Finalist 2021

The Working Brain


The Working Brain is a research and engagement project on designing for Neurodiversity and Mental Health in built environments.

We Have a Bold Objective: To change how the design world approaches built environments to enable greater diversity and inclusion. 18% of the Australian Population is neuro-diverse. Our research so far indicates 60+% have heightened sensory responses (via either low or high brain thresholds). So, we built a research team: and called it “the working brain”. “The Working Brain” is made from ten GroupGSA Melbourne-based designers + one social impact artist, Jeremyville + academics including, Prof Winnie Dunn + one autism advocate, Andrew Eddy.

Design Brief

To change how the design world approaches built environments to enable greater diversity and inclusion.

We started to think about unusual sensory processing patterns and how people’s sensory profiles could shape comfortable environments for people who do not fit the norm. Furthermore, what design model best enables a more inclusive space resulting in success for a greater proportion of the community? To be able to answer these questions, understanding sensory processing patterns became imperative. We wanted to understand what proportion of the working population has a heightened sensory response.

The brief was to create a platform to communicate research, findings and design adjustments in simple way. In response the design team created a platform and communication feed that was digital.

This project was developed by:

Design Process

Our design process included five steps:

1. Researching neurodiverse brain conditions

2. Researching awareness within the built environment about designing for brain variations

3. Engaging with experts in their field (e.g. Occupational Therapists, Neuroscientist, Autism Advocates and Psychologists)

4. Undertaking our own research within organisations to understand what the make up of the organisation is relative to its sensory profiles (adapted with permission from the leading Professor of Occupational Therapy and Neuroscience, Winnie Dunn, who developed those surveys for the medical fraternity).

5. Creating design adaptations to respond to findings

Following the research, we created a central hub/platform for all this information.
We wanted the platform to be far-reaching and accessible.

Language used had to be respectful and in plain English. As we are built environment designers, we wanted the digital service platform to have high impact.

Design Excellence

We regulate our response to stimulation or input either passively or actively. An avoider and seeker actively regulate while a bystander and sensor passively regulate. An example of active regulation includes humming to block out noise. Passive regulation means that sensory input happens followed by a reaction. In the case of a sensor, an example of passive regulation includes feeling “bothered” by the sounds. In the case of a bystander their passive regulation means they may be oblivious to sounds. Some people are their best selves when they are overstimulated with colour, complexity, art, noise etc.

For example, some bystanders need this to stay alert. They are more productive in this environment. Others require calm, order and neutrality. These may be the avoiders and sensors. The above is informing us that as designers we should consider at least two modes within our built environments:

1. a high stimulation mode and

2.  a low stimulation mode. There are other variables within each of these modes which may be considered.

Design Innovation

It is estimated that around 18% of the population is neuro-divergent which means they process information in a different way (source: Workplace Dyslexia & Specific Learning Difficulties – Productivity, Engagement and Wellbeing by Janette Beetham, Leyla OKhai). In Australia, it is estimated that 45% of people will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime (source: Beyond Blue).
We have confidence designing through a sensory lens will result in improved comfort, inclusion and success for the larger population.

Our research is pointing to designing multi-modal environments – ones that accommodate high stimulation and low stimulation. For example, quiet nooks are suited to a sensory avoider or sensor. Active pathways are suited to a sensory seeker or bystander. Scented planting pathways are suited to a sensory seeker or bystander and support navigation for the visually impaired.

Key to this was providing the user with choice over their space, as well as a diversity of settings (collaborative and individual) with a minimum of two sensory modes (high intensity and low intensity). For example, spaces for low stimulation in sound, movement, colour and materials are characteristic of a quiet zone and spaces for high stimulation in sound, movement and colour are characteristic of a loud zone.

Design Impact

“This is the essence of modern and UNIVERSAL design! Your report is an interesting look at the people. I hadn’t done it this particular way, so I loved seeing it; making me think new ways, which I love.” Quote from Professor Winnie Dunn.

Our research is pointing to designing multi-modal environments – ones that accommodate high stimulation and low stimulation. By adapting how we design for broader brain variations, we believe, we will be creating spaces which are more comfortable for a larger population. The upshot is greater diversity and inclusion. The bigger upshot is, possible positive impact on mental health. As a result of great inclusion, a possible outcome might be richer ideas or new ideas being brought to a workplace table. People with autism are overrepresented in unemployment. Perhaps through design we can help reduce this over-representation.

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