Visual language has the potential to play a significant role in addressing health concerns, especially those that need community collaboration to achieve success - the coronavirus pandemic being the most recent example of that. Faced with a rising swell of data and statistics, designers have been tasked with making sure the information is empathy-driven and intentionally cross-functional.
Over the last few years, good design has been earning a position of prominence in the world of healthcare and wellness. Solution-driven design is problem-solving design. But to support that, a creative mind needs to be able to precisely express the problem, simplify the solution while delivering a strong message and communicating the right approach. In other words, there are a lot of checkboxes that need to be ticked before a project can be called a success.
We caught up with New York-based graphic designer Akansha Kukreja to talk about the link between medicine and design:
How do you interact with design in your daily life?
Design is around my house, on my way to work, on every screen, on my medicine packet, on the ingredients I buy, even on the software I use to design something. Design education teaches you how colors, type and the packaging on something is meant to influence human beings, yet I am so biased and easily influenced by design! The choices I make in my daily life are almost always based on how easy it is for me to interact or understand something coupled with how good it makes me feel. I'm also very interested in collecting – especially things that are tactile and beautifully designed.
Could you tell me about the Tia Stress Zine?
The Female Stress Signatures Zine is something I created while working at Tia, a New York-based modern healthcare clinic for women. Stress manifests differently in men and women – furthermore, it manifests in women on a spectrum. The Zine is a printed manifestation of a digital stress quiz that helps women identify their 'stress type' and helps to explore the chronic stress spectrum and its potential implications on female behavior and health. A team of doctors and researchers worked closely with designers to create this stress quiz. The outcome of the quiz aims to generate individualized interventions to help modern women take cognizance of the impact that stress has on their lives and employ precautionary measures against potential illnesses accordingly.
What was the most interesting nugget of information that you learned while working on it?
I learned that Stress gets a bad name – but really, it can be used to our benefit! For example, in some women stress manifests itself by activating their sympathetic nervous system (or generates a fight-or-flight response) which makes them extra energetic in the name of maintaining alertness and responding to the perceived needs at hand. The quiz allowed me some insight into my own stress, diet, habits and patterns!
What is it like, as a designer, to be working with a medical team?
I joined Tia with an interest in designing for healthcare and wellness and because I love learning and because I can design. Working at Tia requires taking heavy medical data and concepts and translating it into something accessible that can drive action. Healthcare, especially in the United States, is daunting and overwhelming. What really interests me is being the path between heavy information and someone who will benefit from understanding that information.
We recently created a guide to insurance during COVID. It was challenging to be able to gauge and gather all the information that could be useful – considering all the different situations people are in—people getting fired, spouses losing their insurance, etc. With the help of doctors and specialists, writers and designers we consolidated all this information into one guide.
The design approach here was to make these recommendations glanceable and actionable by using a linear format. Additionally, there was a glossary to make obscure insurance terminology easy to grasp. We put it up on social media, on a blog, anywhere on the internet where people are looking.
What is design to you?
Design gives me tools to use visual language to simplify information. I'm still early in my journey as a graphic designer and learning how to better use visual, illustrative and typographic tools to make overwhelming information easy to understand.
What was your approach with Dr. Agarwal's Eye Hospital?
Dr. Agarwal's Eye Hospital was the first healthcare project I got to work on, while I was working in Mumbai! The Chennai-based hospital approached us to recreate the experience of their hospital website, allowing patients to go through appointments all the way to follow-up, at ease. I had the opportunity to visit the hospital, see how the system works – even witness a 3-minute cataract surgery! Being there in person taught me so much. The primary patient demographic was much older than me and it was really interesting to create a sense of understanding and empathy towards their habits, restrictions and biases.
Do you think a project like Setu is more modern in its approach compared to other projects?
Setu means bridge in Sanskrit and stands for bridging the gap between knowing what you can do for your body and achieving gradual, better health. It is a brand that makes supplements and creates an opportunity for preventative health. It is modern in the way that allows people to take charge, feel informed and empowered to make better health decisions.
How does design affect the healthcare experience for patients?
Thoughtful design can make the experience of receiving care really simple and seamless. There's memes about how bad typography allowed the announcement of the wrong miss universe. When it comes to our personal healthcare and public – there's pamphlets, instructions, care plans, medication, bills, digital interfaces that are all holding information extremely crucial for the patient to understand. Color, terminology, diagrams and typography all play a part in how empowered the patient feels to make decisions, how comfortable he or she feels in an uncomfortable situation.
How much do you think your training as a design student has come into play in your actual work life?
Being a design student trains you to dissect every design decision you make before presenting it as a solution. Being a design student also forces you to be unafraid to ask questions. Going to graduate school really contributed to my ability to work with constraints and ambiguity – something you inevitably have to do while working as a designer. There's many instances where we don't have all the information required and more investigating and analysis is required. I am in no way trained in medicine, but working with medical practitioners gives me a platform to be able to ask.
Could you tell us about Sour?
I have always been drawn to personal care and mental wellness, and Sour was my thesis project in 2018 that focuses on mental health and social media addiction. Moving to New York without knowing anyone, around the time, it was something I was personally struggling with. In the last ten years, we’ve shifted from being social creatures to shying away from social interaction and hiding in the comforts of social media.
Sour is about self-awareness and voluntary behavior change. It’s an antidote to social media – to slow down and absorb tactile experiences and human emotion. It's a workbook-slash-magazine that offers guidance and exercises. The name comes from the saying “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”— which means to take something sour and make it sweet. The internet can be used in moderation or abused to our detriment.
Sour allows the reader to think about instinct, memory power and see patterns of instant validation which is fuel for social media. Social media isn't inherently evil, but it is up to us how to use it. Unfortunately, it never went to mass production or print, but I personally made copies.
Why do you think there is such an interest in healthcare, especially mental health, at the moment?
People are locked indoors for one, with their thoughts. Hardly anyone to interact with and so many factors to constantly think about. We're all in a loop of unpredictability and anxiety. Being social creatures, but not socializing takes a toll on us emotionally and physically. In recent years, people have collectively begun to see the value in treating mental illness as physical illness.
Doing things for your brain, like sleep hygiene, journaling and externalizing your thoughts can influence how to eat, work, perform and find calmness in your daily life. Cultural context, sociological experience and memories from your formative years can influence how we behave in adult life. I'm dreaming of a world where progressively less stigma around mental wellness exists so we can practice more empathy and have a deeper understanding of people around us.
What's the kind of work you'd like to do in the future?
I have this continuous itch to learn so many things outside of conventional graphic design to be a better, and more thoughtful designer. I'm always on the lookout to work with people who are nothing like me, who are experts in their own field and who I can learn from.
The field of medicine is constantly changing, and as designers – we should be equipped to constantly evolve with the needs and laws within the healthcare universe. I'd like to be able to gain a deeper understanding of behavioral health and informational design tools and use them to make intimidating interactions easier to experience. I'm currently taking a course in data science – which allows me to look at data from a numeric or mathematical angle and present it with my skills acquired as a designer!
Images by Akansha Kukreja.