The healthcare industry is a vast wasteland nearly void of design—a condition I’ve discussed many times here on Merge. This sector is ripe for innovative design thinking and remains one of the great areas of opportunity for the next generation of designers.

Two recent articles highlight some of the great work currently being done by designers in healthcare. First is Allison Arrief’s post on the NY Times online Opinionator section entitled “A Breath of Fresh Air for Health Care” in which she profiles the strategic shift being undertaken by health industry giant Kaiser Permanente to focus, as Arrief writes, “not how well Kaiser will care for you when you’re sick, but rather how Kaiser helps deliver wellness and can enhance the quality of your life.”

Kaiser Permanente’s rethinking of the patient room

This is a significant paradigm shift that I am seeing many of the prominent health industry leaders making (the Blue Cross Blue Shield “Do” campaign developed by Crispin Porter is one example). Allison Arrief goes on to explain how Kaiser is living into this strategy in a way that is impacting their entire organization and every point at which the patient is touched, “from

designing greener, healthier buildings to increasing the amount of time nurses spend at bedside.” The article includes an inspiring look of the Kaiser National Facilities Services group’s redesign of patient rooms.

The second article is by Helen Walters, the Business Week editor of Innovation and Design, who contributes a first-hand telling of her experience in the Mayo Clinic Rural Healthcare working group at the Aspen Design Summit last month entitled “Inside the Design Thinking Process.” Walters engages here in a thoughtful critique of the lofty goals and occasionally wandering methodology of the Summit. The Mayo working group had a brief “to design a new health-care system for Austin, Minn., a town of some 24,000 residents whose main claim to fame is being the home of Hormel Foods, the maker of Spam.” Walters rightfully questions how realistic it is to expect that 14 well-intentioned professionals in a Colorado resort are going to have the depth of insight to propose meaningful solutions to a problem with unique and deep parameters.

Walters goes on to tell how Maggie Breslin, senior designer and researcher at the Center for Innovation at Mayo Clinic, talked her off this hopeless edge by explaining “I don’t necessarily think what will move forward is the specific idea laid out for Austin in Aspen, but whether it ends up as a Web site with video is less important to me than the idea that people need a way to engage in multiple places within their community. You have to get to the detail to understand the larger principle—and then throw out the detail and keep that larger principle.” I agree with Maggie Breslin—and I’ve discussed this in my previous posts about the Aspen Summit—that the most significant outcome of this exercise may not be the specific ideas generated by the working groups, but the many interpretations of design thinking methodology we employed to get there.

The Center for Innovation at Mayo Clinic is an important side bar of this story. Like Kaiser Permanente, Mayo is an institution that is ahead of the curve on embedding design and design thinking in their strategic process. I had the pleasure of working with Nick LaRusso, Executive Director of the Center in my working group at Aspen, and I look forward to writing very soon about the great work they are doing.

For designers wondering where the next frontier will be for our skills, look no further than healthcare. Kaiser and Mayo are barely scratching the surface of the colossal mountain of work to be done.