Experiential Graphics and Trauma-Informed Design: Supporting the Whole Child

Experiential Graphics and Trauma-Informed Design: Supporting the Whole Child

Read time: 4 minutes
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 34.8 million children in the United States have experienced some form of trauma – an adverse event that has long-lasting effects on their well-being, self-esteem, and ability to learn. Trauma-Informed Design (TID), a series of patterns which address the needs of the Whole Child, is quickly gaining traction as a series of design patterns that best help our children build resilience and become ready to learn. Bassetti Architects based in Seattle and Portland, has created a downloadable open-source Trauma-Informed Design Workbook, and Experiential Graphic Design (EGD) plays an important role in the design of these spaces.

Beginning with the overall design of our learning environments, we draw from nature. Biophilia is known to have an uplifting effect on our general well-being and should be an important part of learning environments, if not the primary theme. While we want our children to have access to parks and trees and outdoor learning spaces, themed EGD can supplement those experiences with images of nature – from photos to impressionist patterns, to colors and textures. Graphics can include natural materials such as wood or stone, or man-made products that mimic biophilia and use subtle natural hues to create a calming atmosphere. Biophilic themes can be woven through wayfinding, signage, interactive elements, and art throughout a school. 

Wayfinding clarity helps reduce stress for students by making navigation simple, even under duress. Beginning at the entryway, EGD should be welcoming and make kids, families, and caregivers – learning specialists, social workers, counselors – feel like they belong, are valued, and are safe. Providing clear identifiers for learning communities can provide a sense of belonging and personalization for the entire community. Uplifting messages about self-worth help students focus on positive and encouraging thoughts; high self-efficacy can lead to better learning outcomes.

Wayfinding and signage graphics should be designed to visually collect all student services within the regular flow of the school and not set apart any one space. For example, graphics can help to de-stigmatize students experiencing homelessness. The laundry, food pantry, clothes closet, and community room can be identified with EGD integrated into the graphic language of the building. By doing this, partaking of these services is relegated to being part of the everyday and not exceptional.

In classrooms and learnings spaces, Trauma-Informed Design can reinforce the design of flexible, adaptable spaces. EGD can support these layered rooms by using graphics that help define the areas. Dark graphics can help absorb light for quiet, dark areas, while brighter colors may create a more lively, playful space such as a project-based learning or group activity pod.

Graphics on glass or other translucent materials define spaces that need to be visible while also maintaining privacy, such as small conference rooms, one-on-one learning spaces, or small reading areas set off from a classroom space. Translucency provides visibility for teachers and staff, while also creating the feeling of enclosure and safety for students. Many schools incorporate “areas of refuge,” also known as calming corners or brain spaces, within classrooms or learning communities. These are comfortable, out of the way spaces that students go to when they feel the need to self-regulate their emotions so that they can get back into a learning frame of mind. EGD within these spaces can help students understand what is happening in their brain, identify emotions, and engage them in activities that help center them. Some examples are a calming finger tracing exercise, or a graphic illustration of emotions and calming techniques.

Outside of the classroom EGD can help bolster the use of outdoor learning spaces. While interfacing with nature is highly supported among teachers, these spaces often go unused. EGD can invite teachers into outdoor learning settings and even model how they might be used. Interpretive graphics might describe special features of the site, such as wetlands, streams, or plant life, or they may be used to define spaces where a physical activity, such as jumping or balance, happens. Outdoor graphics that visually tie to indoor graphics create a cohesive feel across learning environments, showcasing the importance of outdoor learning throughout the school day.

Trauma-Informed Design in school environments features myriad ways to create spaces that address the needs of the Whole Child. Experiential graphics, whether it be wayfinding, biophilic elements, or educational signage, can support these efforts by further personalizing space and developing a positive, Whole Child-centered atmosphere throughout the learning environment.

Elaine Danielson is a Senior Associate and Experiential Graphic Designer at Bassetti Architects. Specializing in academic, civic, and cultural institutions for public and non-profit clients, Bassetti Architects delivers creative design solutions for a range of projects. Our in-house Graphic Design team helps articulate our clients’ visions into impactful projects of superior design and enduring quality. See more of Bassetti’s Experiential Graphic Design in action by viewing our portfolio.

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