Four Ways Buildings & Places Need to Communicate Following the Pandemic

Will reopened businesses greet people with a warning message? Or should the message be more nuanced? The award-winning design firm Altitude Design Office, based in Los Angeles, has been working with clients to begin to answer this question.

Despite being at home under shelter-in-place orders for what feels like an eternity, we are still in the early days of understanding the full spectrum of this pandemic’s implications, and we all have many more questions than answers right now. When will we be able to go back out to shop, dine, work, or travel? When stay-at-home orders begin to be lifted, people will be returning to the spaces they knew before, but with different required behaviour protocols. How will we know how to navigate these once-familiar spaces under new and different circumstances?

Our team at Altitude Design Office has been working with our clients on ideas that start to answer that question. While we’re in the midst of a major medical emergency, we’re also experiencing a crisis of communication. Information, after all, can be one of the antidotes to stress and uncertainty.

As designers, we’re considering what workplaces, hotels, mixed-use developments and other urban spaces and places might look like in the near term as businesses begin to reopen, and what these spaces and places need to communicate in order to help us feel safe and secure. Whether they’re communicating with words, graphics or symbols, the information must be carefully placed and designed with a clear, accurate message and an appropriate tone of voice.

What types of communication will spaces require?

We have started to organise our thoughts around four dimensions of communication: safety, wayfinding, brand and empathy. Some spaces will require a different balance of these components. For example, an airport might need to focus most of its primary communication on safety and wayfinding in the short-term, while a retail environment also requires strong elements of brand and empathy. But we believe that to successfully communicate with people, each space needs to address all four dimensions. You’ve worked hard to build a strong foundation of brand, culture and human connection and emotion into your organisation, so you don’t want that to get lost or overshadowed, even as safety now commands a big spotlight within your space.

What design cues contribute to people’s sense of safety? The images that follow are some of our early ideas.

HOTELS: Where spaces are shared and used in rotation by multiple people, such as hotel rooms, stickers or seals can assure guests that their space has been cleaned and is now ready for their own personal use.

WORKSPACES: When returning to the workplace, people will be coming with a host of emotions and mindsets. Small messages of inspiration may help, along with providing additional employee resources that may be needed to adjust to new routines.

MULTI-TENANT SPACES: As they welcome people back into shared spaces, owners of corporate office buildings and similar properties will need to communicate standards to which all individual businesses must comply, giving employees and visitors of those businesses peace of mind that the whole building is working together.

WORKPLACES: Within individual office spaces, companies can apply graphics to doors and walls to remind employees of new protocols, and to help teams demonstrate their respect and care for each other’s well-being.

MIXED-USE AND URBAN SPACES: In places with large public areas where people are accustomed to gathering, floor graphics and measured marks on tiles or pavers can help to communicate safe distances, while enabling people to enjoy being back out in their community.

Greg Nelson is principal designer at Altitude Design Office.

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