Design for Health and Wellbeing

Eden Short

The Design for Health & Wellbeing Lab (DHW Lab), founded in 2013, has grown from an idea into reality. A collaboration between the Auckland District Health Board and AUT University, the DHW Lab houses a team of practicing designers from many disciplines, and social scientists, who mentor student undergrad and postgrad design projects.

Focusing on the power of bringing together design, empathy, and healthcare in a hospital environment, we aren’t just talking about ideas and change, but making these ideas tangible through making. With blurred lines between learning in a university context, and real life projects within the hospital, attempting to encompass exactly what we do and who we are is never a concise task.

Located inside Auckland City Hospital, the place where we’re aiming to instigate change is only steps outside the Lab’s front door. Designing within a hospital environment the way we prove our value is by responding quickly through low-fi prototyping and testing—this is at the core of how we work. This style of approaching a brief contrasts with what is more typical in a healthcare organisation due to its size, use of traditional problem solving methods, and historical hierarchies. Operating as a separate entity, yet still supported by the hospital and AUT University, the DHW Lab constantly endeavors to distinguish and redefine itself between the push and pull of industry and education. Thus the way we approach our projects has rapidly adapted to working in this context, and new opportunities are generated as a result.

This year has seen huge growth for the DHW Lab with the studio fit-out, the core design team nearly trebling, and larger projects coming through as trust continues to grow from Auckland District Health Board. The design and feel of the studio is a dramatic change from the hospital environment. Despite industrial concrete floors, the space is welcoming, with ongoing projects and process immediately visible. Unlike traditional agencies and in-house design studios, the Lab’s studio is a shared space in which regular workshops, presentations, seminars, and tours are held. Layout is changed with ease according to need. The temporary nature is reflected in the choice of furniture and space dividers; none are fixed.

When projects are undertaken in the Lab, a collaborative approach is key, with Auckland District Health Board stakeholders and designers working together, joining design and health expertise. Coming from specialized backgrounds, any jargon use from people with specialized backgrounds must be stripped out to clearly communicate intention, approach, and value of all parties. The way we present projects and process reflects this—works-in-progress and finished pieces are shown alongside one another. Importance is placed on transparency in the design process, demonstrating the design rigor, and thinking beyond aesthetics.

However, initiating meaningful and useful design solutions goes beyond engaging staff. The DHW Lab’s strength lies in gaining participation from families, patients, and visitors in the process to make sure the design hasn’t created unintended negative consequences, and in appropriately addressing the needs and context of the hospital. Since difficulties might arise due to the emotional vulnerability and ethical concerns of patient and family engagement, at times more appropriate, yet less rich research methods are used (for example, observation), depending on the project’s impact. A large part of this engagement is in providing evidence to the organisation that design can help contribute to the right solution. Working largely with qualitative methods—as is typical with human-centered design—comes with difficulties, because data from interviews, observation, and engagement that focuses on emotional wellbeing is often perceived by some as less valid than ‘scientific’ methods.

Through the nature of prototyping, temporary solutions are used to test ideas and grow knowledge of how to design and test effectiveness in the hospital.

A welcome outcome of the Lab’s involvement with health is an increase in design literacy, as we continue to introduce critical thinking about our practice within the organization. Pushing beyond the value of small-scale projects to challenge traditional strategies for improving the hospital experience, we are aligning DHW Lab design capability with Auckland District Health Board intentions for patient-centred care, making those who enter the front door feel valued and respected as members of the community.

All those parts of the Lab are here for the same reason: using our skills and expertise through design to improve every moment that makes up the hospital experience. Our primary purpose is public good, rather than making good business. Whilst some of our projects may take longer than those in the corporate sector (due to complex timelines, collaboration and implementation), the Lab provides a unique perspective. Building on relationships and connecting project streams, we are thinking about not only how the project will work well within the brief, but also how it fits into the diverse eco-system that is Auckland DHW. We’re not just designing for problems in the present, but how they fit into our future hospital.