Health for Design

The Design4Health conference is on this week bringing together designers from different fields together with health policy, practice and research professionals. While the focus is on the relationship between design and health, it is also inspiring thoughts of how health itself is designed.

This week the first Design4Health conference is being held in Sheffield, UK. The conference attendees includes designers looking at interactions, service, interiors, architecture, fashion, and industrial areas of design. Mixed with is group are physicians, physiotherapists, psychologists sociologists, health promotion practitioners, artists, and policy researchers. This mix represents much of what makes the design and health intersection so exciting, but also the (somewhat) predictable “Tower of Babel” with many disciplines working to be understood by the others.

The language issues have been relatively minor, but on one level the more complicated area of confusion is not where one might guess (the application of design to health issues), but rather the understanding of health itself relative to design.

To illustrate, much has been presented on the way design has re-fashioned devices for those with some form of physical disability. From wheelchair designs that are aesthetically pleasing and light to female portable urinals to address issues of incontinence and the social issues women face trying to relieve themselves in non-toiletted spaces, the products being discussed have shown what some design thinking can do to potentially improve people’s lives. But what if those lives don’t need improvement in the way we think?

Consider the language of health in popular use, which focuses on the ability to control conditions and both be free of physical discomfort and mental stress. These are deficit-oriented models that focus on what must be absent or is undesirable, rather than what a person does with their life and their capabilities to act on their values and interests. What if we viewed health differently?

Further, what happens to design when we focus it’s talents on alleviating pain and discomfort as defined by some standard that is both ideal and unattainable at the expense of promoting personal wellness as defined by the person living their life? What we’ve not talked about is the idea that someone with a substandard medical device might have creative ways to live a life where the sub-standard product becomes nearly invisible. This is not to suggest that we lower the bar, but it does beg the question why we are so focused on ‘problems’ of a particular perceived nature and not opportunities?

We also seem to be poor at reflecting the diversity in the public and their relationship to their bodies, minds and lives that we embrace in our attendance at our conferences. Just as we come from different disciplines, so too do people’s sense of what is a ‘problem’ and what contribution design has to addressing that problem. This is about designing health, not the design for health.

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