Design and health promotion have a great deal in common and enough to complement one another that makes them a great match. However, it is the scale and rhythm of the two that brings them together and keeps them apart.
Although the two fields are distinct, design and health promotion are a natural fit. Health promotion is a field that seeks to address social, environmental and care-related factors that keep people well and reduce the resource gap between those that have good health and those that do not.
Designers seek to develop products — objects, services, structures — that meet the needs of their client and, in the cases of social design, the larger society that they are a part of.
Both fields operate systems thinking environments and consider the opportunities for engagement of wide-scale participation in the creation of their products. But where the two fields differ is where the greatest opportunity for collaboration lies.
Health promoters — and health professionals in general — are not great designers. While they are good at engaging the community in assessing need and opportunity, there is a bias in the sector to looking to what is to inspire what could be. This means drawing on current evidence and spending considerable time defining the issue at hand in the first place in light of this. Health promoters are adept theorists and practitioners, however the theories used are often contested and widely debated — something health promoters embrace. The risk for health promotion is that they will use the solutions already developed or they will get mired in debate over the meaning of potential solutions to come.
Designers on the other hand are great dreamers and doers when it comes to creating things that are novel. Designers are comfortable with working with conflicting information and abductive reasoning to solve problems before them. And then they move on. Design’s focus on the here and now for the product or service gives them focus, but loses the thinking about the wider implications of their product – something that keeps health promotion in debate.
There are exceptions to the examples provided above, but they are exceptions and not the rule.
In a health context, designers systems think about the way their product is established, where health promoters think about the values that underpin that product and the wider implications for its use beyond its creation. Bringing these two fields together provides an opportunity to make health promotion more innovative and action-oriented and design more evidence-based and socially responsive.
The social challenges from chronic disease, environmental threats, social migration, aging populations, economic disparities, and a more globalized, multicultural world require strategies that bring the best ideas to the table, strategies to realize them, and values that make these actions more equitable for everyone. Health promotion + design is one way to achieve this.