What Can Designers Do to Combat the Loneliness Epidemic?

In the opinion of one designer at a recent Think Tank panel, “we’re either helping create spaces that connect people or we’re not.”

ProMedica HQ Toledo
HKS’s design for the ProMedica Headquarters in Toledo, Ohio, aimed to bolster employee’s sense of connection to one another. Courtesy Tom Harris

The thing about loneliness is that we all know how it feels. At a recent Think Tank panel hosted at HKS’s Dallas hub, moderator and Metropolis editor in chief Avinash Rajagopal asked audience members to turn to their neighbor and share an instance in which they have felt lonely or socially isolated. The room buzzed with stories of vulnerability in what seemed like a rare moment of human connection.

“Honestly, we don’t understand loneliness enough,” Rajagopal said, but over the course of the conversation, the panelists found themselves united in their conviction that designers have a role to play. Erin Peavey, a design researcher at HKS, put it bluntly: “We’re either helping create spaces that connect people or we’re not.”

Peavey expanded on the grim reality of the problem: “Some of the research coming out of Cigna has shown the overarching implications of loneliness on our health are worse than a 15-cigarettes-a-day smoking habit.” It’s not just that loneliness affects us individually, she noted, but it also prevents us from interacting with our communities.

Pointing to the elasticity of “community,” LaMonte Thomas, president of Cigna HealthCare’s North Texas outpost, noted how adolescents and young adults consistently report feeling more isolated despite digital connectivity. He believes the first step in combating the loneliness epidemic is breaking down the stigma attached to mental health. “It’s OK, [loneliness] is part of the human condition,” he explained.“It’s not a socioeconomic experience, not a male-agenda experience…. It’s a life experience as human beings, and we all have that in common.”

Jill Duncan, director of place performance at HKS, brought the issue to bear on questions of workplace design. Referring to research that indicates a dramatic increase in loneliness in recent decades, Duncan suggested that the office—where people spend a large chunk of their time—should reinforce feelings of stability. “As things get less permanent in all other parts of our lives, workplace and a sense of permanence while you’re there is becoming more and more important,” Duncan said. But she also acknowledged the change in career structures over the same period: “[H]ow do we make that connection when people change careers five to seven times over their lifetime?”

At the conclusion of the talk, an audience member invoked the popular research of writer-academic Brené Brown, asking, “How do you create a safe space for vulnerability?” Perhaps the answer lay in the stories shared at the start of the conversation and in the simple act of sharing. Or as panelist Karen Albritton, medical director of Fort Worth AYA Oncology Coalition, put it, “Being vulnerable is an antidote to the loneliness.”

The Think Tank discussions were held on October 16 and 17, 2019, in Dallas. The conversations were presented in partnership with DXV/GROHE and National Office Furniture.

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