31.10.2016 : Design Practice

The psychology of hygienic design

Why good design is critical for client and industry reputation.

Hygienic design is about making healthy buildings, healthy processes and therefore healthy products. It’s relevant to lots of industry, but particularly to dairy where milk is bombarded by pathogens as soon as it leaves the mammary glands. Dairy is also a highly visible market and therefore vulnerable to perceptions – and misperceptions – about what we’re consuming. 

A brand, or a whole company, can be ruined when consumers or the media question the safety of a product. There are real and there are perceived risks.

Let's say an infant formula milk powder is not treated or blended property, it contains foreign objects, or it is contaminated with botulism, listeria or another pathogen. That’s a real risk. However, if that same milk powder was actually safe, but somehow the public believed it wasn't safe - then that's a perceived risk. In both scenarios, the impact on the producer could be ruinously the same.

Hygienic design can address both risks - it's about creating a culture of safety, cleanliness and care as well as providing a hygienic 'enclosure' for the factory processes.

Design can influence how we feel about our workplace and therefore how we conduct ourselves in it. It can also influence people on the outside looking in – if a facility looks disorderly or a worker looks untidy, then we tend to attribute this dishevelled look to the rest of the plant. 

Many may ask, “Okay, but so what? We (the public) don’t get to see inside to the hygienic areas, and we probably don’t understand the whole process anyway. Does it really matter if we think a worker or process looks sloppy?” If things appear sloppy that probably means that there are, at the very least, weak points in the culture and therefore in the production chain in terms of hygiene. It’s a signal that things aren’t right. 

Let’s say we design a new dairy facility, where the employees perceive the owners focus on keeping up standards; putting a lot of effort into their training, amenities and facilities – generally into their well-being. Then it’s much more likely that this focus will carry through into excellent work practices. If it’s a new greenfield project, we could orientate the building on the site so employee areas (e.g. cafeterias and outdoor spaces) receive natural light. We could also select materials and create design to enable those areas to be pleasant and inviting. That’s an ideal scenario for a new facility. If it’s an existing building that needs refurbishment, it’s often more difficult to apply. 

A large part of our work is refurbishing older factories, where often constraints and compromises have to be considered. There are lots of things we can do to influence the culture, whether it’s replacing whole rooms, providing new lighting or new furniture to modernise a facility. It’s also very important that we consider the whole factory, not just one process or one room. It would be similar to whitening one tooth… it just makes the rest look worse.

I’ve talked about creating an environment that employees’ value and how it helps create a good workplace culture. But how does that composition work in a sterile environment that doesn’t naturally promote an aesthetic conducive to a pleasant working environment? We have to think of them as distinct, but supportive of each other. 

Let’s get back to the real risks from botulism, listeria and other pathogens. An important part of this is selecting building materials that don’t harbour pathogens that are a threat to our health. So a really good hygienic design in this sense would feel clinical, foreign to humans, not warm and inviting. This isn’t naturally an environment that supports employee well-being, which is why outside the process areas people need to feel looked after, where the place has some sort of humanity… in other words, hygienic design doesn’t work in isolation, it needs the right behaviours around the processes to be safe. 

Consumerism and architecture are highly linked, and can help the public appreciate and trust products. A modern road frontage is important, while being sympathetic to the external environment and integrating with the landscape are some public relation techniques that can architecturally promote, coexist and symbolise a brand. There are often many opportunities to make industrial facilities unique and educational by showcasing the process on the road frontage. This may be undertaken with glazed windows to visually link and educate the passer-by momentarily. Tours, viewing galleries into the process areas and integrated branding can improve the perception of product care and trust. 

Which brings us back to the first point about reality and perception being linked. Trust by consumers, the media and between staff is critically important to the whole food chain. Once that trust is lost, you never get it back. That’s why taking account of the human factors in industrial processes is so important – and why good design is critical for client and industry reputation.

About the Author

Design Practice

A team effort

Designing food and beverage facilities is just one of the many projects our integrated design team enjoy doing; seamlessly integrating process, people and the buildings they occupy. 

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