Sensory Design in Focus: How Phoenix Wharf Crafts Inclusive Commercial Spaces

In the vibrant city of Bristol, a hub of creativity and diversity, Phoenix Wharf has carved out a niche in the commercial interior design industry, creating captivating hospitality spaces with strong brand identity and consistent customer engagement. Led by Chris Gwyther, the Managing Creative Director, the team at Phoenix Wharf has, since 2015, been dedicated to transforming environments into unique, impactful experiences for both UK-based and international clients.

Chris Gwyther, Managing Creative Director at Phoenix Wharf

Their approach combines creative vision with commercial acumen, ensuring that every design not only looks stunning but also achieves tangible results for businesses. Whether offering comprehensive support throughout a project or stepping in at key stages, Phoenix Wharf’s commitment to excellence and their passion for design shine through in their work.

This article will explore Phoenix Wharf’s thoughtful approach to sensory design, particularly how they incorporate considerations for neurodiversity to create spaces that are inclusive and engaging for all. We’ll discuss the impact of sensory experiences on individuals, delve into the significance of colour and lighting, and examine how material and texture choices contribute to creating environments that support neurodiverse users, offering insights into Chris Gwyther’s philosophy and Phoenix Wharf’s innovative design practices.

Could you introduce yourself, your role at Phoenix Wharf, and give us an overview of Phoenix Wharf’s mission and approach to commercial interior design, particularly in how you collaborate with clients to create spaces that are inclusive and supportive of neurodiversity?

Hello, I’m Chris Gwyther, Managing Creative Director at Phoenix Wharf. We specialise in interior design for hospitality brands.

Our agency was founded on the principle of ‘Substance with Soul’. We are driven by a shared passion for intelligent design. Our aim isn’t just to deliver commercial success; it’s also about creating aesthetically pleasing work that resonates deeply – always underpinned by a soulful heart.

As a naturally inquisitive team, we are passionate about improving human experiences and designing inclusive environments.

Neurodiversity is very close to our hearts – we’ve just completed a pro bono project for Self Agency, a neurodiversity consultancy who’s vision it is to help make Bristol the neurodivergent capital of the UK.

We pride ourselves on being able to be forward-thinkers when it comes to designing for neurodiversity, although there isn’t one solution that fits all, there is definitely a way to design with inclusivity in mind.

We are currently working with a South West university campus in the UK, and with the scale of the project and being an academic facility, inclusivity is at the fore-front of the design process. The brief is complex, considering not only sustainability but ensuring the space meets everyone’s needs from the differently-abled to the neurodivergent users. When designing this space, we had to make sure that there was flexibility, creating various areas that people can be comfortable within. The materials used were carefully considered. Rather than using contrasting striped wood panelling which could be triggering to some people, we opted for acoustic felt panels with a low-key visual connection between spaces, to minimise ‘visual noise’ and create a softer look and feel.

Understanding Neurodiversity in Design: Why is considering neurodiversity important in commercial design, and how can designers better address the needs of neurodiverse individuals through their work?

Around 1 in 7 people in the UK, between 15-20% of the population, are considered neurodivergent. We know that certain sensory design features coupled with the use of colour and materials can have a dramatic effect on those individuals and cause stress, among a multitude of other emotions.

Even for the neurotypical portion of the population certain spaces can trigger either joyful or uncomfortable feelings. It is crucial for designers to learn more about what helps or hinders when designing for the neurodiverse and to find ways to make these features more mainstream and widely recognised.

It’s also important to remember that some guidelines do exist like PAS 6463:2022 which provides guidance on elements in the built environment that contribute to sensory overload. No design can be everything to everyone, but certainly in popular commercial spaces, enabling neurodivergent people to feel calm, comfortable and catered for will go a long way. We always design with accessibility and inclusivity in mind.

Understanding Sensory Sensitivities: How do sensory experiences impact individuals with neurodiverse conditions, and how can interior design mitigate negative effects while enhancing positive sensory engagement?

Individuals with neurodiverse conditions tend to have heightened senses when it comes to touch, sound, light and smell. Environmental factors one person may barely even notice, another may be utterly overwhelmed by.

When ordering a coffee at the counter, the noise of the equipment, music, customers talking and staff awaiting your order is a lot to absorb and manage. Coupled with the bright lights over the menus, the hard tiled and often metal surfaces reflecting and reverberating, and the feeling of being rushed in a busy queue can be a paralysing experience for some.

Interior designers can use colour and texture but should also consider materials with acoustic properties in high traffic areas. They can ensure that speakers and music being played is directional and not overlapping the space where customers would otherwise have to shout their order. They can allow maximum space around the counter, seating areas and condiment stations to enable neurodiverse individuals to feel calmer and more in control.

Through careful zoning designers can also create a variety of spaces within an overarching scheme. Pockets with calmer, quieter areas that have softer lighting offering respite from areas where noise and brighter lighting is unavoidable. Clear navigation and routes through the interior mean time spent in certain areas is minimised and the opportunity to get what you need and move to a space that suits your sensory needs is easy.

In this way commercial interiors can cater to multiple sensory needs and provide a combination of refreshing stimulation and restorative calm.

The Role of Colour and Light: Could you discuss the importance of colour and lighting choices in your designs? How do these elements affect individuals with neurodiverse conditions differently?

Light and colour are aspects of interior design that shape our sense of wellbeing and have an immediate effect on mood and behaviour.

The lighting and its effect on colour and material sets the tone of the space and its usage. Issues such as excessive glare, harsh cold lighting and extreme changes between light and dark can trigger neurodiverse individuals and cause anxiety, irritation and fatigue. In a social setting these triggers are heightened further.

Bright lights with bold colours can be refreshing and stimulating but there is a fine line between stimulating and overwhelming. Other factors of the interior need to be taken into consideration when applying colour to enable maximum inclusivity within a design. Neutral tones and mellow shades and a lack of visual clutter have been proven to have a calming and soothing effect.

Material and Texture Considerations: How do material and texture choices play a role in creating neurodiverse-friendly environments? Can you provide examples of materials that are particularly beneficial or detrimental?

Materials and texture considerations are a fundamental component in the design of any space but in particular they place a crucial role in creating neurodiverse-friendly environments.

Every material has differing properties, whether it’s their colour, texture, form or hardness, all of which contributes to the impact they will have on the neurodiverse.

The quantities in which any given material is incorporated within an interior scheme can also dramatically influence their impact.

Most notably the level of visual complexity associated with a material or substrate can have a significant impact.

Either the materials colour/texture itself or the form of the substrate can be quite triggering. An example of this might be the incorporation of wooden acoustic slatting. When used in large amounts the distinct vertical stripes this creates can be overly stimulating to some.

Careful consideration of materials used can address various aspects that may impact on how accommodating a space is for the neurodivergent. Many materials have multiple properties that can be harnessed, whether that is their visual impact or acoustic properties.

When it comes to material selection, it’s a balancing act as all materials will have strengths and weaknesses depending on where and when they are applied. For example, acoustically ‘harsh’ materials such as glass or concrete can be considered ‘good’ when it comes to their aesthetic characteristics. But when used in large quantities, it could become problematic for the neurodiverse individual, due to their harsh acoustic properties.

Sound and Acoustic Design: Sound can have a significant impact on neurodiverse individuals. How do you approach acoustic design to create comfortable and supportive spaces?

Acoustic design is a critical component in any commercial space, particularly high traffic areas where visitors are exposed to loud environments with significant background noise.

Excessive noise exposure can lead to stress, fatigue, and reduced focus, resulting in a disharmonious space.

The principles of creating a good soundscape therefore applies to everyone and not just the neurodiverse.

Finding a balance between creating a vibrant atmosphere and a comfortable, cosy environment is the greatest challenge – you don’t want a space that is either too loud or too sterile.

There are specific acoustic products that can be applied to walls or ceilings to absorb sound but equally important is considering the acoustic properties of all materials used throughout the interior scheme.

Areas of an environment with predominantly hard materials such as the walling, flooring, counter etc. will create a loud, echoey space. Substituting traditional ‘hard’ materials that reflect and amplify sound such as stone, glass or concrete with softer sound absorbing alternatives will have a dramatic impact on the overall acoustics.

Increasingly innovative manufacturers are developing products that significantly enhance what is available to designers for incorporation within their designs. This ranges from individual materials to products such as acoustic wall and ceiling panels, ceiling baffles and lighting fixtures.

Many of these new brands also place as much emphasis on sustainability as they do the acoustic properties of their products.

Space Layout and Organisation: How does the layout and organisation of a space contribute to its accessibility and comfort for neurodiverse individuals? Are there specific strategies you employ to enhance navigability and spatial awareness?

Getting a spatial layout right is the crucial first step when designing a space. Subtle differences in positioning of furniture and how easy it is to access a counter or WC are factors that may not be obvious unless they are designed badly and negatively affect an experience.

When designing for neurodiverse individuals, these subtle cues are paramount to the success of individuals being able to regulate mood and feel comfortable.

At Phoenix Wharf we dedicate a significant amount of thinking to the spatial layout, making sure that enough space has been factored into walkways so people can pass by without encroaching on a stranger’s personal space. Things like the depth of a bespoke bench, the amount of legroom afforded within the seating areas and the level of privacy in certain spaces are key considerations when designing for the neurodiverse community.

The flow and functionality of the space also plays a large part and the order that you are expected to do something in a public or commercial space. It is the designer’s responsibility to make this as seamless and stress free as possible through zoning, signage and spatial layout. Taking into account the high, mid and low level opportunities for navigational signage and messaging, open sightlines in areas where needed.

All these things give a customer an idea of what to expect and how to navigate the space and reduce anxiety, agitation and feelings of being overwhelmed.

Advice for Designers and Clients: What advice would you give to both designers and clients looking to incorporate neurodiversity considerations into their projects to ensure successful outcomes?

Most importantly as designers we need to understand that the term neurodiversity encompasses a diverse range of individual needs.

It’s a case of building an environment where we support everyone’s needs and goals where possible and make the correct call on where compromises can be made.

Equally important, designing for the neurodiverse community will not have a detrimental impact on others and in many cases the considerations taken into account will benefit everyone.

Designing for neurodiversity will require greater consideration of how a space functions and not just how it looks. This presents a great opportunity for creatives to look beyond purely aesthetics and explore all the sensory aspects of their designs and the impact they have on accessibility and inclusivity.

Ultimately it’s a balancing act as all individuals are unique, whether they are neurodiverse or neurotypical. As such there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach, what may be triggering to one person could be stimulating for another. The first step is to acknowledge the varying factors and educate ourselves on the impact our creative decisions can have. As designers we have a responsibility to keep pace with the most up to date thinking on this relatively new topic and the materials / products that are being developed in response to the findings.

Looking Ahead: How do you see the future of interior design evolving with regard to neurodiversity, and are there any emerging trends or technologies that you are excited about?

Designing for neurodiversity will become an increasingly important issue for interior designers, mirroring the pattern we have seen for accommodating sustainable practices within our designs.

As the importance of designing for neurodiversity increases so will the level of innovation and development of materials and products that provide solutions to the challenges.

We are also likely to see increased regulation relating to standards associated with delivering accessible and inclusive environments such as the relatively new BS 8300 which begins to include provisions for the neurodiverse such as the implications of colour contrast.


About Alys Bryan

Alys is a knowledgeable design editor who is focused on instigating conversations, both online and in-person, with industry experts which challenge, educate and advance the commercial interior sector. Her training and 15 years of professional experience as a furniture designer for the commercial sector makes her uniquely placed to lead Design Insider as Editor
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