The History of Design in Health

Designers have been working in health for a long time, whether to improve healthcare products, technologies, and facilities, or increase patient awareness and engagement. At the core of this partnership is a recognition that design and global health share many of the same principles of being intrinsically human-centered and outcome-drive.

Riccardo Gangale for USAID

Riccardo Gangale for USAID

Health product companies, like Philips and GE, have long employed designers, not just to create more desirable products, but also to observe and understand the situations in which design is best used to drive health outcomes, particularly with key populations like children and the elderly. More recently, this interest in design has broadened from companies developing healthcare products to healthcare service providers. 

Today, many healthcare providers, including the Mayo Clinic, Kaiser Permanente, and Memorial Sloan Kettering, are building internal design teams to improve health outcomes. In the public sector, many are incorporating service design into the way they provide for the public on a national scale. According to a survey in the Service Design Network Impact Report 2017, the public sector is already the largest client for service design across the world.

In particular, the past years have seen an increase in the application of design to global health challenges due, in part, to its potential to address a number of challenges that are critical to achieving global health goals. We have identified more than 35 projects that used design as an essential component of a global health program.

Publications like PLOS have begun to study the role of design in public health. A number of large agencies such as UNICEF and the International Rescue Committee, have hired teams of designers to build their internal capacity and also address key development issues in the humanitarian sector. Leading funders in the global health space, such as USAID and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, have created dedicated roles and funding streams to strengthen the application of design within their portfolios.