October 15, 2021

Design through the lenses of mental health & trauma: Reimagining the lecture hall experience

The first in a series of reimagining spaces through the experiences of those living with a mental health condition or diagnosis, traumatic experiences and other obstacles.

While it’s said frequently that Covid-19 has shifted almost every facet of human life, it’s still incredible how it echoes across everything we do and design. For example, the pandemic has completely changed how we think about gathering in large groups, and that change is compounded through heightened awareness around social identity, mental health, and the pandemic’s traumatic effects on young people.

Recognizing this, we’ve gathered a cross-disciplinary team to look at different environments that impact our younger generation and have reimagined them through the lens of mental health and trauma.  This is the first in a series of posts that will share our emerging perspectives and possibilities on how trauma – physical or emotional – on the brain and body, requires us to rethink our work and built world to optimize spaces for everyone.

Various modules that support physical and psychological needs for both individuals and groups.

The Lecture Hall: Driving Realities 

As we return in person to workplace and educational settings, the lecture hall is symbolic of a return to gathering and also has the potential to transform as the last year demonstrated our ability to supplement routine instruction with virtual anytime connectivity.

We strongly believe there’s both the desire for and value in gathering in person and that we have an opportunity to redesign the lecture hall experience to be more inclusive, flexible, and choice-oriented to better support students’ mental well-being. Where the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) advanced environmental design for physical disabilities, we are still scratching the surface around what it means to design for those with a mental health condition or diagnosis and trauma.

Shift from physical space to head space. The ADA was the culmination of years of activism that resulted in a formal approach to the built environment accommodating people with physical challenges. The events of the past year have further raised our sensitivity to the effects our daily environment have on our mental well-being and ability to cope and recover from individual and collective trauma. Whether a major event or a microaggression, our physical environment can either reinforce or help heal from those experiences.

A year like no other. During 2020 we saw students and workers evolve into groups of either those who thrived under isolation or struggled with lack of connection as we worked and learned remotely. Some individuals found the space to focus and the ability to completely control their environment satisfying and invigorating, while others felt unmoored by not being part of a larger, more structured system. We also saw mobilization and large gatherings for social change across a spectrum of politics and identities.

Designing for individual and collective well-being. For individuals who have experienced trauma or live with an underlying mental health issue, reengaging in a group setting can be stressful due to feelings of anxiety, lack of trust with other people in close settings, or questions of self-confidence. We thought deeply about the neurodiversity of students and how our spaces must be radically flexible moving forward. Our goal was to look at ways to provide a transitional environment that accommodates individual’s engagement in a large group learning setting that better supports their physical and psychological needs.

Reimagining what transfer of knowledge between individuals looks like and feels like.

Reimagining a transitional environment for individuals with a diversity of experiential needs.

The Lecture Hall: Design Exploration 

Rejuvenating the lecture hall experience. The typical lecture hall has not changed dramatically over the years, with its main purpose being instruction and the transfer of knowledge between individuals at a specific time and place, from a specific source. The design is often economically efficient, straightforward, and one-dimensional. While flexible online learning may now be poised to displace the general lecture class, there’s no replacement for the shared experiential quality of a dynamic lecture environment and the class bonding that comes with witnessing that experience. Like theater, concerts, or rallies, the “were you there” moment bonds the group together.

Traditionally, the lecture theater structure has instilled a measure of uniformity on the crowd. Rows of all similar seats, facing all in the same direction. Approaching the end of 2019, we were beginning to see an alternative “in the round” lecture hall model, which attempted to equalize the viewing and engagement experience for students, by decreasing the distance from any one seat to the lecturer.

Our post-2020 transitional model for the lecture hall suggests building on the direction these new models were going combined with what we discovered about more flexibility and control over our physical setting. By adding more individual control over four spatial characteristics in a large group environment—temperature, color, visibility, scale—we can start to develop a transitional environment for individuals with a diversity of experiential needs.

Reimagining how the lecture hall might blend indoor and outdoor spaces to promote mental well-being.

Destigmatizing mental health and social outcomes. The focus on accommodating individual environmental needs marks an acceptance of personal experiential differences that extends beyond traumatic experience. It is a recognition that flexible settings can enhance the learning experience for all of us. And, as a byproduct, such design can further destigmatize mental health needs as well as socially differing viewpoints, such as racial, sexual, or cultural. This new lecture hall model is an opportunity to critically revisit how we come together to learn, share, and transfer knowledge at a time when live experiences are again taking center stage.

Learn more about our Whole Child, Every Child initiative >