Health Design for COVID 2.0

Design like our lives depends on it, but only design knowledge is gonna get us through the next one.

Epidemiologists are superheroes, and until recently chronically underappreciated. Now the world knows we need their disciplinary knowledge during a pandemic. Who else is going to work with mathematicians to model infectious diseases? Not me.

But what about designers? What disciplinary knowledge are they bringing to the table? It is a lot harder to pinpoint. We definitely need design — we need Health Design specifically — but what we will need most is the disciplinary knowledge that can be understood and shared that goes well beyond the tools and methods we use. We need Design Knowledge.

The majority of my work at DSIL Global involves design along with some aspects of public health. I live in the intersection of both, a place called health design. That involves working with groups like US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rotary International, WHO, UNICEF, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to design their way into a more collaborative and integrated approach to polio eradication. Or, working with the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) to map out and explore what advocacy looks like for GPs and where human-centered design might play a role in medical interventions.

I design with humans within social systems around health stuff. There is a lot of that going on at the moment. Every designer and would-be designer I know is now designing for COVID-19, and I’m all for it. I believe in more democratized design, anyone can learn to make things better, much faster.

Individuals are designing masks and face shields using the materials they have on hand to protect themselves from COVID-19. Families are designing new ways to coexist as a healthy social unit despite being apart or because they have been thrust together in quarantine. Schools and workplaces are adapting to meet safety and livelihood needs as well as uphold the rights of students and employees. Some organisations like have been leading the way for a while. Countries are designing policies and responses. Academics and public health practitioners are helping shape how those efforts will be communicated to encourage behavior change. What we seem to be missing is making sure we also think through the Design Knowledge we are building as part of these processes. How do these efforts filter back into our common understanding of the science and art of design?

It used to be that some in the health world was scared of using design terms. Service designers distanced themselves from public health language even when designing in clinical service settings. I see a lot of “empathy and journey mapping the clinical experience” or “community-based participatory approaches to exploring women’s access to primary health service”. You were either a public health person or a design person. Few seemed comfortable in a health design space, let alone calling themselves a health designer. My hunch is we find it hard to hold multiple truths; where clinical diagnosis and medical best practice is as important as user experiences (and systems).

I get it. There are a few inherent tensions there. A lot of the health design work I’ve seen utilizes very little substance in terms of design knowledge (more of that in a moment) nor does it fully incorporate medical and public health value-adds like health data and epidemiology. Sometimes designers are so married to user-focused tools and methods they forget they are designing within a public health system (the bigger picture), among layers and layers of Social Determinants of Health. The public health world is still unconvinced about whether design processes lead to better health outcomes.

Design Knowledge in Health Design

Yet, despite all this we are all hackathon-ing, sprinting, and designing for COVID-19. Health Design has arrived.

My only lament has more to do with my own failings than anything else. We need to also be contributing to design knowledge if we are going to be better prepared for whatever is next. I need to spend more time reflecting on and sharing design knowledge. My friend Dr. Christopher Kueh is an academic and someone I respect in the health space; he talks about this a lot. There are missing pieces in our practice.

Part of this health design-palooza needs to be a reflection on our own practices beyond the tools and methods we used, beyond the canvas, assets, templates, blueprints, 3D printing, visualizations and the like we use when designing to meet COVID-19. Another friend of mine, Nathanael Foo, who is doing some interesting work at the intersection of innovation and disability and aged-care, reminded me that this is a macro thing. A pandemic is bigger than your post-its

If you’re designing facemasks for healthcare workers using home materials, or you are working on a tuberculosis program and thinking through how to provide community services to people that may be particularly affected by COVID19, design tools and canvases can put you in a good place to come up with a great set of solutions. But, tools for COVID and even solutions for COVID aren’t enough. We need to be distilling a range of learnings across the micro and meso, and analyzing emerging trends.

It’s about checking yourself and your design knowledge to make sure you know why you’re doing what you’re doing at the right depth and breadth. This needs to be a time where we evolve design knowledge through reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action.

I’m doing some reflective journaling, and often use activities like the 3Ws (What, So what and Now what?) which links to Gary Rolfe’s Framework for Reflexive Practice. I could be doing more.

What we design is important, it may save lives.

How we design is important, as it can be replicated.

But knowing WHY we designed it that way is the good stuff.

It’s like this, whatever we learn from designing in COVID needs to be bottled and distributed far and wide. Design knowledge is like a vaccine — our collective wisdom needs to be distilled and disseminated so we are as a whole safer. So design away, but sift through what worked, what was designed well, and WHY we know it was designed properly, so we can design properly in our next pandemic.

Written by Gareth Durrant Creative Consultant at DSIL Global, to explore Gareth’s Bio and the diverse team at DSIL click here and our colleagues invite would-be learners, potential institutional collaborators, and the media to visit or to email for further information.

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