Interior Design Research Featured in Inner Magazine

Utilizing Design Creativity to Protect and Connect in Pandemic Times

The principles of proxemics serve to understand how we subconsciously navigate the space between one another based on our comfort level. However, the pandemic has removed that comfortable navigation and given us new guidelines: Stay six feet apart. How do these guidelines force designers to adapt? How can we help to protect people in public spaces? Can we make connections by designing common experiences? Ashlyn Powers and Pipa Bradbury answer these questions in their article titled, Utilizing Design Creativity to Protect and Connect in Pandemic Times, recently featured in Inner Magazine.

By Ashlyn Powers and Pipa Bradbury

September 14, 2020

Imagine, one year ago, how would you begin a design? Most might have started with a few conceptual goals. Communal. Vibrant. Community Feel. Open Floor Plan just to name a few. Communal and community feel seemed to be a trending design goal for almost every project type, from restaurants to workspaces, a sense of connection was always key to a successful concept. A year ago, the connection was a physical one. In today’s times, is it fair that we depend on yesteryears goals of this physical connection and only adapt these designs? We have been dealt a hand that no one wants, but it is here to stay and the design community can decide to fold or adapt and utilize concepts that transform spaces into safe and dynamic escapes from isolation.

Proxemics is the “study of the nature, degree, and effect of the spatial separation individuals naturally maintain and how this separation relates to the environmental and cultural factors”.1 Edward T. Hall is credited to be the pioneer in the field of proxemics and in 1968 established guidelines that have been referenced for interior design since its conception. He created four categories and established distances (in feet) that were preferred for such activity to occur. Intimate (less than one foot), Personal (two feet to four feet), Social (four feet to ten feet), and Public (ten feet and beyond).2 Fifty-two years later, the study of proxemics now has been turned upside down with the Center for Disease Control guidelines taking its place.

sketch showing how close people could stand together before versus how far they would stand after the pandemic

Seventy-two inches, six feet. This is now the bare minimum CDC suggested distance in any social situation.3 How do we as designers allot for this? Many restaurants have taken immediate action by taping off every other chair to prohibit close interaction. In places that used to serve as escapes, people are now met with restrictive signage, roped off areas, and rules for how to exist safely within spaces. A great way to make people feel unsafe is to tell them how to be safe within a space they currently are occupying. These restrictions are in place because our previously designed spaces were not designed to adapt and now area stark monument to how the world used to be. Let us not tell people how to be safe within a space, let us create safe spaces.

If this design “solution” of isolation and forceful separation continues, the pandemic mindset will never end and isolation will be the new normal. Every human on this planet is striving for connection, so yes let us use the guidelines as set forth by the scientists and doctors as a minimum physical distance but change the way we design by exploring different ways to connect. By developing how we design for these changes, we do not need to depend on special finishes or strictly sterile environments; instead, we meet these challenges head on and create artful experiences out of these restrictions.

Centralized features can be used as visual and auditory gatherings that connect those around it through the common experience. For instance, a simple vertical stream of water falling within the center of a space creates a serene sound that reverberates and resonates throughout and within a large area. This sound can travel around high-backed furnishings, partial height partitions, and sectioned seating. Even though you are physically within smaller groupings, every occupant is sharing a connection through sound.

This connection through common experience of water has more than just the benefit of providing a sound connection, “The presence of water has been proven to lead to reduced stress, increased feelings of tranquility, lower heart rate and blood pressure, and recovered skin conductance.”4 Water reminds occupants of the natural world within the built environment and has been proven to reduce stress, “auditory access and perceived or potential tactile access to water reduced stress in participants; and by Barton and Pretty (2010), who concluded that activities conducted in green spaces with the presence of water generated greater improvements in both self-esteem and mood than green environments without the presence of water.”5

Visually, the association can be achieved by centralized lighting sculptures, groupings of similar lighting fixtures, or common light levels within certain areas. Light has the power to create emotions, to make colors and intensity change before your eyes, and to direct your attention purposefully. Mixing in mirrors strategically placed with lighting can create a sense of mystery as well as cleverly providing fun unexpected visual connections. A sense of mystery is “a spatial condition characterized by the promise of more information manifested by the presence of partially obscured views or other sensory stimuli that fascinate and entice the individual to travel deeper into the environment”6

In opposition of creating mystery, another important need in interior design is to create a sense of understanding7, occupants need to be aware of their surroundings. This need for understanding can also facilitate another visual connection by creating unblocked views throughout the space. A few ways to accomplish this, as illustrated below, include: Provide minimum focal lengths of 2′.20 feet (6 meters), preferably 100 feet, incorporate an information-rich prospect view by designing with or around an existing or planned savannah-like ecosystem, body of water, and evidence of human activity or habitation, limit opaque partitions (e.g., workplace conditions, landscape hedges) to 42 inches in height.8

Large central features and open visual fields may not be possible in the scope of many projects but achieving the same essence of creating connection through audio stimulation can be. Let us be creative in our planning, imagine a radial furniture layout resembling a flower connecting to nature. That connection emphasized with a biophilic design feature cascading behind, accented by beautiful suspended lights highlighting the lush vibrant color.

sketch of furniture layout in a radial shape, resembling a flower

The separated layouts of furniture can have varied solutions of designed auditory zones that can create intimate groupings or be varying in auditory intensity. These zones can vary from the quiet space with low ceilings and soft surfaces for more intimate feeling settings or purposeful loudness caused by hard surfaces. It has been proven that introducing ambient sounds based on the sounds of nature promotes creativity.9 The loudness, if controlled correctly, will connect others by hearing those around minimizing dead air caused by physical separation. It is like hearing a train whistle in the night, even though you are alone within your bed, you hear the world moving and know that you are not the only one awake.

Utilizing visual and auditory designs now thrusts us into the world of experiential and emotional design.

Many designs of the part have neglected these aspects as function and form has controlled our budgets. Clients focused on capacity and high turnover but this is the way of the past. With public spaces and restaurants beginning to open back up, we are not seeing the resurgence of attendance that was expected. Why? People are feeling vulnerable and scared, they do not feel that these spaces properly separate nor do they provide the escapism that they once did. Bygone are these designs of the past, as those solutions can no longer achieve their original goals with the same resonance as they once did. Design has followed similar principles of proxemics for years with minor tweaks that have slowly metastasized. Then, in 2020, we were hit with an opportunity for change. This pandemic, as devastating as it is, can be an opportunity for designers to create safe and dynamic spaces whilst bringing back connectivity with creative emotional design experiences. Let us not depend on moving chairs further apart, let us redesign the seat.

  1. “Proxemics.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster. Accessed May 13, 2020. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/proxemics
  2. Hall, Edward T., Ray L. Birdwhistell, Bernhard Bock, Paul Bohannan, A. Richard Diebold, Marshall Durbin, Munro S. Edmonson, J. L. Fischer, Dell Hymes, Solon T. Kimball, Weston La Barre, Frank Lynch, S. J., J. E. McClellan, Donald S. Marshall, G. B. Milner, Harvey B. Sarles, George L Trager, and Andrew P. Vayda. “Proxemics [and Comments and Replies].” current Anthropology 9, no. 2/3 (1968): 83-108. Accessed May 13, 2020. jstor.org/stable/2740724
  3. “How to Protect Yourself & centers for Disease control and Prevention. centers for Disease Control and Prevention, April 24, 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/prevention.html
  4. Ryan, Catherine, William Browning, Joseph Clancy, Scott Andrews, and Namita Kallianpurkar. 2014. “BIOPHILIC DESIGN PATTERNS Emerging Nature-Based Parameters for Health and Well-Being in the Built Environment.” Archnet-IJAR International Journal of Architectural Research , no. Volume 8 Issue 2 (July): 62-76. https://earthwise.education/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Biophilicdesign-patterns
  5. Ryan, Catherine, William Browning, Joseph Clancy, Scott Andrews, and Namita Kallianpurkar. 2014. “BIOPHILIC DESIGN PATTERNS Emerging Nature-Based Parameters for Health and Well-Being in the Built Environment.” Archnet-IJAR International Journal of Architectural Research, no. Volume 8 Issue 2 (July): 62-76. https://earthwise.education/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Biophilicdesign-patterns
  6. Ryan, Catherine, William Browning, Joseph Clancy, Scott Andrews, and Namita Kallianpurkar. 2014. “BIOPHILIC DESIGN PATTERNS Emerging Nature-Based Parameters for Health and Well-Being in the Built Environment.” Archnet-IJAR International Journal of Architectural Research, no. Volume 8 Issue 2 (July): 62-76. https://earthwise.education/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Biophilicdesign-patterns
  7. Ryan, Catherine, William Browning, Joseph Clancy, Scott Andrews, and Namita Kallianpurkar. 2014. “BIOPHILIC DESIGN PATTERNS Emerging Nature-Based Parameters for Health and Well-Being in the Built Environment.” Archnet-IJAR International Journal of Architectural Research, no. Volume 8 Issue 2 (July): 62-76. https://earthwise.education/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Biophilicdesign-patterns
  8. Ryan, Catherine, William Browning, Joseph Clancy, Scott Andrews, and Namita Kallianpurkar. 2014. “BIOPHILIC DESIGN PATTERNS Emerging Nature-Based Parameters for Health and Well-Being in the Built Environment.” Archnet-IJAR International Journal of Architectural Research, no. Volume 8 Issue 2 (July): 62-76. https://earthwise.education/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Biophilicdesign-patterns
  9. Ryan, Catherine, William Browning, Joseph Clancy, Scott Andrews, and Namita Kallianpurkar. 2014. “BIOPHILIC DESIGN PATTERNS Emerging Nature-Based Parameters for Health and Well-Being in the Built Environment.” Archnet-IJAR International Journal of Architectural Research, no. Volume 8 Issue 2 (July): 62-76. https://earthwise.education/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Biophilicdesign-patterns

Read the rest of Inner Magazine: Issue N4 here.