Trauma-Informed Design

Micène Fontaine, July 7, 2020

Trauma comes in many forms: physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual or sexual abuse, neglect, discrimination, violence, etc. Trauma, much like mental health issues, is all too often invisible to others and exacerbated by past experiences.

Consider this: Collectively, in the first few months of 2020 alone, we’ve seen domestic violence and joblessness rise globally as a ripple effect of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are also witnessing civil unrest to protest systemic racism. Pair that with the number of lives lost and the ongoing uncertainty about what to expect next and many are left traumatized in unprecedented ways. For those most affected, their sense of worth, dignity, and identity can be shattered. 

Trauma-informed design aims at creating environments that promote healing, safety, good health and wellbeing. As Neha Gill, Executive Director of Chicago-based human rights organization Apna Ghar beautifully explains in her December 2019 Forbes article:

”[It] requires realizing how the physical environment affects identity, worth and dignity, and how it promotes empowerment. It requires recognizing that the physical environment has an impact on attitude, mood and behavior because there is a strong link between our physiological state, our emotional state and the physical environment. It also means that intentionally designing and maintaining healing environments leads to empowerment and resists retraumatizing those who have already experienced so much trauma.”


Trauma Informed Color Palette
Example of Trauma-Informed Color Palette by PHFS for a Family Village

Design professionals can be instrumental in creating this sense of worth and dignity and in making sure that nothing in the environment is a trigger. It’s a tall order but can help you create built environments that assist people in need. Some of the solutions are incredibly simple yet go a very long way in restoring someone’s sense of identity and dignity. For instance, in homeless shelters or safe houses, a simple step is having a way for the temporary occupants to write in their name to indicate that the allocated space is theirs for the time being.

While we may not be able to achieve no poverty by design, design remains a very powerful tool in the fight against poverty and trauma. I never cease to be impressed by design professionals who use their skills to help those who need it most and effect change by design.

:Change by Design