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It will be a big understatement to say that the coronavirus pandemic has completely flipped the world, our society, and our habits. What was once society and culture that celebrated wandering, carefree exploration and social interaction has now been reduced to regulation of movements and strict social distancing at work. So, how do you design spaces for a society that is stuck indoors? What are the design principles for a world that is observing social distancing? How do we create design solutions that cater to the needs of people during the pandemic and have a positive impact on our changed habits?

Before the pandemic, people attended concerts, sporting events, workspaces, etc. without much thought about how safety was weaved into their experience. After 2020, all the spaces where people can congregate – offices, restaurants, schools, colleges, public transportation, museums, etc. need to be designed in a way to reduce the risk of viral transmission. Hence, the first design principle is obviously in terms of spatial planning. Where once, each space looked to bring a lot of people together to socialize, we need to come up with spaces and zones that try to keep people apart. From maximum occupancy levels, we have moved on to safe and spread out occupancy levels.

It’s not just about occupancy levels, but design spaces need to be redone. Planners need to create spaces which minimize people crossing each other’s path. Room dividers and partition walls are in high demand these days which are used by designers to create one-way paths. Traffic-flow rate, people density, traffic speed, movement direction, movement type (queuing, running, walking, etc.) are some of the most important designing principles for social distancing.

Humans are driven by behavior not by compliance. Over the years, we have learned to be together socially, which makes the phenomenon of social distancing unnatural. Hence, design spaces that help direct will go a long way in helping people move in the right direction and make good choices when it comes to social distancing at work. These nudges or cues can be anything in the form of signboards or announcements that remind them constantly of what is expected from them and encourage the ‘new’ behavior.

From airports to daily commute transit systems, offices to retail spaces, hospitals to hospitality spaces, every space needs to be designed in a purposeful way that drives positive change and encourages social distancing. In case of airports and transit systems, redesigning layouts and queuing strategies, combined with less human interaction and more automation can minimize the risk and help keep safe distances.

For hospitality and retail environments, it is important that designers understand that these spaces offer people an escape from home and spend some time outdoors in these difficult times. Apart from providing an engaging experience, these biophilic spaces too need to think about their layouts, queues, seating arrangements, and use of technology for ordering, gaining insights, and helping patrons make better, informed decisions.

The pandemic has given the design world a reminder that in this era of social distancing, large, open spaces with lower human density and reduced friction will save us.