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Responsive Environments & Designing for COVID-19

Written by David Jackson, Founder & Director – Seven Hills Workspace

Rules, regulations, and more rules. That is all we see now on social media and the news. This is what you can and cannot do. This is fine, but in the world of design, it is important that we do not let this black and white structure impact our creativity.

This post will share some concepts that will hopefully encourage designers to think more laterally when designing a space. As you will know, it is so important to highlight that interior design is not just about the aesthetics of a space, but it is about the user experience of the environment – the UX design of the office.

The concepts are taken from a study written in 1985 titled Responsive Environments, A Manual for Designers by Bentley et al. Whilst the ideas in this study are modelled around town planning, there is a strong relevance to the development of interior spaces, and more importantly in the modern day, COVID-19.

It defines a set of guidelines which make an environment ‘responsive’ to the needs of the user, in other words, a flexible and adaptable environment. You don’t need to stick to each one, they are just to make you think differently and question your process. They are separated into seven sections, which I believe help to breakdown and check compliance with social distancing measures and COVID-19 safety.


The simplicity of moving through an environment. This is defined by the paths and objects placed within the space. It is critical in defining where people can and cannot go. A path may exist, but if it is not obvious it will remain unused.
How will people move through your space? Is it clear what is accessible and what isn’t?


The range of uses or activities available in any given environment. This fits alongside permeability, a place that is easily accessible is irrelevant unless it offers a variety of experiences. In regards to the design process, the demands are assessed for different types of uses, and then the widest mix of activities that are possibly feasible can be incorporated into the proposal.
What do each of your spaces mean? How many purposes do they have?


Understanding and constructing a mental map of the environment. A network of paths does not necessarily mean that the space is legible. For example, lowering the office landscape can help an employee comprehend and calculate where they need to be at any one time.
How easy is it for people to understand your space?


The degree in which a space can be put to multiple purposes. An example is a room where changing the configuration of furniture changes its use from a dining hall to an area for a party. Your design should consider spatial organisation that is ideal for the widest range of activities and uses.
How can your space be adapted?


A quality that links to the sensory experiences such as sight, smell, touch, and sound. Ensuring the right level of sound is especially important in an office, and sight has the strongest link to the other guidelines in relation to paths and creating a heightened sense of awareness on where to go.
How does your space make you feel?


The extent of being able to adapt an environment to suit needs. Customising an environment can be anything from moving chairs to changing the entire layout. Or even a personal cleaning kit, the personal interaction goes a long way with comfortability.
How do you interact with your space?

Visual Appropriateness

Whether people can correctly interpret the appropriate use of the environment, this can be through visual cues such as colours or signs. This combines well with variety, legibility, and robustness. An example of poor visual appropriateness would be rows of identical desking with no identification of the difference.
What defines the areas in your spaces?

Hopefully at least one of the above will provide a different viewpoint if you ever hit ‘designer’s block’! Keep positive and stay well.

Download referenced study here

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