Sticky notes on a desk.

Trauma-responsive design: an interview with Rachael Dietkus

November 15, 2022

Professionals working in the experience design field represent an array of skills and knowledge: designers and managers, researchers and engineers, data-driven and creative folks, CX, UX, EX… the profession has many faces. We are thrilled to have a design strategist from the fields of social work and mental health share some of her background, her learnings, and a few insights into her work: please meet Rachael Dietkus!

My current job / my role / how I call myself

I am a mom, social worker, design researcher, strategist, and founder of Social Workers Who Design

Portrait of Rachael Dietkus. She's wearing a dark longsleeve and glasses. Behind her is a window.

I enjoy reimagining how and why we design and allowing time and space for reflective debriefing and processing. 

I am deeply committed to being trauma-informed and practice design and research in a trauma-responsive way. 

Trauma has been deemed by some as the word of the decade. And because of this, there are a number of different definitions and interpretations of the word. The definition that I often reference is from Karine Bell, Resmaa Menakem, and Bruce Perry:

Trauma is a response to anything that’s overwhelming and that happens too much, too fast, too soon, and/or for too long. It is coupled with a lack of protection and support. And it lives in the body, stored as sensation: pain or tension - or is a lack of sensation, like numbness. The important thing to also note about trauma is that it does not impact us all in the same way. What may be traumatic for you may not be traumatic for someone else. The context in which an event occurred is critically important. 

Trauma-informed design has evolved as both a consequential and emerging way of practicing design and research. I believe designers are surrounded by variations of trauma and grief in the serious and complex topics we research, the systems we often work within, the people we interact with as peers and colleagues, as well as those we might are fortunate to design with and for. When we commit to learning about and understanding historical and modern day trauma-informed principles, we build a trauma literacy and then design and research with a profound trauma humility. 

Sometimes fellow designers have called me a design therapist, and I kind of like that. 

A short paper I wrote on the topic is available for free on ResearchGate: The Call for Trauma-informed design research and practice 

My professional background

My design practice is influenced by growing up in a working class town and meeting people where they are at (physically, emotionally, psychologically). 

This has been shaped by formal and continuing education in design and social work, and guided by a nearly 25-year commitment to service and social justice advocacy in the social sector, the federal government, and education. 

My secret way of working that helps me to thrive

Like many, I've grown to have to be a morning person but I still have my most creative energy and reflection later at night when the house is still and everyone is asleep. 

I love that time at night, especially in kind of colder weather we’re starting to experience now in Illinois. 

An experience that I enjoy looking back on

I started volunteering with Champaign-Urbana Design Org (CUDO) back in 2009. 

I strongly believe that the work I got to do with them paved the way for many of the future intersections of social work and design. 

In the future, I would love to work on this project/field/experience

I have had a steady and growing interest in astronauts and space exploration since the 1980s. 

So, at this point in my life, I would love to be able to call myself a celestial citizen and work on any social work and design project with NASA.

Some people I like to follow/listen to/learn from

I love meeting with and learning from current social work and design students. For years, I've tried to make time each week to meet with one or a few and hear about their projects and coursework, and answer any questions they might have about meaningful social impact work and social workers who design. So this is a shoutout to the many I have had the great fortune of learning with and from. 

I have been enjoying the deeply reflective and practical blog series from Jenny Winfield, a lead designer with CHAYN, on trauma-informed principles in design and research. I strongly recommend checking these out. 

And I am enamored with the work of Jodie Cariss and Chance Marshall, the therapists and founders of Self Space (based in the UK). Their book “How to Grow Through What You Go Through” is a magnificent read that shows how we can approach so many aspects of our lives with modern mental maintenance.

You can connect with Rachael here