Helping see the bigger problem: Patrick Whitney advocates for the value of Design in Public Health

For many years Patrick Whitney did an excellent job as dean of the Institute of Design (ID), Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). He is now Professor in Residence at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. 

In this new role he is advocating for the value of human-centered design and strategic design as complements for the existing tools used in public health to better manage disease outbreaks.

Listen to the podcast: What can design do for public health?

Congratulations Patrick Whitney!


The HDN webinar by Regina Hanke and the need for a convincing discourse

One of the major challenges I find today is to meet clients that understand what I do as a designer. While some advanced design firms have been successful in putting design in the mind of many people, they have also minimized the notion that “design thinking” and “design methods” require specialized knowledge. The mantra “Anybody can be a designer” is a myth that has been created in this process. And yes, it is true that most people could be designers, as long as they study the subject formally for 4 to 10 years and add other 10 years of professional practice.

Regina’s presentation demonstrated that her and her colleagues at Lintgrün, working with content specialists and front-line healthcare providers, can deliver well thought-out approaches to address communication problems in the health sector. Her project is a paradigm of good design work. 

But it is not easy to work that way. In addition to following a very sophisticated design process, there is a lot of tacit knowledge implied in what she showed. Despite the design community’s push to bringing design to the initial stages of a project, where problems are defined and goals are set, there is still a tremendous resistance in the public and private sector to see the usefulness of what designers can offer when projects are being conceived. As well, implementing the ideas generated by a good design process, is a design problem that calls for design knowledge. In addition, there is a frequent lack of verification of performance when implementing communications. This emerges because the client does not see designers as necessary at the performance measuring stage, or because of having vague goals to begin with, such as: “We have to eliminate antibiotics abuse,” or “We must involve the patients in the design of their own care.”

Regina’s presentation showed that an intimate knowledge of content is indispensable for communications, and this has to be coupled with an intimate knowledge of communication, to achieve the results pursued. 

We need presentations like this to penetrate the public space and engage in a task that will help our continuing education as designers, but also a continuing demonstration to others of what accountable design is.

Jorge Frascara, Edmonton, Canada


The Health Design Lab, at Thomas Jefferson University (Philadelphia), is a collaborative space where healthcare students, providers, designers and patients think and create solutions to improve healthcare. Applying user-centred design, 3D prototyping, virtual reality and other technologies and approaches first year medical students look at health problems in a different way, one based on empathy. Check this link for more information

Consumer warning labels are not working

Lisa Robinson (Center for Health Decision Science), Kip Viscusi, and Richard Zeckhauser (Harvard Kennedy School) co-authored the article “Consumer Warning Labels Aren’t Working” published in Harvard Business Review. The authors studied theeffectiveness of warning labels on consumer products and found that they are not working. They claim that the current “system fails miserably at distinguishing between large and small risks. A way to understand this is what we term wolves and puppies. Wolves are rarely seen but may eat your sheep… Puppies occasionally nip, but when they do, the results are rarely serious.”

The article recommends, among other things, to communicate the level of risk, for example: high, medium, low so that readers can estimate the actual risk and make decisions about the benefits of consuming the products.

You can find the article here

Designer Ian Hargraves teaches to medical students

Ian Hargraves, designer at the Ker Unit (Mayo Clinic), teaches a workshop on shared-decision making and its importance to achieve patient-centred care to first year medical students at Mayo. The idea of design sits just below the surface in the groups discussion of Shared Decision Making. Ian presents Shared Decision Making, not as a nice-to-have aesthetic veneer to be applied to care to bolster patient satisfaction or experience, but as integral to the work of medicine. For Ian, the involvement of patients and clinicians in Shared Decision Making is an appropriate response to the problems of illness in which there is no one clear or technically correct way forward. In these situations patients and clinicians must design a response that is best for this person and their situation. This work happens in design/care conversations. In conversation patients and clinicians move beyond diagnosis to discover the particular problems of this person’s illness, what might be done about them, and the reasons that they have to favor one course of action over another. For first year medical students, the discussion of Shared Decision Making focusses attention on the human interaction that is the basis of care rather than on the necessary but impersonal science that they will spend years acquiring. 

Ian is also teaching a workshop to third year medical students. As part of the two week module student groups are tasked with designing a decision aid around a chosen issue such as alcohol treatment, domestic violence, chronic pain, infertility, or guns and depression. The students commonly begin by looking for information on their subject and strategies for communicating it to patients. The students quickly discover how limited the scientific knowledge on these problems and their treatments are. They also come to recognize that presenting information is only a small part of helping someone through their problem. The literature on alcohol for example provides a general picture of the problem of alcohol abuse, but for an individual patient it is important to draw out how alcohol plays in their life—what it positively contributes and what harms it does. Treatment must be tailored to a person and their life, not to a diagnosis of alcohol misuse. The students come to recognize that the thing that they’re designing—a decision aid, is supporting material for the human interaction in which patient and clinician talk, think, and feel their way through what’s wrong and what might be done.


John Ioannidis on why most clinical research is not useful

John Ioannidis, in his Evidence Live 16 presentation, discussed why most medical research is not useful. He outlined seven features that research needs to cover to be useful and improve practice.

1. Problem based: Is the research studying something important to fix?

2. Context placement: Is there a need for new studies on the topic? What is the information gain?

3. Pragmatism: Does the research reflect real life, real people and real settings?

4. Patient-centeredness: Have we taken into account what patients want to hear, learn, or do?

5. Value for money: Is it worthwhile the investment?

6. Feasibility: Can this research be done?

7. Transparency: are the methods and data protocols accessible?

It would be very valuable for the health design community to reflect on these 7 features of research and discuss what does it mean for our practice, our teaching, our journals and funding institutions; and how can we join efforts and take this opportunity.

See the presentation

Design for Health Journal

Taylor & Francis has announced its new journal Design for Health. These are good news for all of us in the health design community. As explained in their website “Design for Health is affiliated with the Design4Health conference.”

The journal is interested in research that applies design methods and tools to improve health products, services and that promote well-being.

For more information

The over treatment of mild hypertension

Will Stahl-Timmins, Stephen Martin and his colleagues created this fantastic animation to illustrate mild hypertension and its management. Many physicians and designers are trying to visually represent medical evidence to help colleagues and patients make decisions. More importantly they are using data to demonstrate the effects of treatments or the lack of them to reduce the use of unnecessary resources and improve quality of care. Please take a look at the video:

Relating Systems Thinking and Design (RSD5) Symposium

On October 13-15, 2016 join the world’s leading systems and design thinkers as they engage with the emerging design movements toward problems of sustainable business, good governance, social services, urban design, healthcare services, and more. This year’s conference will feature a full workshop day, 50 research papers, and keynotes from Humberto Maturana, Aleco Christakis and Maria Kakoulaki, Paul Pangaro, Erik Stolterman, Liz Sanders. For more information, visit

Redesigning healthcare to fit with people

Kim Erwin, Assistant professor communication design methods at IIT, and Jerry Krishman, have just published an article in the BMJ: Redesigning healthcare to fit with people.

The authors discuss the value of Human-centred design methods such as observations and interviews to improve delivery of care. They argue that collaborations between health and design sciences can help translate knowledge into practice. Erwin and Krishman state:

We believe that delivery science that is supported by design methods holds the key to redesigning healthcare to meet people’s requirements.

Thank you very much to the authors for this contribution!

Find the article here

Design. Cities. Health.

"Design. Cities. Health in the new economy. Designing for Health & Wellness in an ageing society. A user-centred approach." In June 2016, the Hong Kong Design Institute and Hong Kong Polytechnic organized an event on the current challenges faced by healthcare providers, urban architects and planners, and designers to create sustainable healthy cities. 

Some of the speakers were Onny Eikhaug, from the Norwegian Centre for Design and Architecture; Jeremy Myerson, from the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design; Stacey Chang, from the Design institute for Health at the University of Texas at Austin; and Larry Keeley, from Doblin INC.

In the homepage of the web’s event, it reads: Design – in the broadest sense – presents strategies, mindset, methodologies and solutions to fuel human-centred innovations. Designing for empathy, dignity, stakeholder and community engagement, and wellbeing is a compelling force to create better healthcare infrastructure, services and interfaces, reimagine patient & customer experience, and realise greater efficiency.

For more information see

Design Institute for Health

The Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin, is the first medical education program realizing the value of design in medical education and in addressing complex healthcare problems in the community. Take a look, discover more in this link:

Congratulations to Dr. Clay Johnston, Dean of the School, for this valuable initiative!

The Health Design Network Blog

This is a new platform for industrial, visual communication, service and other designers working in the complex area of Health Design, confronting new challenges and exploring possibilities.

Check the list of publications linked in the references page and make any comment you can have on design for health, from health promotion to the design of technical and scientific documents, printed or digital. Also recommend colleagues that could be interested in becoming members of the network. There is no registration fee. This is a service of the International Institute for Information Design and its division of Research and Education