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The State of the Art in Healthcare

03/22/2011

RISD faculty members Khipra Nichols, Lindsay Kinkade and Susan Doyle discuss ways that art and design can bring creativity and imagination to solving complex healthcare challenges. Photo by Alex Forsyth 12 PH

“Health is too important to be left to the health secretary alone,” said Dr. Howard Koh, Assistant Secretary for Health at the US Department of Health and Human Services. “I need the input of creative, innovative people.” 

On March 12 and 13, that need brought Koh and nearly 500 policymakers, healthcare professionals, entrepreneurs, activists, academics, artists and designers together at RISD for Make It Better, a two-day symposium sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The presentations and discussions focused on the role of art and design in helping to better communicate healthcare information and deliver services more effectively.

In addition to Koh, speakers included Donna Garland, associate director for communication at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; artist Mel Chin; Grinnell CollegePresident Raynard Kington; and Sara Diamond, president of OCAD University. These and other participants envisioned new and evolving roles for artists and designers in the public realm – as expert communicators, translators, problem solvers, researchers, facilitators and public policy advocates, among others.

“Artists and designers ask questions and create solutions,” said RISD President John Maeda. “At RISD, we don’t just design logos, we design systems for change.”

Going well beyond ideas such as hanging art on hospital walls, the conference framed new modes of engagement between art and health – from the design of new medical devices, to interactive tools to make science and statistics feel relevant, to advancing public health by fostering preventive healthy behavior, all of which use design thinking to inject the creativity and imagination sometimes lacking in institutional settings.

As the country approaches the first anniversary of historic healthcare reform legislation, RI Senator Sheldon Whitehouse set the stage for the “unlikely alliance” between RISD and the federal government by noting that good design is essential to translate complex information into a format that’s useful and accessible: “Engineers and designers together created the automotive dashboard.” He added that since “we don’t have much that equates to that in the healthcare system, this is not an illogical alliance so much as it’s overdue.”

In their keynotes, both Koh and Garland addressed the urgent communication challenges in public health at the national level and the need to empower people to make healthy choices. “Nine out of 10 Americans struggle to understand health information,” said Garland. “Good design equals healthy action.” But she also pointed out that artists and designers aren’t just important in creating better visual communications or in “painting pretty pictures” to explain complex healthcare issues. “We don’t just need you for what you can do, but for how you think,” she said. “We need you to step out into management and policy roles to imagine how things might be done differently.”

Koh also spoke to the need to find “creative and human ways of reaching the public,” and presented a video of “piano stairs,” a public health/art project in Stockholm, Sweden that used art and technology to encourage people to actively walk up an interactive musical staircase rather than passively riding the escalator. “You’ve embraced the notion of problem solving for the public good,” he said. “RISD is definitely a place where people make things happen.”

Throughout the weekend, many more examples surfaced of how RISD students and faculty are already involved in tackling entrenched healthcare challenges, both globally (bringing clean water technology into India’s slums) and locally (expanding the availability of fresh produce on Providence’s West Side.) RISD English faculty member Kelli Auerbach and Jay Baruch of Brown University Medical School spoke about a joint RISD-Brown class they taught that focused on the body. By introducing art students to medical settings and medical students to life drawing studios, the class was designed to make students both better artists and better doctors. According to Dr. Baruch, “Interacting with RISD students helped [Brown medical students] gain confidence in dealing with the unknown and learning how to ask questions, rather than just coming up with answers.”

“[As artists and designers,] I think we’re more used to failure and welcome that as a learning opportunity,” said Emily Wilson MFA 11 GD. “It’s important that designers work for and with the community.”

 press coverage:
John Maeda: Art and the He(art) (Huffington Post)
From STEM to STEAM (Blogging Innovation)


tags: governmental, alumni, Brown, English, faculty, graduate, local/global, STEAM, students, Literary Arts + Studies

Grad Studies Foreground Image 1
Students present both 2D and 3D work at the annual Graduate Thesis Exhibition