21 June, 2020

What's your angle?

Image with playful and topical icons

We dig trig! Our love of geometry is similarly acute. Why? Because, as design thinkers, we can’t help but be fascinated by the forces that shape our human experience. In this month’s “On Our Minds…”, we’ll take a closer look at the invisible geometry that’s playing out in our world today.

On our minds

A postulate: geometry is all around us. It’s in the things people see, of course: rooms they occupy and desks they use, for instance. But it’s also lurking just under the surface of less obvious parts of their day, like the people we choose to speak with or the very air we breathe. This has always been a mesmerizing topic for workplace designers, and rightly so—this hidden geometry shapes every part of the workplace experience.

Take light, for example. One of the main environmental factors influencing the experience of a space is lighting, especially the presence or absence of daylight. The behavior and availability of light can be described entirely by geometry. Light moves in straight lines and bounces off surfaces in predictable, calculable ways. Surfaces can be designed to shade, scatter, or concentrate it, or to emphasize a particular hue.

Sound, which is the single greatest source of complaints in many office environments, is similarly calculable. Sound waves bounce off hard surfaces and are absorbed by soft ones in predictable ways. The math is a little trickier because sound travels in spherical waves rather than lines, but anyone with the inclination can predict the acoustics of an environment (alas, too few actually do).

That the physical aspects of a building can be modeled is probably not news—if you’re reading this, you’ve probably thought about the built environment a bit. It may be more surprising to learn that the behavior of people can also be predicted mathematically—at least to a degree. The paths they take through spaces and the probability that they will choose to perform certain actions in an environment are far less random than one might assume.

One can think of people like molecules of a gas. The more molecules present in a given volume, the more likely they will interact. But it’s not just about density. It also increases their likelihood of interacting if energy (i.e., movement) is added. This makes intuitive sense; when people are moving throughout a space, it’s much more probable that they’ll interact than if they are sitting motionless. This, by the way, is just one of the reasons we’re such big fans of Activity-Based Working.

Those happy accidents in which two people who don’t usually work together solve a problem while in line for a coffee? It turns out those are not really accidents at all; they are products of design. With sufficient attention to the shape of spaces, it’s possible to predict serendipitous interactions that lead to better collaboration and culture.

This gets at another source of perpetual fascination: the vertex of the cultural, neurological, and mathematical sources of our common measurements and tools. For example, it might surprise you to learn that the science behind 6-foot radius that became the new norm for social distancing in the US is actually pretty spotty. There is relatively little epidemiological evidence that this is the optimum distance to prevent spread of the virus.

Design principles—and the measurements that guide them—are always refracted through the lens of culture. Six feet is, of course, a familiar distance in English-speaking countries. Construction in North America tends to be done in multiples of 6 feet. A surveyor’s chain (used to measure acres) is 66 feet long. This extends to other areas of culture as well: when we bury people, we put them 6 feet underground. This length, which is just over the height of the average person, is in line with a long tradition of measurements based on the body (including, of course the foot itself).

We live in a highly linearized world, but the human sense of numbers, like perception itself, is non-linear. Children and people who were not taught to measure things linearly naturally group things logarithmically.

If all of this seems tangential, it shouldn’t. Whether or not they’re aware of it, everyone is thinking about the interaction between geometry and behavior these days. COVID-19 has made everyone more conscious of the space they take up and the distance between individuals. We’re even beginning to see some efforts to quantify the safety of buildings, such as the rating system just announced by the WELL Buildings Institute. Similarly, FitWel is offering up their recommendations for mitigating viral transmission in buildings.

This isn’t just about the shape of the walls. It’s about all the shapes and measures that affect our experience, from the physics of airflow to the movement of people. It includes the social networks that—even when we remain physically distant—are so important to strengthen and maintain. Understanding the hidden geometry behind the spaces people use is critical not only to responding to the challenges of this moment, but to enabling better environments in any future circumstance.

And with all of that geometry in mind, happy summer solstice!

From the archives

Cities are shaped by geometry too! A year ago, we wrote for WorkTech about the symbiotic relationship between a city and its workplaces.

Back in 2016, the AIANY Social Science and Architecture Committee—of which we are cofounders—hosted “The Ways and Whys of Incorporating Social Science Methodologies into Architecture Curricula.

That’s all for this month. Want to know more about the geometry that’s shaping your work? Drop us a line! That’s something we’ll cosine.

The following sections were current at the time of publishing.

Looking Ahead

Need a fresh angle on workplace in challenging times? Check out these upcoming opportunities.

The Future of the Workplace Post COVID-19

Lehigh University hosts this panel on reentering the workplace from landlord, tenant, architect, engineering and transportation perspectives. Online Jun 23.

Navigating Your Future Workplace

PLASTARC shares our 10-point roadmap to assist organizations as they navigate reentry into the physical workplace. Join this webinar on Jun 25.

Returning to a New Workplace

Experts in graphic, interior and architectural discuss how workplaces can respond to COVID-19 by becoming more personalized, human, and adaptable. Hosted by Entro online Jun 25.

DFA Industry Review: Human-centered Design

Industry experts review resumes and portfolios in a public conversation about careers in human-centered design. Online Jul 21.

Society for College and University Planning Conference (SCUP)

Leaders in higher education share learning strategies and address the rapid pace of change in this field. Held virtually Jul 20-24.

Future Offices Summer

Speakers share new approaches to challenges facing practitioners in real estate, workplace, and design. Aug 4-5 online.

In Case You Missed It

PLASTARC Announces the Workwell Coalition

Eight design and engineering firms join forces to rejuvenate the office post-COVID

Workplace Interrupted: People, Technology, and Change

We co-authored this piece with experts from Bala Engineering about the role of technology in

Juneteenth now a Holiday in NY State

The 19th of June is now a holiday for state employees in commemoration of the end of slavery in the US.

Statement by National Organization of Minority Architects

NOMA calls on the professional community to take an active role in eliminating the racial biases and result in the loss of Black lives.

Bike Demand Soars in Response to COVID-19

Americans are taking to two wheels to avoid risks associated with public transit.

This is Not a Drill: 6 Steps to Prepare for the Next Normal

Our friends at Insight Partners shared this guide to planning for the new realities of workplace.

5 Workplace Concepts to Start Taking Seriously After COVID-19

Metropolis encourages designers to embrace ideas that are not yet accepted by the mainstream.

Remembering Christo

The artist who famously wrapped the Reichstag has passed.

Amy Rosen Joins the PLASTARC Team

As a Sociospatial Designer, Amy brings a wealth of design expertise and thought leadership to the team. Welcome Amy!