At Design-athon 2020, students tackle interior design challenges that face neurodivergent employees in the workplace

Diversity is an issue that is championed by Marymount University’s students, faculty and staff. The campus is consistently recognized for its welcoming and inclusive environment, with a solid representation of various backgrounds, races and nationalities.
Not to be overlooked is an appreciation for neurodiversity as well. While most people fit somewhere in the middle along the spectrum of neurodiversity, people can be neurodivergent in some circumstances. These are people who have neurological differences that result in ADHD, autism, dyslexia, Tourette syndrome and other conditions.
Demonstrating awareness at a community-wide scale, Marymount’s Interior Design department selected “Neurodiversity at Work” as the focus topic of its annual Design-athon, which took place last week. The event is a service-learning initiative through Community Engaged Design (ID528SL), a graduate-level elective in the department. Serving as community partner for the course is Melwood, a D.C.-based nonprofit that has provided jobs and opportunities for people of differing abilities for over 50 years.
On Friday, nearly 40 participants were divided into six teams, all tasked with delivering solutions to design problems or challenges centered around the typical office break room. Team members formed ideas around products, furniture, technology, smartphone apps, spatial arrangements and other aspects of the interior environment in order to improve outcomes for neurodivergent individuals.
“I really enjoyed this experience because it opened my eyes to how office spaces don’t always fulfill everyone’s needs, and that we have options to fix those problems,” said Daniela Eguiguren, senior Interior Design student at Marymount. “More people should be getting to know others who are different, so we can understand everyone’s needs and create a better space for everyone.”
Examples of solutions include isolation pods, which give hypersensitive or fatigued employees a space where they can decompress and be free of distractions such as noise, bright lights and intrusive smells. Another is the wiggle seat, a type of fidget furniture that may benefit hyposensitive people by allowing them to be stimulated by movement and therefore feel more comfortable and be able to focus more intently.
“It’s really exciting to run events like this because it helps our students see that there are so many ways they can directly help people through interior design,” said Assistant Professor Jessica Bonness, organizer of Design-athon 2020. “Our students often visit firms and see cool spaces that are out there, but what they don’t always get to do is interact with the users of those spaces – talk to them about what works for you, what doesn’t, what would you do if you could change things. But they got to do that here today!”
The 2020 event began with a Speaker Series on Thursday, which consisted of empathy-led discussions on topics such as enabling neurodiverse talent and the importance of designing a workplace that allows neurodivergent employees to thrive.
In addition to Interior Design students, participants included students from Graphic Design and other majors, faculty and staff members from Marymount and graduates of Melwood’s “abilIT” training program. This program is designed to help people of differing abilities enter the cybersecurity field through professional skill development, job shadowing, mentorship opportunities and more. By pairing these neurodivergent professionals with future interior designers currently studying at Marymount, organizers believe the field will change for the better in a more inclusive way in the near future.
“We want workplaces where everybody is included, and how we get there is by having conversations like this,” said Scott Gibson, senior vice president of people and programs at Melwood. “I think we’re developing a future of interior designers who, when they design workplaces, are going to think about neurodiversity. They’re going to break down barriers…and we’re going to build inclusive workplaces.”
“Let me tell you, there are a lot of difficulties in the average workplace for us individuals somewhere on the spectrum or with some other condition – what with all of the light, sound and noise,” added Joshua Nelson, a graduate of the abilIT program and a cybersecurity professional. “A lot of the ideas that people came up with here today could actually be very useful if implemented in workplaces. We made a point of designing solutions that would be economical and also benefit all employees, not just neurodivergent individuals.”