What is Good Design?


We’ve heard that good design is useful, usable, and desirable to the user engaged with a product or service. Dieter Rams, one of the most influential industrial designers in history, has given us 10 principles for what is good design. But what exactly is good design in healthcare? And how do we apply these principles to improve healthcare strategy, tactics, messaging, products, services, experiences, outcomes, and environments?

If we look close enough, we can find elements of design hidden in healthcare and buried beneath acronyms—think lean six sigma, quality improvement efforts, and improving patient experience. What is noticeably missing among these efforts is design thinking.

Design thinking may sound complicated, but we have, and always will, experience design in our everyday life. Below are key ideas to keep in mind when embarking on your journey to becoming a design thinker.


Good design, like good painting, cooking, architecture, or whatever you like, is a manifestation of the capacity of the human spirit to transcend its limitations...it is a statement not a gadget.
— George Nelson

Design : : found everywhere and innate to everything.


We use it when we put our socks on in the morning. It’s an exchange between our selves and our environment. American philosopher John Dewey reflects, “Every experience is the result of interaction between a live creature and some aspect of the world in which he lives.” Where there is interaction, there is design. We move at a speed that perpetually increases—in constant motion and armed with technology. How often do we pause for reflection on our experiences—we’re either extraordinarily delighted or unusually disgruntled. How often are we aware of our environment—the meaning of our interactions within it—let alone open to absorb its insight and inspiration?


Design :: use purpose and have intention. 


We use design when we strip away the unnecessary, the superfluous, what detracts us from creating what we need, delivering what’s required, or living the way we desire. Notable professor of Design, Management, and Information Systems at the Weatherhead School of Management, Richard Buchanan (below) exclaims, “Design has no subject matter…”—therefore; it is up to the designer to choose what areas to explore and what problems to solve. It’s no secret this process can be applied to any aspect of life.



A recent article from the New York Times written by Bernard Roth, a distinguished engineering professor at Stanford, describes how he has applied the concept of design thinking inward to make profound personal changes in his life. “Design thinking on the highest level is a way of reframing the way you look at the world and deal with issues, and the main thing is this idea of empathy,” Dr. Roth affirms. When we broaden our understanding of design beyond the realm of logos, artifacts, apps, and HCAHPS, we realize its unlimited potential to drive us towards the outcomes we desire. Design challenges us to have a reason behind every decision that we make.


Design : : it’s product & process. 


Design takes us on a seemingly unconventional (yet natural) path—steeped in the ambiguities and uncertainties of life—where opportunities and possibilities exist. Design begins with purpose and evolves through iteration: exploring the world, discovering issues, transforming opportunities, generating ideas, constructing models…testing, dissecting, refining, reflecting, and repeating it again from start to finish, each time with a newly enlightened vantage point. Sounds complicated? In fact, we engage in this process every day. Making a decision and reflecting on its consequence—what did we learn? Did this draw us closer to our intended outcome, or have we diverged in a way that offered a new view on our situation? Most importantly, what can we learn from this and apply to other experiences moving forward? If you look for design, you will find it—embedded in every aspect of our world and our interactions with it.


Design :: always challenge and dream. 


Using design thinking heightens our awareness. We do not simply go through the motions, but rather we strive to continuously see the world in a different way. We are playful in our approach and allow ourselves to be open to a path that may challenge what is expected. Using design is about living and working with intention and being aware of what can be gained from every experience. We take an objective look around us to vet what is valuable and what isn't in our lives and our work. So often we battle our better selves against what is comfortable, most accessible, what our budgets allow—but at what compromise?

With design, we see the big picture, yet have the ability to focus on the details. We understand the relationships between many moving parts and recognize opportunities to improve the function and agility of those parts. We recognize parts in relation to the whole. In healthcare, we see and understand individuals; we talk to and motivate individuals—while at the same time addressing the collective.

Want to learn more? The Institute of Healthcare Design Thinking equips you as a healthcare professional with tools, resources, and experiences that empower you to become a design thinker and leverage best practices in design for improved business and clinical outcomes. The Institute facilitates a conversation among experts in healthcare strategy, marketing and design to effectively use design thinking to solve common healthcare challenges. Engagement with the Institute is rooted in your experience—challenged by the daily demands of an ever-evolving industry.

To get started, we challenge you to embrace the following principles in your work and play—

  • Suspend your judgment of what is new, different, and seemingly irrelevant
  • Find connections and avoid fixed categories of thinking
  • Be present and question everything with a critical eye and mind
  • Reconnect with your curiosity—what fuels your creativity
  • Make a conscious effort to abandon convention in your work and life
  • Take bold, calculated, and purposeful risks—knowing there is always something to gain
  • Realize and appreciate the value in not knowing the answer or outcome
  • Think beyond outcomes and be receptive to learning from the process

Design is about hierarchy and balance, similarity and contrast, dominance and emphasis, scale and proportion, texture and space, form and function—design thinking in healthcare is about applying these principles to the interaction of people and business. With design, we craft our messages with the listener in mind; we design our experiences from the vantage point of the consumer. With design, healthcare has the potential to make sense!


Get on the path to becoming a design thinker and Join The Institute of Healthcare Design Thinking.