Design for Human Spaces

Our environment shapes our individual and collective behaviour so designing how it functions matters a lot.

Behavioural science has a fascination with who human beings are. Our environment is what surrounds us, yet there is relatively little comparative attention to the specific role that our environment plays in shaping our behaviour. If we are to Design for Humans that has to change.

By environment I am referring to the social, structural, and natural environments we live, work, and play in. These are how we build our cities, our institutions, and how the physical spaces in which we exist affect us.

This is about going beyond organizational and social psychology, which seeks and understand how people function with each other, yet still rarely looks at the interplay of people within systems. Systems, in this case, are those structural elements that connect place, space, and people. Just consider how people create and how that is affected by space and you can understand these distinctions. A great plan for getting work done at home is still limited by where we live, who lives with us, what is going on (literally) around us, and the space(s) we have to work in.

Physical Space

Designer and architect Enrique Martinez has discussed the role of the studio in shaping the learning experience with the design and the designer. As he points out:

The studio where design learning happens is a space of unbounded creativity, where you learn by trying. It is a space to seek clarity for work that keeps changing.

Enrique Martinez – 750 Max

With so much work done remotely during the pandemic period, separated from each other and largely digital, we’ve missed the tactile, visceral qualities that shape what we make. It’s not that remote and digital aren’t useful, it’s that they are fit for certain purposes and not others.

A Design for Humans strategy recognizes fit and purpose and how that differs based on the needs, circumstances, and the changing conditions surrounding them all. As Martinez points out, studio spaces support learning and framing design in ways that are tied to co-location. Being together and the serendipity that comes from shared time and space creates a learning and practice opportunity that is difficult to replicate.

This is why spaces – human spaces — require consideration in any thought of what we create for our ‘next.’

Beauty and Creation

Another vital contribution to creativity, happiness, and wellbeing — all factors that influence sustained innovation — is beauty. Beautiful work is about doing what’s meaningful, essential, and in service of something more than just a task. It’s the work that makes a difference to the worker and to those who benefit from the production of the work.

While certain products can have a beauty to them in how they appear or feel it is in their use within a context – spaces – where aesthetics makes its fullest contribution. To draw on the work of Steven de Groot and others who study organizational aesthetics, beautiful spaces inspire creativity and deliver innovation results that extend beyond the product to the organization itself.

Being in beautiful spaces doing work that we find attractive is tied together. While beauty is certainly subjective it’s effects on us are objectively powerful. Designing for Humans means taking aesthetics seriously as more than a ‘nice to have’ aspect of our work. Accounting for not only what we do but how and what kind of environments we do it is a factor in shaping high-performing, wellbeing-promoting work.

Sensory Spaces

Among the reasons we get ‘Zoom fatigue’ is auditory. Research suggests the lack of three-dimensional sound that we get from conversations with others over platforms like Zoom contributes to a lack of meaning and connection.

It’s easy to forget aspects of ‘in real life’ after many months of staying at home and working and creating online. A Design and Critical Thinking meet-up group that I am involved with regularly connects using a platform called Kumospace that requires people to ‘walk’ (using a cursor) into a room and circle with others in a space to have conversations with others. These ‘rooms’ are designed for specific purposes — a theatre for presentations, a lounge for casual conversations, and a salon for more intimate discussions (that even include digital versions of wine).

What this technology allows is for some semblance of space and, as importantly, audio modulation. The volume of voices goes up and down as you get closer to someone in the space.

This type of online space won’t replace a real face-to-face encounter, but when your group members from across Europe and North America gather it creates a more human space for us to get together.

Just as we might pay attention to the complex dynamics of smell, sound, space, and aesthetics in the physical world there are benefits for creating these conditions in a virtual space, too. Attention to these distinctions is what Design for Humans does — which is why its beyond human-centred design.

Understanding motivation, habit structures, and personality might all provide some insight into how we change and develop, but without attention to the spaces we work our scope of influence will always be limited. Creating true architectures of performance and wellbeing that anchor to environments that we live and thrive is the step we must consider as we design for innovation and for thriving as humans.

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