Of Flies, Healthcare, Learning and Good Design
by David Rosen, President, O’More College of Design

This week, O’More College of Design was visited by Von Robinson, a designer and healthcare strategist at Steelcase. Steelcase has stopped thinking of itself as a furniture company. It designs environments that can shape the experiences of people in positive ways. Healthcare is in need of that.

Von’s visit reminded me that we often are not very good at understanding the people we are designing for.

Take O’More’s short-lived plan for an orientation course. O’More students traditionally come to campus on the first day and go straight to class. Even though orientation would not improve O’Mores’ 81% graduation rate, administrators felt that students needed a semester-long, 3-credit orientation.

In my first weeks on campus, I brought the planners together to discuss the orientation program. First I asked them to draw a chair. After 30 seconds of work on this, I stopped them. I was not interested in the chair. I wanted to know how they approached the problem. Each of them told me the same thing: they got a mental picture of a chair, assessed their drawing ability, and then started.

What had they not done? Looked at a chair in a room full of chairs. Nor had they looked at the students for whom they designed the course.

I did. I talked to students who were on campus in the summer. They told me that they liked not having had an orientation course. At the end of the first semester, they had felt empowered. And when they needed help, faculty, staff and students pitched in. They had created a supportive network that sustained them.

I learned that an orientation course would not improve our success. But it could ruin it.

It is almost always more efficient for us not to do the research, not to observe, not to learn. Seeing what something really is may take time, require a more intense intellectual exertion and then cost us effort to act on that new knowledge. But if we want to design to help a user, we need to observe and understand.

One of my favorite examples about designing is freeing a housefly from a jar. You take off the lid, and the stupid fly bumps its way to the top, and then (when it is almost out), it bumps its way down again. Grrr. Doesn’t it know it is free??


If you lay the jar on its side, however, the fly goes right out. Why? If you looked at what the fly was doing in the jar, it was flying side to side. Our idea of freedom is taking off the lid. The fly’s idea includes laying the jar on its side.

So the question that Von posed is a good one: when we design for the care of our patients, do we really understand our patients’ needs sufficiently to know that we are designing for them and not for our idea of them or simply for our own convenience and efficiency and not theirs?

Good design puts the user’s needs at the center. It lays the jar on its side.

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