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ACD Conversation Lab 9: Sensory Design - Process and Practice

Thank you to everyone who joined us for the second part of our conversation lab about Sensory Design.

Following a stimulating discussion in September, in October we delved straight back into looking at the more practical side of Sensory Design, what works well and what hasn’t worked as well in existing public spaces and where we should be looking to integrate the senses more in the process of collaborative design.

Sharing our sensory experiences

We opened the discussion with examples of spaces that have been designed as non-inclusive when it comes to the senses;

  • Large, open plan offices and universities designed with future-looking, sustainable air flow systems that fail to consider the overwhelming and impersonal impact of acoustics levels and noise impact on the people using them

  • Experiences in shops; dark perfumed spaces that are overpowering and disorientating

  • Supermarkets with towering shelves, changing lights, colours and temperatures and their impact on mobility and accessibility.

Drawing closer to the detail we exchanged experiences of surfaces that are uncomfortable, smells that are horrendous and other spatial qualities that can trigger strong reactions such as haptics, olfactory (patterns), visual (vibrancy of colour) and audio (sounds).

The senses are too often overlooked and while buildings and spaces are designed for one set of parameters, unintended non-inclusive consequences are frequently the result.

Tools for understanding sensory design

We discussed the need to develop tools for understanding people’s lived experience of a place, implementing activities and developing a new vocabulary that brings people into the design process as early as possible, identifying moments of sensory deprivation or heightened senses at the drawing board, so to speak.

Empathy tools and an open dialogue are required to build a greater appreciation of sensory sensitivity. As designers, we cannot understand a sensitivity unless we experience something for ourselves or engage with individuals as they perceive things in a space.

We were introduced to a new draft British Standards document developed by the BSI and led by Jean Hewitt which helps to define a new vocabulary for the design of the public realm for neurodiversity, an incredible practical resource to explore how people react to particular spaces and an important step in changing the narrative of sensory and inclusive design. See 'Design for the mind – Neurodiversity and the built environment':

Integrating senses into Stages of design

‘Meanwhile’ spaces have been around for a little while as participatory urban interventions, and we explored the question of whether we can afford to run these spaces for a long period of time to really test out sensory requirements. How often are ‘meanwhile’ spaces really equipped with the right spatial testing? Do they need to be around for 5 years or more to extract meaningful conclusions for improved inclusive spaces? What is the cost of a long term ‘meanwhile’ space, compared to the ongoing costs of a failed, non-inclusive new space?

It was agreed that temporary interventions are very useful and powerful tools for asking the questions before making permanent solutions, and that part of the challenge of existing practice is the speed of design.

There is a need for more time to experience different qualities of spaces, speak to different communities and hear from wider perspectives. It was thought that people are not trying new things as they are risky, haven’t been previously tested or won’t get approved, and this leads to repetition of past designs resulting in standardised spaces that continue to not meet the needs of their users.

Looking more closely at the stages of design, we considered introducing longer time periods between brief writing and occupancy, for conversation and evaluation. We touched on the role of policy and considered whether every space should have a degree of piloting as part of policy.

We considered where all of the complaints and notes from the public about non-inclusive public realm go when they are submitted to local Councils. It was agreed that some of these letters and complaints from users, alongside work that advocacy agencies have been doing for years, would serve as an excellent source to understand the terminology and feedback of people’s experiences e.g. new traffic lights, crossings, spinners, poor maintenance, textured surfaces etc.

Steps for the future

Extracting some actions and steps that we can take as professionals of collaborative design, we identified a few practical routes that ACD hopes to explore further with its membership in 2022.

  • Evaluate existing spaces: understand what works and doesn’t work as well. This is an opportunity to test things out and is more likely to get the public and local communities on board if we’re not starting with a blank slate. This is an opportunity for post-occupancy survey and evaluation to gather feedback and enrich the vocabulary

  • Rapid testing or building ‘meanwhile’ spaces: let people experience what new and other spatial and sensory qualities could be over a longer period of time.

  • Expand toolkits, descriptors and vocabulary: how to describe places in ways that are expansive, explore tools for searchable place attributes. 'Understand your dictionary and guidelines', but also do sound walks and sense walks to test it.

  • Incorporate into multiple stages of the design process: including brief writing stage, procurement and policy, using the right type of language. Include particular people from the community along the way, remembering that not all designs must tick all boxes.

We opened many doors in this month’s conversation lab and hope to continue exploring these threads through the coming year with you. We agreed to begin with seeking out good practice for inclusive design, identifying progressive local councils and regions and to use the ACD network as an opportunity for sharing and developing our own good practice guide.

Do you have something to add from your own professional experience? We would love to hear from you.


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