Designing for the healthcare market

For product designers, healthcare is one of the most worthwhile areas to work in but, with inventors and engineers also involved, how do designers fit in to the development process? Yolanda Zappaterra talks to three specialists to find out


Can design save your life? It seems an obvious question, with an equally obvious answer, but it’s one that’s going to be debated tomorrow night at an Arts Fund event that promises to be as lively as it is timely, given that last week the only healthcare product that took home a D&AD Yellow Pencil was Whipsaw’s Natural Nurser Baby Bottle for Adiri – admirable and elegant, but hardly life-saving. And while there are hundreds of similar examples of designs that improve wellbeing and healthcare, the evidence that design, rather than invention or engineering, can save lives is harder to find. Hence the Arts Fund debate – Art and Medicine: Can Design Save Your Life? – which hopes to examine some critical aspects of the subject, including the relationship between the medical sector and design, the role of the design process in healthcare, and what designers can bring to the sector that inventors and engineers cannot.

It is a subject that lies at the heart of the work of Pearson Matthews, whose director Jim Dawton is taking part in the debate. The consultancy has designed a range of healthcare products, from the life-changing (a smaller, faster, more accurate blood glucose meter) to the life-improving (a one-handed plaster applicator), so is well-placed to take part in the discussion. Matthews believes that designers have one key skill that inventors don’t – impartiality. ‘In our experience, the worst person to develop a device is the inventor,’ he says. ‘They tend to be very focused on just one element – usually technology or clinical need. But, increasingly, issues of patient safety, ergonomics, clinical and commercial validation, patient choice, value for money (rather than cost), place of manufacture, quality control, shipping, packaging, sterilisation and disposability all play their part. The designer understands how to balance all these factors throughout the innovation journey – it is what we do.’

Design researcher Deborah Nathan believes that designers bring to the development of healthcare products ‘a perspective of people’s needs and requirements that can only be understood through empathy and design research methods’. Nathan is well placed to comment – as an MA Design practice student at Northumbria University, she designed and prototyped a needle-free injector and inflatable cold box which were inspired by personal experience, driven by research and an emotional response to the horrific statistics and facts uncovered, and resulted in a project that the World Health Organisation is keen to see developed.

These are genuinely life-saving designs, and she thinks the elements she explored in their conception – avoidance of negative visual language (not having the injector look like a weapon, for example), ergonomics, affordability, ease of use, appropriateness and cost-effectiveness are all things a designer deals with as a matter of course.

Sally Halls, another debate participant and an alumni of the Helen Hamlyn Centre at the Royal College of Art where a resuscitation project she worked on with Jonathan West received two Medical Futures Innovation Awards, agrees. She says, ‘A designer is able to take a much more holistic view of product development. Designers are often better at doing user research and working with users, and are able to take a more open approach to product development. It is only once user needs and wants have been determined and developed into a coherent product that engineering requirements can be built around them.’

All three are cautiously optimistic about the value of design in the future healthcare landscape (or ‘healthscape’ as Pearson Matthews dubbed it in a 2003 research document). ‘The medical industry [is] a very serious field to work in, with an expected aesthetic that medical equipment must conform to, which is very serious and functional,’ Halls says. But she believes this is all set to change as people become more proactive about their healthcare, and medical illnesses become demystified.

Nathan, too, sees some slow change. ‘Quite often, current medical products are new, but better, iterations of their predecessors,’ she says. ‘What would be great is to take on the challenge in reverse and understand needs first. I’m not saying this isn’t being done now, but I believe that the best medical products must start with needs first, in order to be of real benefit.’

Dawton is the most bullish, and puts the onus on the designer to take up the challenge. ‘Everyone wants to get in to the healthcare space, from designers to retailers,’ he says. ‘My fear is this expansion will cause confusion just when the client/consultancy relationship is demanding an increased level of professionalism. The consultant needs to take a lead, to be a true consultant. There is so much knowledge and experience accumulated in consultancies, that it’s critical clients get a chance to benefit from it. If the designer merely does what he’s told, where is the gain?’ l

Art and Medicine: Can Design Save Your Life? is at the Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London NW1 at 7pm tomorrow night (Thursday 29 May), tickets £12

Latest articles