Designing Health

A little over a year ago, I was asked by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to be part of a panel discussion at the AIGA Head, Heart, Hand: Design Conference. I shared the stage with Doug Powell from IBM, Matthew Trowbridge, M.D., M.P.H., from the University of Virginia School of Medicine, and George Aye, from Greater Good Studio. Our topic was Designing a Healthier Future for Children, and we were tasked with demonstrating how we used design thinking in our work to improve health on the population level. In the interest of full disclosure, my education is in clinical exercise physiology and not design, so I was a little confused when I got the email asking me if I would like to take part in the conference.

I accepted because the thought of sharing ideas with people from a completely different field of study excited me. As I prepared for the conference, I realized a great deal of my teams work employed a mix of the scientific method and design thinking. We viewed the problem from the perspective of those we wanted to help and found the best practices that fit them. Our approach was more of a flexible prototype rather than a rigid pilot. The more I looked back on our work, it became clear that what we were doing was not a typical approach for health professionals. We had been applying design thinking to improve the health of a population. In our own way, we were using our creativity to address health issues because we saw the faults in the current systems, thinking, and procedures.

New thinking is exactly what is needed to create a culture of health that supports a future where all of our citizens have less  disease, safe neighborhoods, well-performing schools, livable wage jobs, and easy access to parks and healthy foods. Creating a culture of health will require real civic innovation by us all: our elected officials, religious and business leaders, and you. How we think about the design of schools, offices, streets, and even policies influence health behaviors. The simple act of making health a priority that decisions makers, at any level, must consider is one of the fundamental cornerstones for building a new culture of health.

What if the wealth of designers, artists, architects, and planners in Chattanooga were to collaborate with our health community? Imagine how many innovative approaches could be created resulting in better health. These professions have complementary souls with the desire to be creative and help others. Why shouldn't these professions combine their talents for the "Greater Good" as George Aye and his wife have.  His design studio was founded on the idea that design can be a force for health not just  aesthetics. Their work with schools, transit systems, and other partners ensures a health conscious lens is applied to the deliverables for their clients.  Lets invite Chattanooga's designers, health professionals, and architects to re-imagine our schools like Dr. Trowbridge and VMDO Inc. have. Their collaborative efforts have created "active designs" for a Buckingham K-5 public school in Virginia resulting in increased activity and movement by students. Chattanoogans can take on a new challenge by moving beyond our tremendous downtown and apply the same creative and intellectual energies to the communities that surround it. Who knows? We might even create the new culture of health that is so desperately being searched for across this country.

Over the course of the past five years as the Step ONE Program Manager, John Bilderback has played a major role in the creation of the Partnership for Healthy Living and is the project director for Grow Healthy Together Chattanooga, a Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities grant funded by the Robert Wood Johnson FoundationJohn is a graduate of UTC, where he received a Master’s degree in Clinical Exercise Physiology. 

“Chattanoogans can take on a new challenge by moving beyond our tremendous downtown and apply the same creative and intellectual energies to the communities that surround it. ”