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Commercial Design in the Age of Social Distancing – Sketch of two figures at a large table with laptops.

Commercial, Interior Design, Third Places

Commercial Design in the Age of Social Distancing

As commercial spaces slowly re-open, businesses and clientele have to take extra precautions because these spaces were designed to operate in a pre-pandemic world. This post is part of a series on how design for commercial spaces may evolve due to the Covid-19 pandemic, either by requirement or by cultural shift.

May 26, 2020

Learning to love the distance: leaning into designing for social distancing.

Once, the communal table was king. In restaurants and coffee shops all over the world, this simplest of design moves — the long table — offered eclectic experiences for restaurant-goers and coffee shop denizens alike. Looking for a place to open your laptop and put in your headphones? Check. Looking to join a nearby conversation or do some people-watching? Check. Looking to spy those scrumptious dishes coming out to your neighbors, chat them up, and order the same thing? Again, check. But in a post-pandemic world, where social distancing is the new normal, commercial design may look far different.

During the pandemic, many of us are having the experience of standing in line six feet apart, waiting to enter a retail shop or to pick up food. We have waited for someone to exit a shop so we can enter, or stood awkwardly on the sidewalk outside a take-out-only restaurant for our order to be ready. Design was once literally a touchstone for shared experience, but the commercial and hospitality design of the future may instead be a careful negotiation of personal space.

Regardless of what the “new normal” is for restaurants and coffee shops, one thing is clear: we will all be making tiny psychological bargains with ourselves each time we choose to go to a public space. This begs the question, what does it mean for the design of spaces like restaurants and bars in the future, where previously carefree gatherings could now be fraught with feelings of risk? Where physical togetherness was once comforting, distance now puts us more at ease.

What if, instead of banquettes and long tables, an entire restaurant was designed to cater to only one table at a time? What if, in a coffee shop, instead of one coffee bar with 12 seats, replete with a countertop designed to manage long lines of people, the shop had 12 mini coffee bars with one or two seats each? What if a retail shop had individual areas set aside for each shopper, and preselected inventory laid out for customers, arriving spaced-apart for pre-scheduled appointments?

We have been hearing for years now, that the shoppers and diners of the future crave customized experiences. Outside the box, personalized design concepts could be opportunities to marry customer demand with the social distancing culture (yes, culture!) that is evolving around us. It very well could be that leaning into a social-distancing-positive future might be the express lane to where we in the design industry were destined to arrive, the custom-designed, personalized hospitality experience.

This post is part of a series exploring how commercial design may evolve during and after the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic.

More from This Series on Commercial Design in the Age of Social Distancing

The Personalized Hospitality Experience

Before Covid-19 shifted our world, personalized hospitality experiences like private dining rooms, and by-appointment-only shopping were considered luxuries reserved only for an elite few. But, with social distancing recommendations in place — driven first by necessity and later by comfort — it’s possible some of these once-elite experiences become more common. Read on, in The Personalized Hospitality Experience.

The Rebirth of the American Workplace

Recommendations and trends in commercial office design shift in response to cultural norms, technology, and working styles. Following the 2020 pandemic, how might the design of commercial offices adapt this time? On the spectrum from open office concept, through vast fields of cubicles, to private offices, where will we land? Read on, in The Rebirth of the American Workplace.

Immediate Solutions for Socially Distant Retail

This is all great, but what about right now? It has been a tough road for small businesses over the last few months dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. For those small businesses fighting to stay in business, the opportunity to pivot and re-open in some form is upon us. Facing this daunting challenge, where do you even start? We have you covered there, too. Read on in, Immediate Solutions for Socially Distant Retail.

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