DESIGNING TO SUPPORT NEURODIVERSITY
In recent years, there has been a long-needed and collective recognition of the diversity of human experiences, particularly in the realm of neurodiversity. Many studies have shed light on the impact that a workplace – whether open-plan or enclosed, featuring natural light or artificial – has on productivity, well-being and job satisfaction. As we continue to navigate the return to office, it’s imperative to ensure our workplaces accommodate diverse needs.
No matter the individual, people interact with workspaces in different ways; there is no one-size-fits-all approach that makes everyone happy. This insight and many others have continued to reshape the approach to commercial interior design.
Neurodiversity encompasses a spectrum of sensory differences, focus styles, ways of thinking and more, with approximately 15-20 percent of the global population identifying as neurodivergent. As a commercial interior design firm, it’s crucial for us to consistently create accessible and inclusive environments where everyone feels supported, valued and empowered to bring their authentic selves to work without hindrances.
Embracing Neurodiversity in Design
Designing to support neurodiversity isn’t about a complete overhaul of the typical design process; it’s about thoughtfully and subtly integrating features that cater to various perspectives without creating an undue spotlight on differences. Our aim is to create an inclusive workplace where different ways of thinking and interacting with an environment are supported. That said, there are components to consider before completing the design.
For example, we must consider aspects such as sensory stimuli, smells and ventilation, technology and meeting room needs and much more, overall creating a space that deploys clear and consistent design elements. Different neurotypes have varying preferences and sensitivities regarding light, noise, movement and beyond, so it is important to offer a variety of clearly navigable spaces that can flexibly suit people’s different visual, auditory and sensory needs.
Recognizing these differences and providing options that cater to various preferences fosters inclusivity.
Elements of Neurodiversity-Inclusive Design
Once we’ve determined the best path forward to create a space with inclusive design, we begin to incorporate certain elements that cater to the unique sensory experiences and requirements of every individual:
- Embracing Nature: Biophilia, the innate human tendency to seek connections with nature, offers a sense of calm and a grounded feeling. Incorporating elements like plants, natural light and views of the outdoors can significantly impact the well-being of those within a space.
- Mindful Patterns and Spaces: Bold or busy patterns can be overwhelming, especially in large meeting rooms. Opting for soothing, minimalist aesthetics minimizes sensory overload for a more inclusive meeting atmosphere.
- Balancing Light and Privacy: While natural light is desirable, excessive glass in large meeting spaces might make people feel exposed and exacerbate anxiety. Glazing film strikes a balance, allowing natural light while offering visual privacy, ensuring that individuals feel more comfortable in an already potentially overwhelming setting.
- Zones for Focus and Control: Particularly in open office setups, providing options for more private spaces is crucial. Areas designed for minimal distractions, with adjustable sound and lighting, empower individuals to control their environment, promoting productivity, regulation and comfort.
- Flexibility and Movement: Adjustability grants individuals agency over their workspace. Movement-friendly options like swivel chairs, standing height desks and walking paths not only accommodate fidgeting tendencies but also encourage movement, enhancing overall well-being.
- Intentional Space Design: Thoughtful circulation paths and strategic placement of gathering places to minimize noise and interruptions, can help ease anxiety and create a more harmonious and approachable environment overall.
- Clear wayfinding: Differentiating spaces, through color scheme or furniture layouts, and clear, simple signage aids navigation and creates a sense of comfort and familiarity.
Translating Theory Into Practice
In a recent project for a corporate client, we incorporated a walking path around the core space and introduced a game room for employees who focus better when they are moving and who thrive on social interaction. In this same design, we balanced large conference room areas with private phone rooms and small meeting spaces and placed them away from high-traffic areas to foster focused quiet work. To balance bright, energetic spaces in the office, we integrated more softly lit sections andprivate furniture nooks throughout for the employees who prefer less stimulating work areas.
In another recent project, we made sure to include a variety of workspaces to choose from. To promote equality, all private offices were located off the exterior with a circulation path around the perimeter, maintaining access to daylight and spectacular views. From privacy rooms and phone rooms located away from high-traffic areas to open spaces and meeting rooms of different sizes, we wanted to offer different levels of privacy, both formal and informal. Making the choices of workspace and purpose of furniture layouts clear through signage and wayfinding was equally important. Each “neighborhood” around the suite had a differentiating quality with furniture, finishes and art, making the office more easily navigable for all.
It’s important when designing with equity and inclusion in mind to ensure hierarchy is non-existent. We recently had the pleasure of designing for a law firm who wanted their office space to be more informal and where everyone felt more of a sense of equality. The design featured private, free-address offices that were the same size and could be reserved for the day. With the small office footprint, we were able to maximize the square footage while simultaneously maintaining a small, intimate feel. Incorporating a gym and an easily accessible outdoor space helped promote movement breaks and a passage to nature during the workday.
Cultivating Inclusive Workspaces
Designing for neurodiversity extends beyond physical spaces; it’s about cultivating a culture of inclusivity. By prioritizing sensory needs, promoting equality in spatial planning and celebrating individual contributions, we create workplaces where everyone feels valued and understood.
Neurodiversity-inclusive design isn’t a fleeting trend; it’s a paradigm shift in how we approach commercial interior design. It ensures that workspaces are not just functional but also welcoming and supportive of every individual’s cognitive differences. As we evolve, embracing neurodiversity becomes not just a design philosophy but a societal imperative, fostering environments where everyone thrives.