Accounting for Trauma in Design

In the design of services, empathy for humans is perhaps one of the most valuable skills a designer can possess. Noting and accounting for the natural diversity of the human experience allows designers to make informed decisions on how to appropriately design for every individual.

Accounting for Trauma in Design

Inclusivity and accessibility are perhaps two of the most pressing tasks of the modern design era. Every human being is a unique individual, to the point where ‘human-centred design’ means accounting for an immeasurable number of experiences, needs and desires.

Inclusive design’s aim to make services usable, accessible, and beneficial to everyone requires a deep understanding of the varying levels of background and ability. In combatting biases and opening up experiences to all, designers must recognise, address, and learn from circumstances of age, culture, accessibility, disability, and even trauma.

Not many people, even within the design discipline, are as acutely aware of trauma-informed design as they should be. However, the field and ethos are growing, playing an increasingly profound role in response to many of the challenges faced by individuals today. Through knowledge of how specific experiences such as trauma can affect people's behaviour, moods and abilities, designers are able to create environments that are more inclusive for all.

How do we define and understand trauma from a design perspective?

Trauma is a pervasive aspect of the human experience: one that must be clearly identified and considered in design. Accounting for trauma in service design is an interesting scenario: how exactly do you understand and define trauma from a design standpoint?

Trauma is an emotional response to events or circumstances that are deeply shocking and distressing to an individual. Exposure to traumatic events has a lasting impact: brain structure, decision making, and emotional regulation can all be affected, and can undeniably shift the way individuals engage with services.

Many typically associate trauma with inherently violent experiences, but the definition can spread far wider. Trauma can be social, political, intergenerational, personal, or collective. Lilli Graf makes a very interesting point on the topic in a recent article, stating:

“About two-thirds of the European population have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. Since the pandemic, we can confidently say this number has risen to100%. We have shared a collective trauma due to the loss of freedom, certainty and, for some, even loved ones. Trauma impacts our emotions and behaviours. As designers, we are crafting experiences for people with trauma. Without understanding trauma and despite our best intentions, we can easily cause more distress. That is why we need to integrate trauma-informed and trauma-responsive practices into our work.”

The idea that we all have suffered varying degrees of trauma from the COVID-19 pandemic is an interesting one to be brought to the table. When trauma is so widespread and ingrained into the fabric of society, there’s no doubt that designers have an important responsibility to consider trauma and its impact.

Empathic design for trauma

An engaging viewpoint on trauma and design comes from an article by Jeannie Joshi, a recap of a talk given by Rachael Dietkus of the SDN New York chapter. A designer and licensed clinical social worker, this intersection of perspectives offers interesting insight into the modern design task of being trauma-informed and trauma-responsive.

“Trauma-informed design is truly a radical participatory human-centred approach to design, as it puts the experiences of all humans up front and centre. To build safe experiences or products, we must practice radical participatory design that is trauma-informed.”

Human-centred design today could also essentially be classified as trauma-responsive design in response to this viewpoint. Understanding experience is essential to human-centred design, and it is difficult to be trauma-informed in design without a depth of understanding of how trauma informs experiences.

Trauma can manifest in a variety of ways and in differing circumstances, and so an empathic understanding of individual scenarios is vital. It’s about being measured, careful and understanding in designing our interactions, and developing a sensitivity to every potential scenario.

Frameworks for trauma-informed design

Rachael presented a model of change that depicts and defines the intersection of skills necessary to provide adequate trauma-responsive design. The way in which the values, principles, and methods above combine to build the adequate knowledge and empathy builds an understanding of the nuance involved with being trauma-responsive in design work.

The above principles are set as the guidelines to a trauma-informed and trauma-responsive approach. They signify the wide variety of aspects and circumstances that must be closely considered when accounting for trauma in the design process. The design decisions and process should be transparent and safe for designer and user alike.

In society today, emotions run high in response to the constant barrage of experiences that could be defined as traumatic. Thinking back to Lilli’s stance, if all of us have truly been affected by trauma in one way or another, it’s only natural for designers to feel a compulsion to incorporate thoughts of trauma in inclusive design.

Our human existence will always be prone to casting up moments of frustration, pain, anxiety, and trauma: the very least we can do for each other is attempt to ingrain empathy into our thoughts, work and interactions, whether by design or naturally formed. Through accounting for trauma in design, services can be created that hold humanity’s best interests at heart.


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