DISTANCE MEANINGS -Issues of Design 28

Post 702 –by Gautam Shah


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Distance has TWO fundamental involvements, One, where we judge farness of a perceptible object, and Two, where we gauge the ‘apartness of two things from each other. In both instances the distance is primarily a comparison and so scaled quantity, but it could be the intensity of the subjective sense of perception. Distance tells us about the intervening space. Distance is a measure of how far away an object is from other things. Displacement is magnitude how much an object has been displaced from its original location and in which direction the shift has occurred. In this sense Distance is a scalar whereas Displacement is a vector quantity.

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The word Distāre (Latin) derives from the root ‘sta’ =to stand, make or be firm and also meant to stand apart. Another older variant Distaunce of 13-14 C =a dispute, controversy, civil strife, rebellion, disagreement, discord, strife. Destance of old French =discord, quarrel. Distantia of Latin =a standing apart. Distantem a nominative distans = standing apart, separate, distant. Modern version Distance =remoteness of space, extent of space between two objects or places, an interval of time, remote part of a field of vision.

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Further and Farther are two confusing words. Further is older, and it had originally nothing to do with far. The word far was loaded with -er to become farrer. This was difficult to use orally. There were two other words nearby, fore or forth. In other words, further didn’t originally mean ‘more distant’ but something like ‘more ahead’, or, as the contemporary Oxford Dictionary states it, ‘more forward, more onward’.

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Distance is a measurement in numerical form of how far apart the objects are and also a proportionate measure or ratio. The numerical values are unattached or unconditional (absolute) so in nominal conditions ‘distance from A to B’ and from B to A are the same and interchangeable’.

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Greek Aristarchus (310-230 BC) was the first to estimate the Earth to Sun distance by measuring the angular separation of the Sun and Moon. The first reasonably accurate measurement of the Earth-Sun distance was made by Cassini in 1672. Scientifically accurate distance can be measured, if there is a bounce back (reaction). Apollo missions positioned reflectors to bounce a pulse of a laser. Radiations or physical changes on an interstellar body reach differently to such reflectors on earth and moon, permitting computation of distance.


Spatial remoteness is a separation of sensorial nature with some emotional flavour. The separation may also indicate the difference or disparity between two real or abstract things, thoughts or cognition. The separation or remoteness allows wider view and adds the capacity to observe issues dispassionately. Meaning of remoteness, indicating the space between things, places or events is of late 14c origin. Remoteness is the figurative sense of aloofness.

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If distance refers to the existence of physical space between two objects, then to measure that one can use the time to transverse the interval. The remoteness or closeness of a thing or happening can be a measure of reach of the human body limbs and sensorial nodes. The reach offers tools for intervention, offense and defense.

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The human reach was reflected in word Distantia (Latin root of distance) which meant standing apart (or away) from quarrels, estrangements, discords or strife. This term Distantia refers to a spatial distance, but also indicate the effects of it.


A shouting distance, within ear shot, shouting distance, within sniffing distance, under one’s nose, all relate to sensorial capacities, whereas cheek by jowl, hand in hand, near at hand, hand in glove, within striking distance, walking distance, within spitting distance, stones throw away, cheek by jowl, shoulder to shoulder is limbs related distancing characteristics. There are few terms where the distance is traversing in time like the impending disaster, imminent, upcoming event, relapse and longing. Distance is more pronounced when two people turn away from each other. This is an attempt to disorient the sensorial nodes.

Super Car Tour

Distances seem finite where the definitive entities like under a single sky or roof, or within a bounded terrain (plaza, public square). Distances are less daunting where destinations are within sensorial reach.

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Relationships involving hate or love are reflected in the intervening distance. Distance sometimes lets you know who is worth keeping, and who is worth letting go (-Lana Del Rey). But, now the relationships are bridged by means of communication and presence through virtual adjacency. In the past when distances were measured in time, such as lunches required or horses feed station on the way. And that is why ‘time was the longest distance between two places’ (Tennessee Williams).The big picture doesn’t just come from distance; it also comes from time’ (Simon Sinek).

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Distance blurs the scene but then everything seems simpler from a distance’ (-Gail Tsukiyama). Distance not only gives nostalgia, but perspective, and maybe objectivity’ (Robert Morgan). And indeed, Louis L’Amour finds distance lends perspective and I often write better of a place when I am some distance from it. One can be so overwhelmed by the forest as to miss seeing the trees’.

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This is the 28th article (in continuation of old series -new beginning) on ISSUES of DESIGN.



Post 590 by Gautam Shah (12 of 16 Behaviour in Spaces)


Spatial Distance means:

  1. Size of intervening space, (between people-people and people-objects),
  2. Perceptive extent of space
  3. Reach in space.

Distance is also formatted by environmental factors, social requirements, psychological make-up, nature of communication, expression, scale and use of spatial objects, and time duration of the affectation. Spatial distance affecting the behaviour is perceived to be in touching, threatening, disturbing or overwhelming. Such interpretations vary with culture.


Spatial Distancing > Wikipedia image by Diliff

 Four distinct zones within which interpersonal transactions normally take place:

■ Intimate distance is used in intimate relationships such as for embracing, kissing, touching or whispering, and ranges from 0 to 450mm. This is an Intimate area close to the body, within which it is possible to have physical touch, non verbal communication and emotional interactions. To gain such an intimate position one needs to be familiar with the other person or coerce. One has to ensure that by being in this zone, no harm occurs to the other person. Even in the intimate space close to the body, the nature and level of intimacy is affected by the attitudes of the persons involved. Here due to the intimate closeness one senses the texture, temperature, moisture, vibrations, energy, etc.

A handshake or hug nominally has no sexual meaning in many cultures. In some cultures privacy achieved by a veil is considered retardant of intimacy. Intimacy could be a display or an expression with physical touch but with no apparent mental feelings.


Falling in Love by Albert Schroder (1854-1939)

■ Personal distance is useful for interactions between good friends, and family members and ranges 450mm to 1200mm. The area immediate to the body marks the Personal Area. It is a zone of regulated and selective participation. Here one can reach out through projection (expression), channels of communication, physically (through body limbs) or stretch out with gadgets (walking stick, stethoscope, etc.). The intimacy is regulated, but not a private affair. One may create screens to achieve it. One can dwell in a culture or state formed of metaphysical elements (beliefs, customs, etc.), to achieve the same.

In case of relationship with objects, declaration of ownership creates such personal space. The strong association to a person is imprinted on the object’s form or position. Chief guests chair, head chair at the end of a dining table are such personal entities.

Flight Delay

Flight Delays > Flickr image by TheeErin

■ Social distance is for interactions between social acquaintances, and its range is from 1200mm to 3.5mt. This defines a zone of Nearness, where position and duration of the eye contact, sound pitch and olfactory sensation become important. This can be a non-committal area where personal involvement can be avoided.

As per the protocol, leaders of the two nations never share a seat, but rather occupy separate seats distanced with a small table or flower vase. Similarly deputies accompanying their leaders, are made to sit at some distance, from where they get a sense of participation but have no chance of intervention. On public platforms one intentionally uses lower sound pitch to draw attention. On very large dining table one can effectively hold conversation with members sitting on the two sides, but not across the table. In gatherings one uses differing sound pitch to reach desired distance.


■ Public distance is mainly for public spaces or non-personal interactions, and is above 3.5mt. These are Reach Zones beyond the anthropometric ambit. One may reach-out with additional reach tools, such as PA system, projection TV, surveillance camera, high pitch sound, extra ordinary (attention catching) movement, gaudy or unusual gesture, posture or dressing. Such zones constitute very specific spaces.

Temples have marked sanctimonious areas. Performance stages have podiums. In such zones intimacy or privacy of personal nature, are not available, yet one can announce it through metaphoric presentations.

Two persons or members of a group can talk in whispers and give out an impression of intimacy in spite of the apparent distance between them. Conversely talk-discussions in high pitch could be used to present bonhomie and thereby a close-knit entity. Politicians and celebrities talk in whispers to state things that need to be made public and talk loudly things that need not be public, both ways they draw the attention. A public orator changes the pitch from normal to very low or high to draw the attention of the audience and thereby register a point.


A Sunday on La Grande Jatte 1884 by Georges Seurat


Hall (1959) has stipulated that spatial separation also serves expansive function. He made a study of the spatial relations that seem appropriate to various kinds of interactions. They vary with intimacy, culture, and depend on the possibility of eye contact.


Picnic Kaivopuisto Helsinki > Wikipedia image by JIP at en Wikipedia

‘One can easily distinguish strangers from friends in an airport lounge. Strangers will keep a distance, taking alternate seats wherever possible. Friends tend to form clots, and families even pile one on the top of another. Total strangers will comfortably seat themselves only inches apart if the seats are back to back, but friends and the members of the family never arrange themselves in this way. Eye contact invites interaction and so is sought to the degree that intimacy already exists.’ (Hall E. T. 1959 The silent language).


Revelry at an Inn by Havicksz Steen 1674

There are spatial zones appropriate to various types of interactions. Distances in virtual communication technology mediated interactions are likely to be different. Hall has also shown the cultural variations that South American needs much closer distance for impersonal information than a North American desire or is accustomed to.

Very close (75 to 150mm) Soft whisper, top secret sharing (lovers, mother and infant).


Very close – love – Pixabay image by Adina Voicu

● Close (200 to 300mm) Audible whispers, very confidential talk (related persons).

● Near (300 to 500mm) Soft voice, confidential interaction (public spaces like elevators, coffeehouse, confession).


Sharing personal details with a Doctor > Wikipedia image by Rhoda Baer

● Neutral (500 to 900mm) Soft voice, low volume, personal subject matter (bars, small restaurants, home dining, breakfast table, fast food counters, consulting rooms, reception table).


Luncheon of the Boating party Pierre by Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) Wikipedia image

● Normal (1300 to 1500mm) Full voice, impersonal information, interaction with known persons (Home drawing rooms, public dining table, Government officials, meetings of heads of states).


Holyrood Palace Scotland Dining table with non-committal distance (Attr: W. Lloyd MacKenzie via Flickr @http://www.flickr.com/photos/saffron_blaze)

 ● Public (1700 to 2500mm) Slightly over-loud, information for others to hear, public address, seminars, teaching.

● Across room (2500 to 6000mm) Loud voice, talking to a group (Boisterous gatherings, public lounges).

● Hailing privately (6000 to 7500 mm) Indoors, Loud voice departures (neighbourhoods, across the road, noisy workplaces).


Waving off > Wikipedia image

● Hailing public (30.00 mts) Outdoors, Declaratory, Loud voice shouting, departures and calls (Airports, Railway stations).


The receding edge of the table allows Larry King – in Live show to adjust the distance > Wikipedia image by Billyshearso

Impersonal discussion, takes place at 1200 to 1500 mm, encroach the inner distance of this zone, and you or interlocutor will retreat. Move back from the outer distance and you can state what you wish to say by reducing the power of the interlocutor. One can move from impersonal discussion to a focussed or personal matter by reducing the distance. Alternatively change to a non committal mode by increasing the distance. TV anchors do these distance tricks on their show. For an intimate question the anchor pushes forward own body (Larry King of CNN ), but as soon as the question sinks in with the guest, the anchor withdraws not just to the nominal position, but little further backward. These distancing movements allow the guest to deliver the answer more objectively and the camera frames the guest alone for such a ‘heroic effort’. A host may intimidate the guest by doing exactly opposite of this. Smart elders and senior executives are (subconsciously) adapt to this.


Tonight show with Jay Leno -varies the eye level contact  > Wikipedia image by Tina Hager (PD-LAYOUT; PD-USGOV-POTUS; PD-USGOV-WH.)


This post forms 12 th of the Sixteen part of Lecture series on Behaviour in Space that I will be offering for the spring semester starting Jan 2016 (to mid April2016) at School of Interior Design, Faculty of Design, CEPT University, Ahmedabad, India.


Post 292 – by Gautam Shah



Spatial distancing is an important design consideration for individual and groups. Spatial distancing is formed by the sensorial perceptivity, recognition and reaction. All these factors are conditioned by space size, form, physical distancing and environmental conditions. The spatial distancing is sensed by the perceptibility of an object or a person through its virtual proximity, the possibility of physical touch, eye contact, and audio privacy. Visual recognition occurs from familiarity, distance and illumination over the object or person, angle or level difference and the context. Reaction is reflected in distanced or non participating behaviour.

Eye Contact – spatial distancing


Spatial distancing governs both, the individualization and participation. The need to be alone, be with someone, or part of a group arises from several factors like Personal (psychological and physiological), Intra-personal (communication, expression and exchanges), and Group behaviour mechanisms (sense of belonging, sharing, participation, confirmation).

Group Behaviour Distancing

For an individual, a space that permits one to format a ‘distance’ from others is a private space. For a group, however, a space that allows easy communication and recognition (without any aids or extra strain), is an intimate space.



A person or group carve their own space by different territorial markings. It involves creating and maintaining an exclusive control over a space. The control implies privileges, and may involve actions in its defense. For the individual, territorial control provides security and identity, and is communicated through personalization and definition of the space. For the group, territorial control, is the cause of their being together, and it is expressed through the common behaviour. The territorial markings are of physical, metaphysical, and metaphorical nature, presenting spaces of many different characteristics. Territoriality is a means of distinguishing a space.

Social distancing at a Bus stop

A person through behaviour projects the privacy and intimacy in various forms and proportions, whereas the space facilitates various levels of physical closeness, isolation and insulation. The mental needs ultimately define the degree of involvement. The culture defines the acceptable or inappropriate types of social distancing. The meanings of spatial distancing, in private space like a drawing room and a public space like an elevator, are different in different cultures. Crowded spaces force intimacy of coexistence, which may force an individual to mentally barricade own-self or open-up for interaction.

Intimate spaces and Spatial distancing

Enclosing space forms (corners, cones, concave, narrow lanes) force individuals to be closely spaced, and be intimate enough to form a group. Some environmental and other effects are highly focussed and superior (illuminated spots, under the fan area, a sunny patch, a breezy path), so force many to share the same zone, and so breed intimacy.

Illustration_of_'A_State_Party'_Wellcome_L0073717A Primary territory refers to a realm associated with an individual who has an exclusive use of it. Secondary territory is like ‘social’ sharing territory, without any personal marking or right to occupancy. These markings are, however, recognizable by others and rarely breached. Public territories are available to all, but with conditions. Interaction territory is a space created and facilitated by others, when people are interacting.

Spatial Distancing -keeping away

Hall argues that there are spatial zones appropriate to various types of interactions that manifest spatial distancing. At very close distance of 75 to 150 mm one can whisper into ears or proceed with touch. At 300 to 500 mm distance one can have extended touch by body limb and talk in soft voice. At 500-900 mm distance one is on the verge of being committal. At a distance range of 1300 to 1500 mm one has a chance of avoiding others and, yet be impersonal, if body posture can be changed. Spatial distancing 1700 to 2500 mm allows choice of changes in body posture and voice levels.

Spatial Distancing -Intimate Care

One can move from impersonal discussion to personal matter by reducing the distance, or to a non personal information exchange by increasing the distance. Impersonal discussion, takes place at 1200 to 1500 mm; cross the inner boundary of this zone and one’s interlocutor will retreat; cross the outer boundary and will advance or subtly change the manner in which to behave adopting the pattern appropriate to the new distance. Spatial distancing functions for same space interactions but not for virtual communication technology mediated encounters.

Gandhi -Virtual distancing but gestures are real



Post -by Gautam Shah



Seating arrangements influence the nature of interaction in a group. Space planning is key to design for social interactions. Circular seating provides a better environment for interaction. A hearth has been the focus of circular arrangement. However, in a circular seating arrangement individuals interact more with the person on opposite side rather than adjacent to them. That is why when a person conducts a group, or if there is a designated leader, the circular arrangement becomes a bow. It is observed that in four-person groups (or arrangements), favourable interaction occurs among persons seated closer together rather then facing one another. This could be the reason why young couples prefer to sit at right angle, compared to seasoned couples who prefer to sit opposite to each other.



It is found that when eye-contact is diffused, a side-by-side interaction is preferred to across-the-table interaction. The eye contact is diffused by distance, strong and focussed lighting below the eye levels, occlusion due to intervening objects like decorative food or flower vases. Diffusion may also happen when the opposite person is socially unknown or repugnant.



Very large group meeting tables (dining, conference, etc.) are designed to be of large width or with a well. Contrary to this tables are of very small width to provide intimacy, bonhomie and revelry, such as for picnics, outdoor eateries, and reunions. Coffee houses tables are small sized to encourage intimacy.


Three persons sharing a circular or triangle table is highly awkward arrangement. Similarly tables with a narrowing end create a clumsy situation unless at the wide end a leader (or presentation screen for slide show or video) holds the attention. Larry King live -the famous programme host used a table with tapered shape to position the guest (perhaps depending on the personality) at desired place and thereby control the distance of interaction.




Nature of interaction is defined by the spatial distancing. The spatial distancing could be the clear distance between the seats and one that can be manipulated by posturing. Seat distances such 450 mm are intimate, over 750 to 1200 mm are personal, over 1200 to 3500 allow social or eye contact, and over 3500 mm one has control over interaction, but beyond 15 mts one needs other means of enlargement  to achieve interaction. Though different cultures and contexts may elicit alternative expectations on distance of interaction.


The concept of spatial distancing and interaction have different connotations. Chat rooms, bulletin boards email, twitter and Skype etc. allow communication among strangers. Some of these mediums miss the personal feedback or a face-to-face context. Every media set has its own defined or expected culture, and anyone who do not abide by it is considered violating the spatial relationships. The person is considered less sociable than those who do not commit such violations.