Design for the Mind

Have you ever stopped to wonder why much of the general guidance on access, seems to extend not much further than a brief mention of way-finding when access relates to people with neurological needs, and wondered whether there was more to the subject?

Yes there is more to the subject but, one usually has to hunt for it.  Dementia Services Development Centre and the National Autistic Society are amongst those who have developed understanding of the subject but this isn’t general knowledge.

Design for the Mind image

The Centre of Accessible Environments published a fuller version of this blog as an article of mine in their Autumn 2012 issue of Access by Design.  More recently a number of us have been providing advice to the development of PAS 1365 “Code of practice for the recognition of dementia-friendly communities,”  a document sponsored by the Alzheimer’s Society..  Which is soon to be published by the British Standards Institute.  However…


The Need for Collective Guidance

For some while now, there has been a growing recognition that something needs to be done in order to address the current lack of collective guidance on this subject of Design for the Mind beyond one area of diagnosis.  Ultimately, it would seem to make sense for BS8300, the most recognised source of information on access and inclusive design to be updated.  Nevertheless, due to the lack of the attention given to the subject of design and the mind, it would seem to make sense to approach any upgrade in an incremental way, starting with guidance and then later extrapolating what aspects of that guidance warrants being incorporated into standards documentation.  Once the subject has achieved sufficient exposure on its own accord, then it would make sense for BS8300 to incorporate relevant neuro-diversity access standards into BS8300.

Relevant to Everyone

What ought to be emphasised is that there are neurological and psychological aspects of built and information environments that affect everybody to varying degrees, but that for some people their experiences are more acute.    In some circumstances the built and information environment can become disabling to those endeavouring to access them.  What then ought to be the approach to any guidance? It is suggested that the overarching principles of any guidance ought to be from a universal design approach, relevant to everyone – but more particularly to:

  • Enabling people to achieve participation, activity, enjoyment, wellbeing and fulfilment
  • Enabling independence and choice within everyday environments (where they live, work or visit) for people with neuro-atypical experiences
  • Enabling independence and choice both within and beyond safeguarding environments for more vulnerable people with neuro-atypical experiences
  • Recognising the needs of people providing personal assistances and support

Engaging with the Audience

In formulating guidance however, it can be forgotten that the pursuit of inclusion is as much about informing and enabling those who are unawares – as it is about including people with particular needs.  It is important to provide as much tangible information as possible about the subject as generalities and the lack of tangible information tends to hinder the subject being taken seriously. It is therefore important to identify and seek to address key target audiences in a way that understands the nature and the needs of these audiences.  It can be too easy to assume that listeners will automatically agree or understand.  I believe it is therefore important to ensure that one engages with the issues that motivate these audiences.  For example if one inspires imagination and creativity then one is likely to engage design disciplines, or if one emphasises efficiency, productivity, wellbeing and desirability then one is likely to inspire resource and commercially minded disciplines who want to retain quality staff and/or attract customers.  Guidance and standards on design for the mind should also be a tool that enables and assists disabled people, access consultants, access officers and educational support officers to convey the issues to their audiences in a way that helps them advocate what to do or enables them to do their job.  One would also suggest that the process of procuring design services is also addressed in a way that follows former Public Sector Equality Duty guidance with regards to procurement, information, engagement with stakeholders, analysis and briefing others.

Bringing Guidance Together

It makes sense for any guidance/standards to be developed in such a way as to bring together as much information on the subject together in one place.  Yes, there are disparate sources of information pertaining to different subjects and different environments, but they are not usually in the places where key decision makers will look.  By bringing information into one place, it is anticipated that greater consistency and efficiency will be achieved, both in terms of funding the development of guidance/standards and in their implementation. Environments for which it is anticipated guidance/standards documentation will be developed include all mainstream environments and more highly supportive environments.

Subject Areas

There are four main areas for which I believe guidance and standards needs to be developed.  These are:

  1. Sensory, Social and Spatial characteristics of an environment:

  • It is becoming increasingly apparent that spaces and the sensory and social processes that go on within spaces can have a significant impact on how people function within a particular environment. Environments dominated by sensory and social signals that pose a person particular difficulty will render that environment particularly unpleasant and in some cases inaccessible.
  • The way people manage socially within a space relates to how well they are able process the social signals within that environment (and the sensory signals that come along with socializing). A space or group of spaces will have significance in terms of how well an environment enables or disables social dynamics, proxemics (personal space), defensible space (in which people feel secure) and run-off space( in which people can let off steam or “find their own space”).
  • Whilst it is advisable to minimise sensory and social signals that cause difficulties within an environment in general, it is not always possible to achieve sensory environments that will be sufficiently suitable for one particular person’s needs. As such the key aim is to create environments in which people are able to either adapt a space to suit their needs or find a space in which they can manage their needs.
  1. Orientation (in time and space) within an environment:

  • Some people are familiar with the concept of way finding. Many then only really understand way finding as being about signage.     However when one looks at the subject from the perspective of orientation, one can begin to perceive that there is more to the subject than signage alone. On a spatial level orientation has much to do with architectural legibility, the senses, complexity of journey and the act of place-making along routes.
  • Yes way-finding also involves signage and there are certain features in signage design that can aid or hinder people with neuro-diverse experiences. However, orientation is not just a directional need but one where time is taken into account. The more individual’s memories are reinforced the more people are likely to remember not only where they are but other functional aspects of their lives. This can have particular significance for people who are experiencing memory loss. What is particularly fascinating is that the spaces that we occupy have much to do with what we remember subsequently, even if what we remember has nothing to do with wayfinding
  1. Safeguarding within an environment:

  • I believe that safeguarding starts with considering a person’s wellbeing. Safeguarding however can also imply means by which support staff remain accountable for that person’s wellbeing and then how the design enables both wellbeing and accountability. Sadly many people with neuro-atypical experiences historically found themselves “held” in institutions whilst posing no threat to themselves or those about them, to the extent that their freedoms were curtailed unnecessarily. Yes, some people with neuro-atypical experiences are also vulnerable individuals with higher support needs and in certain circumstances, those providing support, need to know that they can remain accountable for someone’s whereabouts as well as their wellbeing, without imposing unnecessary restrictions on that person’s freedoms. However a very careful balance needs to be struck.
  • Whilst the careful use of doors and ironmongery does come into design, safeguarding must not be seen as just about “lock and key” but about a joined up approach surrounding wellbeing and accountability. Nevertheless, if there are inadequacies within the physical safeguarding features within a design, they will often lead to greater restrictions being imposed on a person through staff not wanting to “let someone out of their sight” for fear that they may wonder off and out of the premises without anybody noticing. In other words if the balance is not right and the design is too lax the implications will usually be counter-productive and neither conducive to someone’s wellbeing nor their safety.
  • A final point to note on the subject of safeguarding is the psychological implications of inadequately designed environments on family members and upon support workers. Safeguarding of wellbeing is not necessarily solely about a person with a particular need, but also about the wellbeing of those about them as well! One wonders what happened to the psychology of staff found guilty of abuse at Winterbourne View?
  1. Neurological and psychological aspects of physical and sensory interactions:

  • There is much in the way of anecdotal accounts of features in design that can make a difference to how specialist environments operate for people with neuro-atypical experiences. For example, some people find:
    • highly reflective floors confusing, perceiving them to be wet and slippery
    • locked doorways distressing – so if a door leads only to a store then don’t draw attention to it
    • some ironmongery confusing or poses them risks
    • audible and visual fire alarms un-conducive to their safety during emergencies

This shortened list of anecdotal points doesn’t stop here and whilst design guidance and standards would aim to capture as of these observations as possible, it is worth noting that many of the design issues come to light when those involved in the commissioning and designing a particular environment, consult those who will use that environment, either as someone with neuro-atypical experiences or someone who provides support.

People with neuro-atypical experiences may also have mobility, sensory and metabolism related needs. As such it makes sense to be aware of the extent to which people’s needs are also met and summarised by:

  • Logistics: The physical and time demands of journeys within a built environment
  • Legibility: The overall degree of sensory clarity and orientation provided by an environment
  • Resources: The availability and characteristics of facilities within that environment
  • Ergonomics: The layout and detailing of features and facilities.


In conclusion, accompanying any guidance and standards on design for the mind, there is the need to understand the significance of management and information strategies.  This is a whole subject in its self, but includes subjects such as:

  • Virtual access, especially for those people for whom direct access to an environment is particularly difficult. This can be the result of very distressing sensory overload created by some public realms and public transport.
  • Outreach access, is where those providing a services visit those for whom who find both direct and virtual access difficult.

As you will see there is a reasonable amount of understanding around this subject already.  There is still a need to develop research around the subject.   What is key is for a joined up approach from government departments and charities concerned with the wellbeing of people with neuro-diverse experiences.  A summary was recently put together for the All Party Parliamentary Group on Autism which is as follows:

Summary: Why Support a British Standard’s Design for the Mind Publication?

Reaching the Audience

The access standard, BS 8300, is one of the most widely recognized and bestselling BSi documents within the construction industry. There is an opportunity to accompany it with a neuro-diversity access design guidance and standards and then to revise BS8300.

Collaborative Cost Savings

The proposal is to pull research efforts and guidance pertaining to different neuro-diversity experiences and different environment types into one place and to invite collaborative funding and participation from government departments (DH, DfE, DWP, HMCS, etc), charities and other interested parties.

Enabling of Work, Wellbeing and Education 

People with some neuro-diverse experiences can find accessing work, education, health and other services particularly difficult. The application of design for the mind strategies will reduce the cost to individuals and to government arising from unemployment and stress caused by environments that currently make little or no provision for the mind.

If you are interested, please contact me.


9 thoughts on “Design for the Mind

  1. Cathy Dalton

    Hi Steve., my PhD was in exactly this area, with an overlay of computationally-enabled augmentation. I also have many years of relevant practice behind me.

  2. Barbara Lyons Stewart

    Steve, Very interesting article! I’m just completing a book titled FlooringPsych that describes practical research-based floor pattern design recommendations based upon the hypothesis that we instinctively respond to floor patterns in our built-environment the same way our ancestors responded to ground patterns in their natural environment. As an architect and interior designer consulting on this topic (with flooring being just one component in the design process) I’ve worked on three major medical centers and one psychiatric clinic for Kaiser Permanente here in California and a Women’s Hospital in Korea. My design approach translates research from both ancient and modern forms of environmental psychology (from Feng Shui to Applied Psychology and Evidence-Based Design) into easily-applied recommendations relating to issues like wayfinding. I believe these concepts would be very applicable to people with neurological issues since their physical and psychological response would more likely be informed by instinct than intellect. Of course science has proven that the more vulnerable and unhealthy we become, the greater effect our environment has on us. I would be happy to send you a draft review copy of my book if you send me your address.

    1. stevemaslin Post author

      Barbara. My email address is if you’d like to send me the review copy of you book. I’m curious about the intellect/ instinct hypothesis whilst I appreciate the idea and it makes sense. I also have a slightly counter intuitive take on people with intellectual difficulties (only one of the range of neurological difficulties) in that from observing those with whom I have worked I often find more stringent “logic” operating making it difficult for people to pick up on nuances… However this is greatly dependant on what our senses tell us and how we process them – hence the significance of sensory integration theory to what I’m doing.. I do like your reference to the significance of the floor plain. I’m curios also as to your reference to Feung Shui… as I’m a tad cautious of philosophies that to some extent draw upon astrological influences…

      1. Barbara Lyons Stewart

        Steve, While there is a part of all ancient building practices that incorporates astrological influences – like Stonehenge and the Eqyptian and Central American pyramids, for example – the concepts I incorporate in building design from China’s feng shui and India’s vastu shastra come from their practices relating to defensive building (and body) positioning and creating balanced environments. Feng Shui’s Commanding Position principle is very similar to Appleton’s 1975 Prospect and Refuge Theory in Environmental Psychology (and preceded it by thousands of years) – both of which can be used to purposely create plan and furniture layouts that “protect backs” to make people feel more comfortable within a room or space. So… no astrology!

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  4. Jan

    Hello Steve
    I am just writing my dissertation for my MSc on Identfying the needs of people with dementia when staying in guest accommodation. The information you have given, as well as that from Cathy and Barbara are very interesting to me. Any information that any of you are willing to share to help me would be most gratefully received.
    Kind regards

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