key account manager, Forbo
Matt Jackson
director, BDG Architecture + Design
Dan Pilling
workplace consultant, TSK Group
Tajal Rutherford-Bhatt
director, TP Bennett
Cressida Toon
director, Sonnemann Toon

WITH AN estimated one in seven people considered neurodiverse, there is a sizable population who could be sensitive to light, noise and sensory overload in everyday spaces. Delivering buildings and work environments that meet the needs of all users is a top priority for employers, keen to ensure that they are inclusive and accessible to all.

Theresa Dowling, chair of the seminar and editor of FX, kicked off with a reminder that not so long ago, Le Corbusier designed interiors for the so-called perfect man that was 6ft tall. Note it was male. Over 500 years earlier, Leonardo Da Vinci invented the Vitruvian Man to represent perfect proportions of mankind. So just the one type of human being from them both over a span of 500 years – and that was tall and male.

Tom Hofton, senior associate at LOM architecture
Tom Hofton, senior associate at LOM architecture

Thank god we’ve come a long way from the linear lines of assessing people, with perfect symmetry of both male architects and inventors. But how do current architects and designers reflect in their work the many requirements of inclusivity across all types of neurodiversity and gender?

Is designing for the mind being factored into new schemes by architects and designers – and are clients demanding it? Collin Burry, principal at Gensler, said: ‘They’re starting to. I think it’s great that we’re thinking about these things. We’ve all been trying to design for inclusivity from a physical perspective, but now it seems things are developing more and more to take account of neuro aspects and that’s a really positive step.

Collin Burry, principal at Gensler
Collin Burry, principal at Gensler

‘We had a financial services client who hired a consultant to advise on such things, and they review all aspects of a design, including the colour palette, lighting, etc, and offer comments and input. It’s all part of creating spaces that meet the needs of all users, whether based on gender, physical ability or neuro factors.’

Tom Hofton, senior associate at LOM Architecture, said: ‘We have always tried to design with choice in mind. As workspace specialists, we create spaces that enable a variety of tasks and functions. We have probably only been really considering wellbeing and designing for the mind in the last 18 months to two years – at least that’s when these aspects were specifically put on the agenda. But in actual fact, we had already been doing many of these things anyway. There may not have necessarily been a specialist who would come in and assess it, but I think we had all been drawing on the experience that we all had in appreciating all the different kinds of people who use our building, and wanted to make it as accessible and enjoyable as possible.

Cressida Toon, director at Sonnemann Toon
Cressida Toon, director at Sonnemann Toon

‘So I think it has always been there. Clients may not have expressed it in such terms as neurodiversity, but I think it was always implicit in what they wanted to achieve, and I think we were already doing it to a certain extent.’

So who is formalising and refining this process? Are facility manager’s (FM) pushing the agenda? Helen Berresford, partner and head of ID:SR, Sheppard Robson’s interior design group, said: ‘I am not sure it is very often FM-driven. I don’t think FMs have always been as highly regarded as perhaps they should within organisations. Instead of just the person to go to with a complaint about the building, the past couple of years have perhaps set up the FM role as one that is really significant, because frankly you couldn’t get into your building if the FM had not been doing their job properly with regards to Covid safety.

Helen Berresford, partner and head of ID:SR
Helen Berresford, partner and head of ID:SR

‘I think as people have been used to being at home more, there will be a shift in how we might expect our offices to be run. Respect for those who are responsible for these things will become greater but very often the attention to detail is not prioritised from above and the FM is not always at the top table when it comes to making such decisions.’

The quest for inclusivity

‘With such a large number of the population now considered neurodiverse, how on earth do we design to meet all these different needs?’ wondered Berresford. ‘Well, the reality is that the population is diverse and has always been. It’s only because over the years society has wanted to simplify and order things that we have a perception of normal. That model has broken.’

Dan Pilling, workplace consultant at the TSK Group, said: ‘According to many recent reports, the role of the workplace post-Covid will now be about connection; reframing the office environment as a quasi-co-working space, complete with coffee bar, breakout seating and sofas. For those who don’t thrive in busy, noisy social spaces – introverts or those with distinct neurological needs – does this mean that their only choice is now to work from home?’

Berresford countered with the example of a project her firm completed mid-pandemic for the BBC in Wales. ‘They were very, very on board with neurodiversity because as an organisation they are quasi-governmental. They have an obligation to respect and respond to diverse populations, so they are very progressive and have a number of people who they champion in terms of diversity in the workplace. That approach is not just about the workplace we design, it’s actually embedded in the workforce.

Left to right: Helen Berresford; Tajal Rutherford-Bhatt, director at TP Bennett; and Thom Hofton
Left to right: Helen Berresford; Tajal Rutherford-Bhatt, director at TP Bennett; and Thom Hofton

‘On that project, we were able to work with an internal team that was diverse. And while we were all aware that they were not representing all possible diversity, they did have particular complexities that we could work with. It meant that instead of reactionary responses to design problems, we were able to develop solutions that met both visual and practical objectives.

‘For example, using flooring patterns to create enclosure and do away with physical boundaries is a useful technique, but strong and bold patterns can create some negative neural responses for some people. But rather than do away with pattern altogether and compromise on the design of the space, it can be about finding more subtle patterns that bring the benefits without the negatives.’

Design as a powerful tool

Cressida Toon, director at Sonnemann Toon, said: ‘We do a lot of design for healthcare projects, which includes focus on dementia and visual impairment, and it is a challenge that we also have to wrestle with. We recently worked on the Sight and Sound Centre for Great Ormond Street Hospital, which they wanted to have a very homely feel, and we started off with a flooring pattern that was quite striking but which needed to be toned down a little.’

left to right: Cressida Toon; Mark Jackson; Matt Jackson, director of BDC Architecture; and Collin Burry
left to right: Cressida Toon; Mark Jackson; Matt Jackson, director of BDC Architecture; and Collin Burry

At the centre, which is supported by Premier Inn, the staff , patients and families helped develop the level of colour and contrast in the patterned marmoleum floor. Sonnemann Toon wanted to achieve a playful and domestic feel but one that was not over stimulating or distracting. The staff, patients and families asked for variety in the type of circulation space. It needed to offer the ability to choose a setting that helps reduce stress and anxiety, be that quite intimate space, space where you can be with others or, importantly, outside space where you can be in fresh air and close to greenery.

Toon added: ‘The challenge is to find the middle ground where you don’t remove all stimulation and visual interest, but also you don’t overload people with sensory input. It needed to be calmed down enough that it did not overwhelm, without taking out the joy and excitement.’

Theresa Dowling, chair of seminar and FX editor
Theresa Dowling, chair of seminar and FX editor

Hofton asked: ‘How did you go about testing that? Who was giving that feedback?’

‘It was family groups – kids plus their families because really we are designing for both – through workshops where we laid out the ideas, plus specialists in some of these areas,’ explained Toon. ‘The feedback was a mixture of personal response and opinion combined with more empirical information.’

Berresford felt that this offered an opportunity to add many benefits. ‘For children going into hospital, it is a traumatic time, but if you have something to distract them it can help improve their mood. As designers, we’re inherently in tune with the impact design can have in this way, and this innate connection with fundamental skills that we all have is really key, alongside the science and understanding too – a combination of arts and science.’

TP Bennett director Tajal Rutherford-Bhatt added: ‘It’s about getting this balance right because it does affect us all. It’s probably fair to say that everyone has some kind of neurodiverse aspect to them – and people’s mood and feelings can even change on different days of the week so they could react to the environment around them in different ways.’

Evolution of the workspace

Berresford describes the original office of the 20th century as being almost a kind of factory. ‘It was purely about efficiency and designed to be monitored. Incrementally, over time, there have been reactions against that. We’ve seen that even with the ‘Hoxtonification’ of the city, with big banks and financial firms looking for different kinds of spaces. It’s part of what has almost been a human rebellion against these original inhuman spaces.’

Mark Jackson of Forbo
Mark Jackson of Forbo

Matt Jackson, director at BDG Architecture + Design, said: ‘It’s interesting that, over the years, people have started asking the questions. It had previously been almost a taboo subject to raise points about mental health and neurodiversity. Even with the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995, a lot of its requirements just seemed like common sense, but out of wellness, neural divergence has emerged something that we all recognise needs to be leaned into even more.

‘The ecosystem around it is widening further. Looking at people who are actually diagnosed, how is homeworking going for them? How might they have adapted their homeworking space to work well for them, and are there lessons we can learn from that which could be adopted in the workplace?’

He added: ‘We work with many creative agencies and many of the key figures there are very different thinkers. What is average or normal when it comes to the human mind? Some creatives definitely think differently to many other people and that’s why they do the work that they do.’

Berresford believes that expectations and assumptions within wider society have changed to better recognise the differences between us. ‘For me at school, I wasn’t academic in the traditional sense because my brain works in a different way – it was always more about colours, shapes [and] aesthetics. I was very aware that it was different to the perception of what I should be doing compared to the children I went to school with. I was lucky that I had parents who were creative too so that helped to normalise it for me, but even so, at school, the mainstream didn’t seem to be doing what I was doing.

‘But in some ways now it feels very exciting because there is an awful lot more awareness of the differences and sensitivities that we all have, and its also helped everyone else to question things that they might have previously put up with.’

Time to re-evaluate

Reassessing the status quo is increasingly important in meeting the needs of those with neurodivergent conditions. Toon said: ‘We do a lot of design for inpatient mental health and quite often this is retrofit, so you are squeezing plans into existing spaces. You can carefully plan the spaces for the beds and the nurse station for example, but it may not be clear on the plan how some of the corridors could become real pinch points at certain times of the day, and that kind of busy traffic could potentially be a real problem for such patients.

‘This requires a very detailed consultation process – or co-authoring – in which the people who are going to be using the spaces tell you all sorts of stuff about their experiences. As an architect, this can help you to unlock what this means in relation to the space and how it needs to work, the space planning, and the fabric, finishes and acoustics.’

right to left: Tom Hofton, Tajal Rutherford-Bhat and Helen Berresford
right to left: Tom Hofton, Tajal Rutherford-Bhat and Helen Berresford

Gensler’s Burry added: ‘In one project we worked on, the existing lobby area was like a huge mausoleum of stone. One employee, who was blind and commuted a long way into work each day, said that the most stressful part of his journey was when he entered the lobby. Everything is a hard surface, with no change in texture. It’s important to be having some of these conversations because they are not always intuitive until you hear someone’s own experiences of such a space.’

Berresford added that some particularly important factors from buildings in the past could include flickering lights that some people are affected by far more than others, and acoustics in a lobby space when a mass of people are transiting through. When working on a previous project, one of the employees was able to fi lm their experiences of arriving into the office, pointing out the things that negatively affected her experience of the space. She said it enabled designers to see and hear the effects of the disorientation and disruption that she feels just from arriving into the building’s entrance.

‘What we can do as architects also working on the interiors is to use this kind of journey to address the complexity of masterplanning, drawing on all the things you need to do to make really great cities inside – acoustics, lighting, flow – which in the past were not being addressed.’

Hofton agreed: ‘The experience is very important. We can all talk about the principles and work out how things will look on the plan, but it’s key to really understand how users will feel when moving through a space, in terms of sounds, smells and sights. For example, how do you make sure the coffee station or kitchen is sufficiently far away from a work desk so that someone doesn’t have to put up with smells of food all day? These are all the details that are being considered more now than they once were.’

He added: ‘We work for a major tech client and they are acutely aware of the need to provide spaces that work for everyone because they go out of their way to attract and recruit neurodiverse employees because some of the people with the core skills that they need often have these attributes too. Such companies can be very prescriptive about what the workspace needs to look like.’

BDG’s Jackson added: ‘There are some important everyday things that developers might think about in masterplanning and building development. There has been increased understanding of potential problem areas which have become more visible in the past five years. One is lighting. Long linear lighting can be quite difficult to process for some people who are neurodiverse, and non-direct lighting has more general wellness benefits.

Are lessons being learned? It seems quite diffi cult to change the whole landscape, so is it a question of being able to provide choice within a space? TSK Group’s Pilling said: ‘Thinking of the concept of routine, many people on a more neurodiverse spectrum struggle when their routine is disturbed; for example, differing working hours on each day, or sitting in a new, unfamiliar desk each time they come to the office. What tools can be deployed to give a sense of control back to those for whom daily change and disruption will cause undue stress and discomfort?’

Toon said: ‘I think choice is the key thing. In healthcare, some people feel that they are sucked into a system and then things are done to them that they have no control over. To design an environment that at least gives choice about how they are feeling with lighting or the temperature, instantly solves a lot of the problems and makes them far more open to the treatment that they will receive.

‘So for workers, the homeworking environment offers the ultimate in choice as it is your own space, so there is perhaps something in finding ways to offer this kind of choice in the office workspace because one set of conditions will not suit everyone.’

TP Bennett’s Rutherford-Bhatt replied: ‘Agile working can offer a choice of spaces, but on the other hand, people can be uncomfortable when they don’t know where their desk is going to be or where they will be assigned to. There is a need to address this so that, as many organisations look to encourage employees back to the office, they can ensure that they feel comfortable within the work environment.’

Adapting from home

Mark Jackson, key account manager at flooring manufacturer Forbo – which hosted the discussion at its London showroom – noticed a subtle but interesting shift in the way homeworking developed during lockdown. ‘When the pandemic first started, people seemed to be working purely functionally at home,’ he said. But over time, with more and more Teams meetings, you started to see how they were adapting their working spaces to make them feel better and more productive, such as better lighting or by having pictures around them. This made them feel more relaxed and is probably what people are looking for now back in the workplace. It’s true, employees are used to having an anchor point in the office where perhaps they can leave a picture or personal items, which hot-desking doesn’t really allow.’

Chairing the discussion, FX editor Theresa Dowling pointed out: ‘There are some tasks in most of our jobs that are best done in isolation, but this does not work indefinitely because eventually inspiration dries up. It’s not sustainable to be in isolation permanently.’

Berresford said: ‘Working from home the whole of the time is not necessarily nirvana, but it is about creating a well-balanced system. We all have introvert [and] extrovert parts to us, and so maybe going back to the workplace doesn’t have to be in the same kind of way as we left. It would be an intelligent approach to not necessarily be overly radical, because it can sometimes be about the more subtle tweaks. These are things we can affect as designers.’

Designing for individuals

Hofton suggested that a change in mindset on the part of those designing our workspaces could be the answer: ‘Generally speaking, we often seem to like to design in a standard cookie-cutter way. If you’re designing a building for thousands of people, it can all become formulaic and similar, when perhaps these spaces need to be designed more for the individuals. For example, over the last 10 years, we’ve all been moving towards the more agile desk, open-plan approach, but actually homeworking has shown us that perhaps we want our own design and our own space.

‘There’s always a danger that we try to design a one-system-fits-all building but it can be the wrong way to go, and we should instead look at ways to make it as bespoke as possible for the individuals who will be working within it.’

However, Berresford pointed out: ‘You can have overload of choice too. When it comes to deciding where to sit for example, it could mean people have to [plan their space] every single day. I think it needs a combination of patterns and loosening up, but still making sure that people know where things are.’

As another example of a change brought about over the past two years, an enhanced understanding of our colleagues’ and business contacts’ home lives has added a new dimension to our work relationships, says Hofton: ‘It’s a little humanising in a way. In the process of doing this, we have been more open about the work-life balance, working from home, and that we have a family. I think in many ways it is a benefit to understand that we are all in similar situations.’

Burry added: ‘Tech companies were already pretty good at that. They were using Slack, giving people flexibility to work from home, or even call in to meetings from the beach. For them, it seems to be more about what you as an individual are able to contribute, not what you are wearing or what you look like. So there has been an interesting societal shift during the pandemic and hopefully this stuff does collectively advance some of the things these tech companies have been doing for a while, because it’s refreshing.’

BDG Architecture + Design’s Jackson said: ‘A lot of work we have done has been about experiences, exploring in detail the different steps of the visitor or staff experience at a building, looking at ways to make the place engaging in every space. But again, if adding digital elements to this, it comes back to trying to make sure a space doesn’t then become too much for some, particularly with big-scale AV for example.’

‘I think it’s about offering a choice of routes,’ agreed Berresford. ‘With our project at BBC Wales, we basically had an introvert route and an extrovert route, and a wayfinding system that helped to landmark the key components, and with spaces you can stop off at. It means that you could be extrovert and head to the coffee station on your way in to your desk, or you can take the discreet route which is still inviting but just a little quieter and less open plan.’

‘There’s a moderateness that is needed in everything. It is the subtle iteration that can be the most effective. Change is always happening, and there may well be a pendulum that swings back and lets us all get back together in offices. If we were blindly going back to March 2020 and ignoring some of the new ideas and processes of the last 18 months or so then I think that would be a real shame.’

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