Sensory-driven design is gaining traction

Psychological and physical safety needs are driving new design theories

November 02, 2020

From certain paint colors or sounds triggering sensory overload, to the heights of cash registers, modern building design aims to accommodate everybody.

But like so many things, COVID-19 is rewriting the rules. Architects and designers are having to quickly pivot to the raft of new safety issues, both in terms of mental and physical health. Are the aisles too narrow for social distancing? The smells of bleach and other disinfectants too overwhelming? Is there enough sidewalk space for outside seating?

“These are big issues and concerns driving design these days,” says Amy Sjursen, Director, Architecture with Big Red Rooster, a JLL company. "The dynamics of how people do things and how someone interacts with space has changed in such a short time and will continue to change."

For designers and architects and even society at large, this fundamental shift has reshaped our understanding of inclusivity through design. The pandemic’s repercussions are expected to be wide-ranging and will surpass just physical health concerns.

"There is a lot of expanded criteria we are designing for,” says Sjursen. “There’s also the social and emotional piece of it. We have to ask how people will process sense and space."

Empathy, inclusivity and design

Designing buildings and public spaces that work for everybody, no matter their needs, has become a priority over the last three decades. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 forced designers to pay attention to the ways people interact with environments inside and outside buildings, ensuring everybody could have similar experiences.

The regulation spawned all sorts of new concepts around designing with empathy.

“What started with ramps for people in wheelchairs or braille on elevators signs for the blind has now morphed into a much broader understanding of design empathy,” Sjursen says. “How can we use a holistic approach that anticipates others' experience and creates an environment that works for everyone's emotional and physical needs?”

COVID-19 is set to be the next evolution in this area of design thinking. To be sure, it remains early days, with uncertainty about how to make long-term decisions on spaces that will last decades given that regulations and buildings codes are often changing. Exactly how wide aisles will need to be, or how much outside seating restaurants and bars will need to accommodate for, remains up in the air.

However, more predictable are some of the physical safety and accessibility issues.

Sjursen says the psychological safety aspect of design will be far more sensory-driven. She points to frequent cleaning and disinfecting, which could trigger a psychological reaction and set off a chain of uncomfortable emotions that prompt a consumer to leave and not return. Or a person could be at a gym and feel unsafe due to ventilation or space concerns, despite the gym following all proper safety protocols.

And then there are plexiglass shields, modified entrance and exit pathways, signage, and other precautions that draw attention to how drastically things have changed.

Industries will adapt differently and within varying levels of urgency. Most offices had an immediate focus on keeping their employees physically safe. Retailers, restaurants and other essential services and businesses had to do a quick pivot as well. But architects are quickly realizing that nearly every public space will need to be rethought and redesigned with psychological and physical safety in mind.

”Just look at the entertainment sector. Even the way people experience music and concerts is changing with the concept of pods,” says Sjursen. “Everything is being reconsidered.”