New model leads the way to safe social distancing in Lancaster


Testing out the social distancing initiative at The Storey in Lancaster.
Testing out the social distancing initiative at The Storey in Lancaster.

Lancaster University is spearheading a unique, automated, social distancing and way-finding model for businesses preparing to re-open safely in the post-pandemic recovery.

The new model, devised by the University’s new School of Architecture, uses algorithms, special design exploration processes, generative software, sympathetic signage, electronically created floorplans and heat tracking and mapping to inspire a safe environment for people.

Working with Lancaster City Council, the project, funded through Beyond Imagination a £13.2 million Research England project at the University’s ImaginationLancaster, a design-led research laboratory, is currently undergoing development with the design team, ready for implementation.

The City Council is keen to explore using the novel social distancing mode, currently undergoing feasibility testing, for retailers in the Lancaster area.

Initially the work was desktop based, completed from floor plans submitted with results generated through processing by computer software.

‘Generative’ design exploration methods were used to automate and implement optimised wayfinding designs to improve the risk of areas identified as non-compliant.

An exclusion zone between two passing users was automatically tracked onto the floor plans by software to highlight areas ‘at risk’ of non-compliance for social distancing.

The distancing measures are able to respond to changes in government advice in relation the distance between customers and can be adapted to conform to either the existing 2m or potential 1m social distancing rules.

An algorithm, or computer calculation, then generated an optimised layout for wayfinding and floor signage/graphics based on minimum distances between furniture and walls. This was then checked and evaluated by the designer.

The Council owned city centre creative hub, The Storey, is the ‘live’ wayfinding test bed for the new model and will become a new ‘Generative Spacing Lab’ to which retailers from the service industry will be invited to explore, consult and give feedback to both the research and design teams.

This ‘pilot’ study will provide data gathering for analysis and review of the success of social distancing measures. A user survey and heat mapping tracking will provide qualitative data on experience and operational success.

This ‘hands-on’ research aims to provide a unique methodology using special visual programming packages and computer-aided design to automate a risk analysis of existing floor plans to identify areas of social distance non-compliance.

Central to the new model is an array of imaginative signage, created by Preston-based Wash Design, who considered how signage design impacts the effectiveness of social distancing measures, branding and avoiding signage ‘fatigue’.

Wash have used geometrical shapes in addition a palette of blue, green and yellow of mid tones to coordinate different instructions and information and create a fresh, friendly and confident tone

The friendly connotations associated with a circle reflects the approachability of general ‘greeting’ messages. While the universal connotation of a hexagon, flags more serious questions and statements. Finally, the form of a triangle naturally lends itself to directional signage.

As part of the formal testing phase of the project, the Design Team have been concerned about the availability of bespoke large rigid acrylic and plastic sheeting panels.

They have come up with an economic alternative - a 500-micron thick plastic sheet used in tension much like a tent stretched across poles but at a fraction of the cost of rigid plastic.

Project Leader and Head of Architecture at Lancaster University Des Fagan said: “Currently no quantitative or qualitative research has been completed on how automated processes may impact the design of existing or proposed public spaces in the context of social distancing measures.

“We decided to come up with a unique and adaptable automated solution, currently being tried and tested, which will enable the input of floor plans to quickly generate signage that reacts to changes in government advice regarding social distancing.

“We will evaluate customer responses which will help us understand how people respond to certain types of signage over time. This is significant because social distancing, in one form or another, will be with us for many months to come.”

“The project has moved really fast and we hope to have our outcomes by early July.”

Lancaster City Councillor Tim Hamilton-Cox, Cabinet member with responsibility for sustainable economic prosperity, said: “Social distancing will be part of our daily routine for the foreseeable future and it’s extremely important that signage is clear, easy to follow and reflects the latest government guidance.

“We’ve been very pleased to work with the university on this innovative project and look forward to seeing the outcomes.”

Andy Walmsley, of Wash Design, added: “We wanted to add a stronger graphic element compared to what we had seen in our research, to really make people aware of where they are in a space in relation to others. It's hard for people moving through a space to truly understand distance, so these guides should really help, along with a friendlier copy tone for added guidance.”

Outcomes of the research relevant to a wider audience will be: 

·        A 20 plus page Wayfinding Signage Design Guide that can be issued to all businesses in Lancaster as part of the Lancaster Business Improvement District (BID) network.

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