Neuro-architecture: why we need to weave in all the senses

How can we address a sensory and experiential disconnect in the workplace?  A more balanced and harmonious approach to engaging all the senses could make all the difference in an increasingly neuro-diverse world

As a workplace designer and mother of a child recently diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, I am increasingly aware that there is a massive and generally unacknowledged sensory and experiential disconnect in most workplaces.

On the one hand, many people in workplaces around the world are suffering from sensory overload, often blamed on ‘open plan’ environments. On the other hand, very few workplaces are designed to meaningfully engage our senses. So, it seems there is simultaneously both too much, and too little sensory engagement. How can we explain – and fix – what is happening here?

Since the early 2000s, an entire workplace ecosystem has grown around how we can better design spaces to meet the vision, aspiration and purpose of an organisation. Many of the tools that we use to formulate those design responses have been based on simplistic reductions of ‘workstyles’ (knowledge workers, process workers, mobile workers etc) or ‘personas’ (Laura rides her Vespa to work every day and needs a locker for her helmet before she gets her chai latte etc).

Moving beyond personas

In 2012, Susan Cain wrote the book Quiet which invited us think more deeply about one of the fundamental dimensions of personality – the introvert and the extrovert. This created an awareness for many workplace designers that an approach of ‘one size fits all’ doesn’t really work when it comes down to actual, real, individual people who never really fit into a category, workstyle or persona. This realisation has fuelled my belief that we need to move beyond this way of thinking and create spaces designed with neuro-diversity in mind.

Cain’s book also had a positive effect in raising awareness of the impact of audioception – the perception of acoustics and sound through our auditory sense (just one of the five main senses and, according to some, up to 21 other senses). However, very little time or attention has been spent thinking and designing through the lens of ‘neuro-architecture’ (where behavioural science meets architecture and design). Specifically, this refers to designing to engage all the senses in order to create a more neurologically harmonised sensory experience – one that weaves an experiential tapestry to create much more beautiful, memorable, comfortable and engaging places.

Experiencing the built world

We experience the world through information in the environment that our senses collect and our brain interprets. Our perception of architecture and the built environment is primarily through what we see – opthalmoception – as sight is the most dominant sense. We know this because (sighted) people almost always remember places through a lens of what things look like, less so by what they feel or sound like (although vision impaired people experience a different hierarchy as compensation).

Even so, we cannot help but interpret experiences holistically; that is, we don’t experience the world one sense at a time, and I believe there is an enormous opportunity for designers to push boundaries by using sensory harmony as a lens.

‘We cannot help but interpret experiences holistically…’

We have evolved in partnership with our natural environment, and our strongest, most memorable experiences are usually embedded with layers of polyphonic sensory information gleaned from the environment around us. For example, memories of hiking through an autumn forest will often contain a visual riot of colour, the sounds of dry leaves crunching underfoot, the smell of earthiness and the tingling feeling of fresh, chilled air on flushed cheeks hinting at a winter yet to arrive.

For me as a child, happy memories of family Christmas dinners contain the sounds of carol harmonies sung with my grandparents in German, the warm twinkle of candlelight, the taste of champignons in the sauce (a gustation memory) and the buzzing feeling of excitement as Christmas present wrapping paper is ripped off, crumpled and destroyed in great haste (a haptic memory). These rich sensory harmonies and Pavlovian reactions facilitate emotional connections to people, times and places, without which we would struggle to articulate why some memories and experiences are more dominant than others.

Sensory absence or overload

So, we can say with confidence that people are most effective, happy and engaged when all our senses are stimulated through interaction with the sights, sounds, scents, tastes and textures that are contained within our physical surroundings. In the workplace, design strategies that don’t include a level of harmonic sensory participation are likely to be experienced with either boredom due to the absence of sensory ‘texture’, or with sensory overload due to too much exposure to one or two of the senses (usually sight and sound), disrupting the balance that our minds and bodies have evolved to expect and relish.

Sensory overload happens when you’re getting more input from your senses than your brain can process. Things like multiple conversations going on in your immediate vicinity, strobing overhead lights, clashing colours on your screen or the smell of last night’s lasagne from the adjacent kitchenette can all bring on a feeling of being ‘stuck’.

Think of it like the little colour wheel that spins endlessly when your computer tries to do too many things at once – your brain can’t prioritise what sensory information it needs to focus on. The brain sends the body a message to ‘escape’ because it feels trapped by all the input it is getting, which starts a chain reaction that can lead to panic because of our primitive flight or fight response.

Sound and smell

Many if not most of us will have experienced an inability to focus in an acoustically ‘noisy’ environment which is often the primary criticism of an open plan environment. Ironically, it is also equally challenging to maintain focus in an acoustically ‘quiet’ environment – when a phone rings 20 desks away we are startled out of deep thinking and it can take 15 minutes to reach the same level again. To compensate, white noise is added to many offices to increase background activity, and this generally works really well until the building systems go into hibernation in the evening.

Smell is perhaps the most underrated, yet profoundly influential of senses as it connects to emotional and memory centres in the brain, and as you’ll know if you’ve ever sat near someone eating fish curry for lunch, it certainly has an effect on productivity. Alternatively, certain scents can increase alertness (peppermint) and calmness (lavender) thus positively impacting concentration. One client we work with has created their own unique scent which is used in arrival zones in workplaces around the country to create a sense of familiarity and connection whenever people arrive.

Cafés affect performance

With a firm eye on wellbeing, a café within a workplace is increasingly commonplace. While the menu on offer isn’t necessarily in a designer’s purview, it’s worth making clients aware that the things people eat and drink (and therefore taste, see, smell and touch) throughout the day absolutely affect the senses and therefore performance. A recent workplace café we designed was created with seasonal produce in mind – all prepared to be eaten raw or with cured, low temperature or slow cooking methods.  The internal and external planting in this ‘raw bar’ provides herbs, aromatics, fruits and vegetables all year round (a great low-carbon supply chain) that enhances the emotional and sensory experience of being in the space.

Sadly, texture in the workplace is one of most neglected of all the senses from a diversity perspective, as it should really be one of the easiest for designers to influence. Uniform, flat, smooth, plastic surfaces are used all too often in aid of minimised maintenance, cost and procurement ease. This could be offset with creatively using a broad palette of natural and where possible, recycled materials such as solid timber, brass and copper, brushed and split-face stone, leather, linen, wool, felt, goat and alpaca hair just to name a few, and this would go a long way to adding texture, lustre and tactile diversity.

‘Texture in the workplace is one of most neglected of all the senses…’

Workplaces (in fact, any places) should not be ­­purely functional, joyless containers, which is what they tend to be when we simply design for the visual sense. I passionately believe in the extraordinary power a well-designed workplace has to support and enable creativity, innovation, collaboration and to help high performing, neuro-diverse people to be their best; I believe too that if we were to harmoniously weave and engage all the senses, we would create even better places that people love.

Domino is a Principal at Hassell Studio, Australia
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