Design for Health is an emerging discipline. As such there seem to be endless opportunities for those working in this area. On the surface, it might appear that ‘Design’ for health is no different from design undertaken in any other context. However, the complexity (wickedness of problems) associated with health means that often design approaches used successfully elsewhere don’t work.

In healthcare organisations, design literacy is often low. Healthcare is a vast, complex system that remains strongly influenced by a biomedical discourse, historical notions of hierarchy, and firmly entrenched traditions. Furthermore, it is often risk-averse, and failure is not part of the culture. This can make embracing new ways of tackling challenges more difficult. Decision-making and oversight are often ‘top-down’ via governance/steering groups – often supported by quantitative evidence-based models. This sits in contrast to the fast pace of the changing world, where the challenges our health system faces require them to be innovative and agile.


Design is often a ‘visual’ medium and uses creative approaches and processes that sometimes appear to lack rigour to those less familiar with them.

Similarly, designers seldom understand the complexity of healthcare organisations. For those not embedded in these hierarchies, navigating them requires strong, well-connected and transparent internal support. For designers, it is important to consider how best to communicate the role of creativity, experimentation, prototyping, iteration and failure (learning) as a normal and valuable part of the design process, and for it to be done in a way that is safe for healthcare organisations.

When bringing together design and health it can be challenging to balance perceived organisational needs against design needs. It also means that different approaches and ways of thinking are required - Creative and courageous people, with different perspectives and expertise working together with a genuine willingness to do things differently, and be challenged, while seeking ‘the sweet spot’ to bring it all together. Therefore, engaging in design in these contexts can be a vulnerable process.

To support those who work in healthcare to think differently about future possibilities requires both the users of healthcare and the systems (and people) that deliver healthcare to renegotiate their relationships.

“we Thought it was about hospital services, but left thinking its about community that determines the difference between good and bad care.”

Quote taken from the Life Café case study