People ignore design that ignores people
Frank Chimero, The Shape of Design
Rethinking workplace design in the wake of covid-19 is the next big agenda item on every organisation’s ‘back-to-work’ list. However, along with design, the softer aspects of the work environment, which revolve around the state of physical well-being and psychological wellness of an individual, also share the light of revision.
Four out of five workers in the global workforce has been affected by the lockdowns and stay-at-home measures. The coronavirus pandemic may speed up the evolution of work. It will retool multiple industries as everything from conferences to collaboration to hospitality and commercial real estate are up for a rethought. It is the organizations’ priority in crisis response to ensure the health and safety of its employees, while still maintaining the business momentum.
The Clarion Call
Coronavirus is forcing enterprises to rethink the way they do business and staff employees. It is restarting conversations around workplace design, policies for security, business continuity, and accommodating remote workers as well as in-house staff. While architects and designers are at the helm of this discussion, a new course correction is slowing gaining pace, with valuable inputs from psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, historians, futurists, and healers. They will help us identify the ‘drivers’ that influence decisions (risk, don’t risk; love it or hate it; buy or don’t buy; follow or ignore rules; accept or adapt; etc). When the drivers are identified, they can be addressed to influence the future of design. Many of the ‘drivers’ are the perceived consequences of actions, often an emotional rather than an intellectual response.
While every organization will proactively take measures to do the needful,
this essay is an attempt to steer us onto a road less travelled.
What is essential is invisible to the eye.
“The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.” – Merriam-Webster
Put simply, empathy is our ability to see the world through other people’s eyes, to see what they see, feel what they feel, and experience things as they do. Empathy is important for us as designers and especially for design thinkers. It allows us to truly understand and uncover the latent needs and emotions of the people we are designing for. A deep understanding of the problems are realities of the people you are designing for results in a human-centered design approach. Design thinking is a human-centric, iterative process to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems. It is made up of five core phases: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test.
As designers, our creation is an empathetic service towards the user.
Empathy helps us gain a deeper understanding of people’s emotional and physical needs. The way they see, understand, and interact with the environment around them. It will also help us to understand how all of this has an impact on their lives, particularly within the contexts of investigation. To do so, we need to understand people’s environment, as well as their roles in and interactions with their environment.
The power of “averages” is a terrible way to design solutions for people. As a designer, your duty, is to create a unique solution, that surpasses time and space. It is no longer confined to the sense of physical space around the user. It is your ability to go skin-deep and reset the user’s responses in the mind – the place where it all begins. But you cannot achieve this if you have not lived an actual experience. This process involves observing, engaging, and empathising with the people you are designing for in order to understand their experiences and motivations, as well as immersing yourself in their physical environment in order to have a deeper personal understanding of the issues, needs and challenges involved. Only then will you derive a solution as unique to the user and his ability to use the space.
In words of a veteran, Prize For Doshi, Prize Winner 2018, Architect B.V. Doshi,
“Design is not merely dimensions. It is not chairs and tables and partitions. It is not a ‘product’ but rather a ‘process’ of continuous involvement. It is for real human beings. So, we need to ask them, what are their habits? How do they meet, how do they interact, where do they come from, how do they travel? Building then is incidental. Space should serve not provide; they are not a product”.
However, Covid-19 has made social distancing a new norm. Maintaining 6 ft distances, having face masks and protective shields, feels more like a war dress-up than workwear. The fact that you can contract the virus from absolutely anyone and anywhere, always makes you scared and anxious. If health is one all-time scare on one hand, there is an uncertainty of the economic slump catching up with business burn-outs, on the other. It is a one-of-a-kind, global scenario where all the nations, and its nationals are going through this helpless – handcuffed situation of wait and watch. Meanwhile, when the human race wakes up to safety, in both hope and despair, which helps in saving the world is creativity.
We inch our way back to a routine we once lived, almost half a year back. This time in the shadow of a health-scare, we cannot but shake-it-off. What looks like the loss of valuable time is infact an opportunity in disguise. As designers, like everyone else, we rushed our way through the accelerated pace of life and living, providing not serving, for every new need, every new query. Only a crisis actual, or perceived, produces a real change.
Most companies are only just beginning to think about how they might change their corporate workspaces. Some experts are of the opinion that the open floor plan could be redone with better consideration for personal space and stricter cleaning schedules. In addition to desk arrangements, designers and public health researchers have laid down directions to consider all the spaces people move through in an office—both open and sectioned off. No one knows what the future holds post-covid-19, but there are some indications of what might be coming. Anticipating what the future of the workplace will need, we might have to consider inter-disciplinary expert opinions, and not just from design.
“People’s expectations about their buildings are changing. The next time they get back to their offices, they’ll already be thinking differently.”
Director, Harvard’s Healthy Building Program
There are various gears to this change management process. The broad stroke is that, design re-thinking for workplace is on the cards…only this time, including the emotional forces in design.