How can we design places and spaces with everyone in mind?


As an industry we’ve got better at designing for physical accessibility, but we have much further to go when it comes to thinking about how we design for our minds.

Neuro-inclusive buildings like New Broadcasting House in Wales, the inclusion of sensory rooms at many of the UK’s top football clubs, and the design of the UK’s future infrastructure like High Speed Two’s Old Oak Common station recognise this need at the heart of their design and user experience. It’s setting a standard that all designers need to respond to.

The introduction of PAS643, the first building design standard for sensory and neurological needs by the British Standards Institute marks a significant step in this journey, highlighting just how important it is to consider everyone’s experience when designing places and spaces.

It’s estimated that about 15% of people in the UK are neurodivergent – a term that recognises the variety in the way we speak, think, move, act, and communicate.

Neurodiversity in its broadest sense includes people with autism, ADHD, dyslexia, depression, anxiety disorders, and dementia, but boundaries and definitions are very personal and can be hard to define.

So how can we design for such diverse and varied experiences? We need to better understand these experiences, and any barriers, and build them into our thinking.

Understanding the barriers neurodiverse people face

Speaking to people who consider themselves neurodiverse helped us understand the potential barriers they might face. For example, for someone with autism it might be common to experience sensory overload when out and about, as well as feelings of being overwhelmed or anxious. Using noise-cancelling headphones, or memorising routes before leaving the house are some common coping mechanisms. But simple design features could help too – such as matt finishes that don’t reflect light, intuitive wayfinding, and identifiable quiet zones.

If you were one of the 85,000 people in the UK with dementia, you would likely experience frequent and sudden changes in short-term memory. Although you might be determined to maintain your independence, you could also be nervous about making mistakes or appearing incapable to others. As a result, it’s common for people with dementia to seek out places, objects and people that are familiar when they’re feeling insecure, confused, or disorientated. Design features such as shorter walking distances, regular seating and simple signage with a combination of words and pictures can make life easier.

It’s clear from our research that design requirements for shared spaces are complex and often conflicting. Because everyone’s experience is unique, it’s not possible to definitively link particular design interventions to any specific condition or symptom. But, drawing on our placemaking and street design experience gained on projects across the UK and globally, we’ve devised a high-level process and key themes that can help make places more accessible for all and support mental health.

Want to know more about designing spaces and places with everyone in mind? Read WSP’s white paper which highlights examples of well-designed spaces and places and explores four personas for users with different neurodiverse needs: Download White Paper

Sarah Taylor is an Associate Director at WSP in the UK 

David Symons is the Global leader of WSP’s Future Ready innovation programme and UK Director of Sustainability 

This article was originally featured on WSP Insights on 24th May 2023

Feature Image Source: DesigningforthemindWSPCOMThumbnail

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