“Unlike the interstate highway system, which did produce smooth roads across state lines, healthcare wasn’t designed. It just happened.”
– a two year old blog post by Jay Parkinson
Over the last few weeks, through recruitment efforts and heavy workloads, I’ve been wondering – how do we get more designers in healthcare? I need help!
This leads me to one of the most clearcut, actionable things healthcare providers can do today to begin to begin to turn this mess around:
Hire a designer, already.
It seems to me that design in healthcare is over-hyped and undervalued at the same time. People talk a lot about how design can make such a big difference in creating new and better systems for healthcare delivery (or evolving existing ones), but from conversations I’ve had, most people working in the industry couldn’t tell you the first thing about how to implement good design. This needs to change.
[Note: Healthcare Human Factors are hiring a design intern. Send me your portfolio!]
Why to hire a designer
The design ecosystem in healthcare, or lack thereof
Despite a hoard of designers graduating every year, design remains an insular industry. I would bet that most fresh young designers’ first jobs are at ad agencies (mine was).
Ad agencies have clear advantages over healthcare, mostly that they allow young designers to build a portfolio with brand recognition, increasing a designer’s credibility when they are looking for the next job. The designer’s portfolio is more important than anything; it is more important than a degree, than client lists, and arguably more important than who they know.
At agencies, the budgets are large enough to bear the burden of first mistakes and the ad agency ecosystem is filled with other experienced designers and art directors and creative directors from which to learn. This does not exist for design in healthcare.
That is a problem, because how can we attract designers to healthcare if they cannot see where they would fit in?
I also hear a bit of hm-ing and ha-ing about whether or not an organization would have enough work to justify a design position. I don’t have a lot of patience for this response because the need for design is so blatant, not only to me but to every other designer I’ve ever talked to about healthcare. So I don’t really care who you are or what you do – the answer is Yes, of course you have enough work to support a design position. Here’s why.
Why hiring a designer is a good investment
Everything that is manmade is designed, some more carefully and consciously than others. Your iPhone, of course, was deliberately designed. Clothespins were deliberately designed. The medical records systems that many doctors use now, or insulin pumps for example, were perhaps not so deliberately designed.
Healthcare delivery will improve when we consider the human experience in every aspect of what we do – delivering care, procuring devices, envisioning the future – not only for patients but for providers working within this often necessarily complex system. It has been my experience that any problem that is approached with a careful and considered eye (a design eye – be that visual or design thinking, whatever you want to call it) will improve, if only for that extra special attention. This is especially true if it is meant to communicate information to someone else, as most healthcare endeavors do.
From device interfaces for prevention or monitoring and medical records systems to posters and business systems, these are complex problems that can use the extra brain power. Even the way we communicate who we are as healthcare providers could be approached differently given the highly specialized communication skills of a good designer.
The number of applications for design within healthcare is infinite.
Why hiring a designer is a safe investment
“Those days of hiring for one skill-set are long gone.”
Joe Cafazzo (director of the Centre where I work) recently said this during a panel I was on about UI design at Apps for Health. He was speaking in response to a question about hiring specialists (therefore needing three designers instead of one).
While I think hybrid designers who are versed in many skills are increasingly common, there are still a huge number of designers with deep experience in one area. I can’t tell you whether you will find a specialist or a generalist because designers’ skill-sets vary so widely.
You should be aware though that it requires a huge body of knowledge to be familiar with the ins and outs of print design, as well as web design, as well as mobile design, as well as (more often than not) front end coding, yet many designers today can do it all. These unicorns represent a luxury of abundance most people in healthcare don’t even know they have. I don’t mean to bemoan the fact that designers work hard (of course we do along with everyone else in 2012), but I do mean to say that these wide skill-sets make hiring a designer a pretty safe investment.
If big design projects dry up, a good designer will find something to create, perhaps a promotional poster or video, an infographic, an icon set, or some other way to contribute to the working culture. We designers live for this stuff.
Design and healthcare are at a convergence. This is a space people are interested in for several reasons: there’s a lot to do, small changes will make a big impact, we have a real opportunity to help others.
It is becoming clear that traditional design agencies (and startups) are willing to tackle healthcare challenges, which makes them – like it or not – competitors. I think it’s time healthcare organizations, who have such amazing human resources in other fields, do those other employees justice and hire someone that can speak a human, visual language and show others just how effective your organization can be.
How to hire a designer
If you’ve never worked with designers, it can be a challenge to know who is the crème de la crème, and who doesn’t really have the chops. How do you know if they’re any good? One thing is certain: Most of the time, a designer’s hire-ability is not relative to the number of little letters after their name or even the number of years on their resume (I’m surprised to see designers have resumes anymore).
A bit of poking and prodding can help find the best candidates for you.
Skills to look for
As I have already mentioned, design may seem like it’s just slapping on a veneer, but there is depth and complexity to multiple subject areas within design. Some people will have strengths and interests in particular areas so it helps to know what kind of holes in your team’s current skill-sets that you are looking to fill.
- Typography – This is one of the clearest ways to pick out experienced designers from amateurs. Do they use more than a few typefaces in a layout? Is type organized neatly where it counts? Do you get a clear sense of what the page is about when you first look at it?
- Layout – Can they take complex sets of information and organize them in ways that are understandable? Do they experiment when possible, where content needs to make an impression?
- Branding – Ask your designer the concept behind the logo. This should give a sense of how much thought they put into their design, whether they have conceptual strengths or if they are just making it look pretty. Try not to fall for the latter.
- Presentation – How does a designer present themselves? Can they speak eloquently (and simply) about their creative process? Are they inclusive or do they display a big ego? They same way you would with any other employee, ask how this person would get along with the rest of the team.
- Extra-curriculars – I don’t know an ad agency that would hire a designer without some kind of presence on social media or on a blog, unless they had a killer portfolio, and I mean killer. Why should you expect anything less?
- Details – Force yourself to notice the little things. Are their images pixelated or have jagged edges? Are the colours fully saturated and vibrant? Does their design make you feel something? Designers know that the portfolio is where their work should really shine, so they shouldn’t be skimping on the details there. The exception is when a candidate isn’t exactly looking for work and your connection with them is a bit more random. Sometimes these designers are real gems that haven’t had time to update their work.
- Concept – Ask your potential designer to talk about their process. If they spend more time describing visual tweaks than the concept behind the piece, you may have a problem. In healthcare, if we really intend to make a meaningful transformation in healthcare systems, you will need a thinking designer, someone who challenges the way things are currently done.
The difference between an intern, a designer, and an art director
The A List Apart article “Art Direction and Design” by Dan Mall sums up the differences in detail. Practically speaking, an art director usually has more experience than a designer and can approach visual problem-solving from a macro level, understanding the whole picture and the intended message and emotion. The art director takes responsibility for that piece so that the designer can focus on the details. Both are important to good design, but this role should probably be filled first.
In my experience, though, it isn’t important to have the roles delineated. I find I work better on a much flatter organizational structure. I would guess most designers are similar to me in preferring creative collaboration over creative dictatorship (I think this is because critique is so important to design, but that is another subject).
On some levels, designers are unpracticed art directors, and interns are unpracticed designers. Everyone needs a bit of collaboration and feedback, so creating a culture suitable to creatives would be in everyone’s good interest.
[Note: Here's an earlier post I wrote about barriers to creativity in healthcare]
What about freelancers?
Freelancers are lovely. I was one not too long ago, still am one on some projects, and I love the freelance community and spirit of camaraderie. But from an in-house perspective freelancers serve a purpose; they enter the picture when your regular full-time staff cannot complete a task. Design, too, should be kept in-house when possible so that not only can designers learn your process and needs intimately, but so that design can be embedded into your product or service from an inside, core place. However, when your options are limited by time or budget, hiring a freelance designer is better than hiring no designer at all. The same hiring questions above still apply.
A few final notes
I’ve been thinking about how design is so specialized, and how designers can contribute to an organization’s culture and product or service offering, and have a few additional pointers.
Hire for the big picture
- Hire someone who is passionate. Someone who gets mad at how inefficient Photoshop and Illustrator can be, but prefers them infinitely over Powerpoint.
- Hire someone who loves the details. Hire someone with typography skills, who knows the difference between smart and straight quotes, who can name one or two of their favorite fonts that you will never have heard of, who knows the different implementation cases for em dashes and en dashes and hyphens.
- Hire someone who can explain the emotion behind an interaction. Hire someone who feels things. Hire someone willing to do things a little differently.
- Hire someone who fails. Someone who isn’t afraid to fail.
- Hire an expert. Hire someone who knows the creative process inside out, an expert in visual thinking.
- Hire someone who is infinitely curious. Hire someone who googles everything, who always has new ideas to bring to the table, who asks a lot of questions.
Places to look for designers or post positions:
If all of this is a little overwhelming, keep reading. Keep going. This is important. I like how these next few articles relate to the startup world, as I think healthcare could use a bit more entrepreneurial spirit.
Most of all, good luck! May you find the best designers you’ve ever seen.
Did I miss anything? Have any good or bad experiences working with designers that you’d like to share? Have any good book recommendations for people looking to hire their first designer?