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What a death taught me about design

As the headline suggests, this is not one of my usual light-hearted musings on the life of a freelance designer or the importance of getting your branding right (although that is still important!). No doubt I’ll be back to those in a week or two, but for today, a more sombre, reflective tone.

When someone close to you is unexpectedly diagnosed with a terminal illness your whole world turns upside down. From that one moment in time, you know with absolute clarity that your life will never be the same again. But that may be the only thing you are clear on. Everything else becomes a mass of confusion, fear and helplessness. What you want is someone to step in and tell you it’s all going to be OK. But it’s not and this isn’t a fairy story so there’s no happy ending.

I’m a designer. I’m used to being able to organise a jumble of information and turn it into something that’s easy to understand; something that gets the message across with clarity. Over the last eight months, I have seen so many examples of poor design and bad communication that it’s actually reinforced my conviction of the importance of good design.

When my mum was given her initial diagnosis, I wasn’t there so I didn’t get to ask questions. Like most people in that situation, she remembered nothing the consultant told her after “I’m really sorry…” I was left thinking ‘What do we do now? What help can we get?’ I started looking through the collection of random leaflets and photocopied bits of paper she left the hospital with and was dismayed at how little use any of it was. For the most part, it was confusing, full of repetition and too generic to be much use.

As time went by we gradually learned that there were all sorts of amazing things available on the NHS to anyone with a terminal diagnosis. You can talk to a nutritionist or a palliative care specialist. You can get a special mattress to relieve pressure sores, hire wheelchairs and even have your blood tests done at home. All things to help make life a little easier. Most of this we only learned at various crisis points along the way. How much better would my mum's quality of life have been if we had only known to ask for these things sooner? Maybe we just slipped through the net somehow and not everyone has this experience. I was left thinking if only all this salient information could have been put into one leaflet and given to us at the outset.

The simplest things could have made the biggest difference. For example, providing a clear map of the hospital showing key areas like where you go for X-rays or blood tests; where the pharmacy is situated and what times it is open. Yes, you can go online and find the information for yourself if you search hard enough but it's not all in one place. And it’s probably the last thing you feel like doing when you are so unwell. Hospitals can be confusing and intimidating places so anything that can help make life just that little bit easier must be worth doing.

OK, you know that feeling when you are laying there trying to sleep and your mind is coming up with all these ingenious inventions that somehow seem crazy the next day? (or maybe that’s just me). Well, I think this idea could have helped my family out no end. I’m calling it ‘The little book of me’. So the phone goes and it’s the call you have been dreading. Your mum’s being rushed to the hospital, the ambulance is on its way, you need to get there now. So you run. And you panic. And you wish that you were not the designated grown up for that particular day. You find yourself sitting in the back of an ambulance with the blue lights flashing trying to answer questions about a complex medical history you don’t fully understand yourself. Half of it you can’t even pronounce. And what drugs is she on? Wow, there are so many now, what if I get it wrong? Why isn’t there a little book that you fill in, keep updated and carry around with you that has all of this info in it? Isn’t that what happens when you are pregnant? It could have your height, weight, blood group, known allergies, emergency contacts…

Over the weeks it was an idea I kept coming back to and expanding on. What if ‘The little book of me’ had all the important ‘time critical’ stuff already mentioned at the front and then a section at the back for the patient to write down all the questions or concerns they wanted to ask at their next consultant's appointment? Maybe family members could also write their questions in it. It would be small enough to carry around in your pocket or bag, something that would always be with you. In times of extreme stress, it’s easy to forget all the stuff you wanted to ask. A simple bit of design could help ensure all the important information is readily available should there be an emergency. Surely someone is going to tell me this already exists right as it seems so obvious?

And now I get to the point of this somewhat rambling story; that design doesn't have to be about grand gestures, it can solve small, universal and overlooked problems. I recently listened to a great TED talk called ‘Design is in the detail’ by Paul Bennett, Creative Director at Ideo. It’s a few years old now but still rings true. He’s predominantly talking from a product design perspective, but the sentiment is the same. "Sometimes the good ideas are staring you so hard in the face that we miss them." if you have 14 minutes to spare, it's well worth a listen.

I've learnt many things over the last few months, but one that I will try to remember in my design life is that the tiniest of things can make a huge amount of difference. Design really is in the details.


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