Generative Social Distance Design: The Optimisation of Building Layouts for COVID-19

The 2020 SEOUL DESIGN INTERNATONAL FORUM has obtained written consent from the speaker to publish the summarized and edited content

SPEAKER: Des Fagan (Head of Architecture, University of Lancaster)

Social Distancing Lab Project

I would like to talk about the ‘Social Distance Research Institute’ project, which ended about three months ago. Former Senator Ted. Kennedy said, “What divides us pales in comparison to what unites us.” As I worked on a technical research project centered on isolating people during an epidemic, I personally hoped that the shared experience could revitalize the community and rekindle a sense of social cohesion.

What is social distancing and how does it affect transmission?

The prevailing view of the modern scientific community is that maintaining human-to-human distance is an important factor in reducing the rate of respiratory cross-contamination. The principle of air transmission is that droplets are emitted when people talk to each other or cough, and if people who are within 2 meters of each other inhale it, it is easy to be directly infected with the virus. Therefore, reducing the distance between people increases the risk of infection, and almost all countries have been able to directly reduce the number of deaths by introducing social distancing measures.

These statistical data indicate that social distancing measures were effective in reducing the number of confirmed deaths, which is a result showing that social distancing is a key response to the spread of COVID-19. COVID-19 has had a huge impact on the global economy, not just on human life.


What was interesting during the study was the various scientific approaches to the social distance measurement adopted by different countries. It was 2m in UK and Canada, 1.8m in US, 1.3m in China, and in France and Hong Kong, it was only 1m.


It's changed now, but social distancing has led to very different scientific interpretations of the same kind of disease, which was interesting to observe. What each country has in common is that social distancing reduces the initial number of patients in hospitals and medical departments, flattening the curve of infection.

Social distancing inducement signs


Each country encouraged its citizens to maintain social distancing in various ways. In the early days of the pandemic, several methods were used. In some countries, there were also esoteric guidelines on what social distancing meant. In most cases, guidelines were expressed at the minimum cost by utilizing the resources specific to each country. A circle was drawn on the floor with chalk or expressed with graffiti, and there was one case where a simple but effective result was maximized by drawing a line on the asphalt.


The West similarly expressed guidelines in various ways, and at the time, sales of industrial tape in black and yellow skyrocketed. In some cases, they wrote down phrases telling people to keep their distance in a strong tone as if they were angry, and in some cases, like the Tesco store in the UK, they designed their own brand cover including the color and font of the brand identity, but most of them were hastily printed on A4 paper. In Thailand, a method of attaching it directly to the seat so that it can sit on a chair in a public place one by one was applied. In the early days of the epidemic, most cities effectively displayed messages using what they already had. Because it was an urgent and critical situation, design or aesthetics were not important considerations. I raised a question here. The situation of mankind around the world and the problems to be solved are the same, but why are they all pursuing different methods? Is this a problem that can be solved wisely by design methods?

Social Distancing Research Questions

Four main research questions were hypothesized.

First, can we use computer systems and generative software algorithms to automate social distancing guidelines? Second, how does signage design affect the measuring of social distancing? Third, how does signage branding affect social distancing? Fourth, can we achieve our goals cost-effectively?

Afterwards, the scenarios came up with test ideas for all questions. We quickly went through the design and set up the test space, then invited people to evaluate and collect the data. We named it Lancaster Social Distancing Lab, which was funded as part of the 의13.2 million Beyond Imagination project to support excellent design research at the University of Lancaster.

Many of the difficulties in developing the initial design of a project occurred at the onset of the pandemic. In the UK, the entire design team were unable to have a face-to-face meeting, so we had a meeting using Microsoft Teams and designed together, which was a very new apporach. We had to fight the epidemic like this and proceed with the project. The project was held in Lancaster, England, about an hour's drive north of Manchester, and the building we chose was located in the middle of Lancaster City, so it was easily accessible, and it was a multifunctional building with offices, cafes, business meeting facilities, a dance hall and lecture halls. It was an ideal condition to test various complex arrangements in relation to the sign system that displays the trade name, and the structure of the space, such as the stairwell and wall panels, was complexly formed.

Social distancing and branding

The first step in our testing and evaluation was to observe and understand how to approach the new type of sign. Because we needed to understand what people were thinking about new and different types of branded signage and visual tone. Participants were shown different types of images visualized in different ways. When tested by presenting a universal or off-the-shelf style sign, only 63% said they were effective in communicating information. Few people found the British government signage effective, and some said it was too aggressive and powerful. In addition, only 65% ​​said that signs with the colors and logos of the local council were effective, and that the exclusive signs produced by the stores were not effective in conveying information because they were too easily buried in the background or were not recognizable. Among them, the sign that 72% of respondents said was the most effective was a designer bespoke sign.


Universal, ready-made style application


UK government signage application


Local council signage application


Store own signage


Custom signage

People felt it was worth taking a new signage approach rather than adopting an existing brand or style in a new epidemic. New solutions to new problems are needed. Therefore, we derived a color palette that reflects the psychology of warmth, safety, confidence, and calm, and used Arial as the font.


Since most people have universal experience with road pedestrian signs, the form of road signs with models for messages and directions was used for new signs so that they are not too new or unfamiliar. By setting simple principles according to the type of sign, new signs are developed by creating a circle for a message that provides advice such as keeping a distance, a hexagon for a message that conveys instructions or not applicable, and an arrow to indicate direction. and went through a series of user reviews. In terms of design, the movement lines and patterns were optimized throughout the location of the sign related to the existing plan, and the sales status by retail store was also checked using the existing information.


Use of Algorithms

We used Rhino, Grasshopper, and Parametric, and set it so that the design of the floor plan to be tested can be automatically changed through a complex but optimized algorithm. Since the structure of the retail store is ideally configured to achieve optimal sales per unit area, update the algorithm taking these principles into account, and place people, chairs, and tables per square meter in accordance with the distance principle to efficiently utilize the space. A 'social distancing floor plan' was created as a layout.



In the AutoCAD drawing showing the location of the chairs in the cafe within the building, the white line represents the social distance offset from the individual, and the yellow line represents the distance at which an individual can sit safely. It shows the bubble of personal safety distance. After the design was generated by the algorithm, the printing, fabrication and installation processes were also interesting. We made the signs on the walls and floors out of vinyl, and carefully worked to ensure that they were attached to the correct location. In the end, I think we have created a new classification system for very dynamic signs. The message was delivered in a way that was very clean and clear, but also comfortable and reassuring.


When the Social Distancing Institute first opened, it received a lot of attention from the community, and the first week after opening was very busy. Many business owners who visited the research center after seeing a space with clear signage applied thought it was very useful, and 91% of them recognized that signage installation was very important. It was believed that this could reduce the risk of infection. 86% of respondents believe that customers or users have some responsibility for social distancing, and 76% of people say that caretakers or building owners are also responsible.

Project outcome

We felt that the implementation of the findings of this study would contribute to the increased benefit of the community. Accordingly, the signage was released as open source so that it could be downloaded for free. The downloadable signage package can be customized in any size and shape according to user needs.



Impact and evaluation of the project; Practical use and expansion

The finished result of the project was applied to the stairways and building entrances around Lancaster, in offices, and the city, and I personally felt proud. I was happy that the research results were linked to practical use and helped to reduce the risk of infection, and the cases of application in places are being applied and spread in other places.


We applied for funding to the UK Innovation Agency to expand our research across the UK. We are planning to create an online portal using cloud computing services and make it accessible to anyone. By uploading the social distancing algorithm to an online portal rather than using the Grasshopper algorithm to directly change the drawing, building owners such as hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and businesses can instantly create social distancing drawings and signs to optimize layout can be created. If implemented, such a system could ultimately save the UK economy millions of dollars, as a variety of design approaches could enable rapid and accurate building relocation designs, and the safe operation of spaces within buildings.


I think the research project was successful in proving the concept, although it was done in a very short time. The existence of this signage may be considered gradually less important to those who have learned by repetition and memory, but the sign installation and recognition in the early stages will induce people to keep a reasonable distance without the need for special reminders.

We understand that within a society, physical space and distance do not define empathy or humanity among members. Physical distance is rather inducing us to feel closer than before in emotional relationships, and since we have experienced so many things over the past year, I think we should help each other. What unites us and what divides us? We need to think again.

“What divides us pales in comparison to what unites us.”

Ted Kennedy

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