My first big project out of college was for Duracell. I worked for a small start-up in England and we were tasked to build a microsite to promote Duracell’s partnership with a camera company. I was thrilled, intimidated, even smug about having a well-known brand almost entirely in my hands.

There was something enchanting about doing work that millions of people would interact with, that my friends may have heard of, and in different languages! I enjoyed adding big brand names to my résumé, and still I have a certain satisfaction including their logos in my portfolio. They tell people I’m legit. If Reebok and KFC trust me with their brands, I must be credible.

But I never loved advertising really. I was a self-satisfied vegetarian trying to sell people chicken. I respected people who ran shoeless. I watched The Story of Stuff in 2008 and ever since have tried to be conscious of the full life cycle of whatever I buy.

In college, I had the privilege of being in a design program that insisted students create their own content. This included choosing a political issue that jived with us and writing messaging for a series of posters. We also had to invent several of our own products along with their branding and packaging. Looking back my projects were always one of two flavors: self-promotional pieces that allowed me to exercise my artistic instincts, or trying to do something for other people.

While at school Steve Frykholm of Herman Miller fame gave a visiting lecture in which he told us not to take ourselves too seriously, that ultimately the work we did was ephemeral. This remains true. Practically all my digital work, my Duracells and my Reeboks, have faded into oblivion.

But somewhere between college and a real job, I became confused by the great space between taking myself too seriously and not taking myself seriously at all. I lost sight of making art and helping people.

The trajectory of a freelancer

One year and two months ago I left a good job here in Toronto to pursue my own interests, an attempt to return to something I’d really love. In fact I wasn’t sure I would design anymore. I might paint or concentrate on writing. Since then I feel I’ve actually accomplished quite a bit, and I am proud of what I’ve done. Despite not changing out of my pajamas most days (which I regarded a waste of time), I see now that I have grown.

Design, however, never went away. I held a roster of my own lovely clients and I wrote about design more than I thought I would. But lately I’ve been thinking more about people and about using design to improve lives. I’ve been thinking about my trajectory as a freelancer. And I’ve been weighing what I really want out of a design career, which I’ve narrowed down to two things:

  1. I want to work with people who are good – good at what they do and good to other people.
  2. I want to do meaningful work.

The first seems easier – Toronto has a tight-knit and generous freelance community. But the second was more difficult. How could I do truly effectual work on my own?

Discovering design in healthcare

In May I attended NXNEi as a delegate for Design Edge Canada. I don’t think it was by accident that I ended up in the front row of a panel on design in healthcare. It was the best panel I saw the whole conference. I wrote it up and published my synopsis on Design Edge then emailed the panelists a link. I heard back from one, Dr. Joseph Cafazzo, who asked me, “Ever thought of applying your talents to saving lives?”

I replied, “I try in many small capacities to make a difference. No doubt there is more I can do.”

I began working as a contractor with Cafazzo’s Human Factors team at Toronto General Hospital and recently they offered me a full-time job. This wasn’t my first job offer as a freelancer and I wondered what it would take for me to give up the luxury of a freelancing life.

Several things made me consider the offer seriously. I was impressed with the people I met, with their smarts, dedication to excellence, and a low staff turnover. As a writer I was enamored by a lingo and environment totally foreign to me. Also, several close family members have had stays in hospitals this year, and if someone believed that I could help improve medical care for patients, then by all means I wanted to help. I began to see that as a member of this team, I would probably be more influential and helpful than on my own.

David Suzuki was recently interviewed at Montreal’s version of Occupy Wall Street. He said:

“We are now being ruled what seems to be the corporate demand. The corporation comes above the public and this is simply intolerable, it can’t go on.”

I believe that healthcare is in dire straights when we can get all kinds of apps to entertain us or to allow us to work more efficiently, but healthcare providers and patients don’t have equivalent tools, tools that could really save lives. The mandate for change is there, and healthcare design is certainly heaving with money and initiatives, but healthcare needs more talent dedicated to it rather than to advertising. More people need to see the potential.

What young designers should know

I appreciate what large ad agencies and brands are capable of when they set their minds to doing good (even if that good ultimately serves to promote themselves). I’m incredibly inspired by the grant program set up by Firebelly, which I imagine is funded by other straightforward ad work. Many of my friends are in advertising and I cannot undervalue the skill and discipline it takes to pull off great advertising campaigns. My future clients, too, will be large brands, although of a different kind.

But – and here’s the but – it is simply too easy right now to seek out jobs in advertising or in companies whose main prerogative is to sell something. Infographics comparing company perks and a clear path toward promotions are enticing to the young designer. The prospect of doing innovative work with big budgets is certainly thrilling. But design is much more than advertising and this is what we should be saying to students and young designers: Hang on to your idealism.

It is worth looking outside the realm of agencies and big tech companies to see where design skills can be put to use. How can we apply our understanding of human-device interactions, our knowledge of the subtleties of visual storytelling, our instinctual emotional responses, our honed and measured insights into all different kinds of industries? What challenges can we rise up to that will change the world for the better?

There are 1000 ways to do this, of course, but seeing the lofty idealism and success-so-far of companies like Massive Health is a great boon to encourage designers like me to try something totally new and absolutely challenging (by the way, they are hiring).

Working in healthcare will not be the same as working for Duracell or Reebok, but I think many of the challenges will be familiar. I hope jobs like the one being offered to me become more the norm.

No doubt there is more we can all do. Let’s do it.


I’ve decided to keep this blog to chronicle my entry into the healthcare world with the aim of tackling one post per week sharing something I’ve learned. I hope you will engage with me as time progresses. I know I’ll need all the help I can get as I familiarize myself with a niche and challenging industry. My hope is that eventually we will be able to help and inspire each other.

I start my new job on Monday.