Pamela Buxton writes about how interiors created with neurodiversity in mind are appearing in a variety of locations, with designers more and more focused on making spaces that are pleasant for all

Words: Pamela Buxton 

All Images: Jack Hobhouse

Are you designing with neurodiversity in mind? An estimated 20% of the population are neurodivergent in some way, whether it be those with dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD, autism or dementia. But how many workplaces and public environments take their needs into account in their design? The emerging interest in designing for neurodiversity can perhaps be best thought of as a strand of inclusive design, or of wellness.

A steering group has started work on a new publicly available specification (PAS) standardisation document focused on designing for a neurodiverse population. This is at a preliminary stage for possible incorporation into a BSI standard. The work is being informed by a scoping study, Design for the Mind, produced by The Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design in 2017. The centre has experienced a recent increase in interest in this area.

ID:SR’s design of the 14,000m2 HQ for BBC Cymru Wales in CardiffID:SR’s design of the 14,000m2 HQ for BBC Cymru Wales in Cardiff

‘We’ve definitely had more interest in the area of neurology and the mind, and how that can impact the experience of the environment,’ says Dr Katie Gaudion, a senior research associate at the centre who has researched the sensory preferences in workplace and living environments for adults with autism.

By its nature it is not an exact science, according to Jean Hewitt, senior inclusive design consultant at Buro Happold, and a member of the BSI Committee for Accessible and Inclusive Environments. ‘The built environment is currently only designed for the 80% of the population who are neurotypical,’ she says. ‘We need to make sure we create environments that are pleasant for everyone – 15-20% is a really large part of society, so it really does matter.

ID:SR’s design of the 14,000m2 HQ for BBC Cymru Wales in CardiffID:SR’s design of the 14,000m2 HQ for BBC Cymru Wales in Cardiff

‘If you’re neurodiverse, you’re much more likely to have a mental health issue. If the building is constantly not suitable for you, even day-to-day routines can be a challenge,’ she says.

Hewitt adds there is also a commonality of certain sensitivities between those who are neurodiverse and people who are neurotypical but have other conditions such as migraines or vestibular/balance difficulties. These sensitivities may be to lighting brightness and flicker, for example, or some patterns. According to Hewitt, many of those who are not neurotypical experience sensory overload to light or patterns to varying degrees. Ease of navigation is another issue.

The solutions may be a combination of more careful overall design and the use of assisted technology, such as the flexibility to turn the lights down in individual workspaces or the addition of a digital overlay to screens, for example. Specific factors to be aware of are hypersensitivity to acoustics or visual noise.

‘We know that patterns that do not appear in nature, such as strongly contrasting linear, graphic patterns and those in black and white are particularly problematic, including strong stripes,’ says Hewitt.

She adds that solutions can be achieved in various ways including toning down areas of stark contrast and choosing patterns that occur in nature – for example, fractal patterns – which are less likely to cause sensory overload. It is also important to think carefully about where patterns are located within the workplace so as to minimise the potential disturbance in the peripheral field of where someone may be working for any length of time.

There is a clear overlap with the wellness agenda in the use of natural materials and imagery, muted colours, and good lighting design. ‘Lighting is incredibly important – bright lighting and glare are particularly problematic. You definitely shouldn’t be able to look directly at a light source and feel glare,’ says Hewitt, who was an adviser on what is probably the best example of a workplace that has been specifically created to accommodate neurodiversity: BBC Cymru Wales Central Square, designed by ID:SR. She has also been advising ID:SR on its design of new office environments for BT, which is currently at an early stage.

The BBC’s Welsh HQ is conceived as a colourful civic space with a variety of areas to suit different ways of workingThe BBC’s Welsh HQ is conceived as a colourful civic space with a variety of areas to suit different ways of working

‘What I love about neurodiverse design is it shines a light on design as an enabler for better-quality environments,’ says Helen Berresford, head of ID:SR, who sees a great opportunity for workplaces to be richer and healthier, rather than bland, dead, corporate spaces. In doing so, the design of the environment can be not only sympathetic to neurodiversity, but to people in general. ‘Neurodiversity is almost like a turbocharged strand of well-being – exceptional good practice in how you treat your teams,’ she says.

‘It’s not about money; it’s about an attitude of mind. Offices should be places with a great deal of variety and softness and subtlety. You can have humane spaces that don’t just help those who are on the spectrum.’

Berresford is optimistic about the uptake of interest in this area, which she sees as part of a societal shift towards greater open mindedness about diversity. Certainly by taking out some of the major irritants in the name of neurodiversity, such as poorly designed lighting, everyone stands to gain. ‘What’s been pioneered at the BBC might become the new normal,’ hopes Berresford. Strides have already been made, helped by the low costs attached – unlike putting in new lifts, designing for neurodiversity does not have significant space or cost implications on top of normal fit-outs. This progress has been driven, thinks Hewitt, by ‘knowledgeable clients who care about their staff’, such as the BBC, and organisations such as universities.

Many airports and schools now have quiet rooms as a refuge for those with sensory overload. Some supermarkets have a regular ‘inclusive shopping hour’ with dimmed lights and reduced loudspeaker announcements.

The sensory retreat at the Etihad Stadium has subdued lighting and includes sensory items such as fibre opticsThe sensory retreat at the Etihad Stadium has subdued lighting and includes sensory items such as fibre optics

Pioneered by charity The Shippey Campaign, an increasing number of sports venues now include sensory rooms, including Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and Manchester City. These spaces are designed to provide a safe environment for watching the match, and also include a calming area to help those who may feel overwhelmed.

‘Clubs are now seeing it as a norm,’ says Keren Wells, sensory product and project specialist at Rhino Sensory, which has completed several sensory rooms at sports venues including Manchester City. Quiet rooms are also being planned at the new Museum of London, which will also consider neurodiversity when designing exhibitions.

Designing for neurodiversity is part of the inclusive design strategy for the HS2 rail link. According to HS2 inclusive design lead Neil Smith, this will form an integral part of technical standards rather than being a consideration late on in the design process. ‘It isn’t a design detail. It has to be considered at the starting point as part of the decision-making process,’ he says. ‘It’s something we should grapple with as part of our standard design processes.’

HS2 stations will include quiet rooms for those who may feel overwhelmed by the busy environment, and station and train designs will take account of the need for clearly legible wayfinding as well as appropriate lighting, acoustics and finishes. The variety of sensory responses presents challenges.

‘Everyone has their own trigger points. All senses are affected – smell can be a significant issue as much as noise or visuals. From a design point of view, we are still learning what this means,’ says Smith.

While the growing interest in designing for neurodiversity is clearly a good thing for everyone, creating standardised recommendations is a challenge due to the range of different responses experienced by individuals. Designers should always be mindful of idiosyncratic individual responses, according to Dr Gaudion of the Hamlyn Centre. She advises that hand-in-hand with creating the physical design for an inclusive, neurodiverse workplace is the need to create an atmosphere where people feel comfortable expressing preferences that are then understood.

The benefits of designing for a neurodiverse population are two-way, according to Dr Gaudion, who is planning research into how working with neurodivergent people can enrich the design process. She feels that designers could benefit from being more attuned to the sensory, visceral qualities of the environment: ‘There’s a real opportunity for designers to collaborate more widely with neurodivergent people,’ she says.

Case Study

BBC CYMRU Wales Central Square, Cardiff Designer ID:SR

The BBC’s Welsh HQ is conceived as a colourful civic space with a variety of areas to suit different ways of working

Encouraged by its client, ID:SR’s design of the 14,000m2 headquarters for BBC Cymru Wales looked to broaden the definition of inclusivity in the workplace by incorporating considerations around neurodiversity into the design decisions. The result, says the practice, allows ‘a greater range of people to do their best work whilst also creating vibrant spaces for all’.

As well as discussing the project with inclusivity consultant Jean Hewitt, ID:SR talked with BBC staff members, including one who was supersensitive to fluctuating noise levels. By wearing a headset that simulated their experience of space, ID:SR’s designers could understand at first hand the challenges of sensory hypersensitivity. This powerful experience helped shape their design approach, which was also supported by the BBC’s own neurodiversity initiative, BBC Cape (Creating a Positive Environment). With a ‘street’ running through the building, the workplace is conceived as a colourful civic space with a variety of areas to suit different ways of working. The designers were mindful of the need to create a simple navigating system to make it straightforward to find your way around the building, and to see from the entrance where you are heading before you begin your journey – something particularly appreciated by many who are neurodiverse.

‘The biggest challenge was navigation. It’s all very well having nice spaces without flickering lights, but how do you get to them?’ says Helen Berresford, head of ID:SR.

‘We stacked up meeting rooms on a bridge link and made them in punchy colours so that you could see them… creating obvious landmarks using colour and texture to help.’

The BBC’s Welsh HQ is conceived as a colourful civic space with a variety of areas to suit different ways of workingThe BBC’s Welsh HQ is conceived as a colourful civic space with a variety of areas to suit different ways of working

ID:SR worked with Welsh creative students to come up with textile patterns to aid with this navigation. They hit a problem when feedback from one of the client group identified an issue with the organic pattern being too much – not when seen from a distance but when viewed from close-up. But rather than abandoning the concept, the solution was to retain the pattern on the outside but mute it on the inside of the rooms, to give a calmer, softer and less distracting effect for those likely to be inside them for significant periods of time.

The result, says Berresford, was ‘enticing, glowing boxes when you walk through the space, but on the inside they’re soft, muted, watermarked’.

Similarly, lighting levels and colour choices throughout the project were made with neurodiversity in mind.

Case Study

Manchester City FC Sensory Room, The Etihad Stadium, Manchester

The sensory retreat at the Etihad Stadium has subdued lighting and includes sensory items such as fibre opticsThe sensory retreat at the Etihad Stadium has subdued lighting and includes sensory items such as fibre optics

Designers Rhino Sensory UK Manchester City commissioned Rhino Sensory to create a sensory room at the Etihad as part of the club’s commitment to making match days accessible for all.

The area is designed to meet the needs of young fans with sensory processing issues who can find the match-day experience overwhelming.

Features include football-themed beanbags and soundproofed glass that offers fans and their families a great view of the game without overstimulating their ears. Dedicated seating is also available for those who want to watch the match in the stadium itself, and inside there is also a sensory retreat, which according to Rhino’s Keren Wells helps fans calm down if things get too much for them.

This area has subdued lighting and includes sensory items such as a bubble tube, fibre optics and an interactive projector. Importantly, says Wells, the user is able to take control of this equipment by altering colours, movement or the projections.

The room, which can be viewed for suitability in advance, opened at the end of 2019 after a number of trials (although it is currently not open to the public due to Covid-19 restrictions on the attendance of sporting events).

‘The positive feedback we received means we know that this is a space which will help those with sensory processing issues enjoy their experience without the sometimes overwhelming sounds, sights and crowds of a usual match day,’ says Danny Wilson, operations director at Manchester City.

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