Lighting and neurodiversity: part 2.


Jonathan Rush, Director

What can designing lighting to support people with neurodiversity teach us about our general design practices?

In part one, I discussed my initial findings that can help the wider design processes with those who are neurodivergent. Below are key lessons which can be helpful to follow when thinking about specific lighting.

Lesson 1: We are excluding people when we generalise design for an average “person”. There is no such thing as an average person, and we need to design better.

Looking at the general lighting advice for supporting those with neurodiversity, there are a few main themes that should be considered for internal and external spaces. Based on “PAS 6463:2022 Design for the mind – Neurodiversity and the built environment – Guide”, the following should be considered:

In Internal spaces

• Avoiding high contrast between light and shade
• Maximising natural light and managing sunlight glare with blinds
• Provide views with the ability to mask view if overstimulating/distracting
• Reduce glare and avoid “bright” spots
• Provide flexible lighting for personalised control
• Use lighting to aid intuitive wayfinding
• Lighting must be flicker free
• Warmer colours preferred from light sources that are more natural (i.e. a broader spectral range)
• Avoid fast adjustments in lighting levels such as movement sensors which switch on / off quickly

In External Spaces

• Lighting should support natural wayfinding
• Provide safe and secure spaces
• Provide downward light
• Reduced contrast between light and shade
• Do not direct light into people’s faces
• Change in light level gradually to manage eye adaptation between light and dark
• Avoid fast transitions in lighting level and lighting colour
• If coloured light is proposed – consider if the colour selected impacts the legibility of the space or area making wayfinding less easy

Lesson 2: Many of the best practice requirements would be preferential for neurotypical people too, even though they do not need them to navigate space comfortably.

For example, personalised control, low glare, natural light and warmer, more natural colours of white lighting, would be on many people’s wish list for most interior spaces.

The interesting point is that much of the “best practice” advice for neurodiversity is just good practice for lighting design of spaces. This could either mean we have become used to low-quality spaces, ‘but most people can handle it so it’s fine’, or we have not spent enough time listening to people to find out what they want. The lighting guidance document is a really useful tool – but a tool nonetheless and nothing should replace getting to know the aspirations and needs of the people that use the spaces and designing for them.

Maybe the reliance on guidance has pushed us into a very narrow way of thinking where humans are packaged into a homogenous group with no divergence or variation in preference? The guidance always states that it is just guidance and that it is for the designer to make a judgement on how to use the information, but the reality is that designers are risk-averse and often lack the time needed to deviate from target values.

If we could take a more human-centric design approach to spaces, we could create much more inclusive spaces and environments that people feel a real connection to.

The spaces would be designed for them and their needs – after listening to what they like and don’t like. We need to get used to asking people about the spaces they want, listening to their responses and being more open to modifying spaces over time as their needs change. This may also help our sustainability targets as a space that is designed to change and flex with need will last longer and require less full-scale refurbishment.

Taking all this on board, I can’t help but propose my own lesson 3: Instead of designing by technical memorandum, guidance, or standards, we need to ask people about their needs, listen and utilise the findings.

We need to understand that there is no single right answer, but many right answers. We need to get more comfortable with change of spaces over time as people and their requirements change. Ultimately we should design this flexibility into the spaces we create.