Can product design improve public health? | PDD

Can product design improve public health?


on June 29 2020

These are times of upheaval. From the collapse of supply chains to the new rules and regulations that shape our everyday lives, Covid-19 has forced us all to rethink our habits and embrace new behaviours.

Yet, these are also times for ingenuity and innovation, particularly in the area of public health. How can we design experiences that encourage people to keep their distance? How can products and services facilitate, or even boost peoples’ desire to engage in disease-preventing habits, such as washing hands, sanitising frequently-used objects and wear protective gear?

At PDD, we have been inspired by some of the solutions that are emerging. Focused on people’s needs and using the latest technologies, they remind us of the power design has to influence our world, and our lives, for the better.

The power of emotion

When it comes to preventing disease, it is tempting for designers to focus exclusively on the technical capabilities of a product, leaving behind the user experience that drive adherence to new, healthy habits.

Aware that most people see healthcare supplies as alien to their normal lifestyle, China-based designer, Kiran Zhu created The Handy Capsule Sanitation kit, a modular product with a disposable mask, hand sanitiser, alcohol wipes and temperature stickers. With clean-cut packaging and a modular system, the kit turns sanitation into something playful and engaging that people associate with positive experiences, such as applying makeup or skincare. Designed to encourage daily use, it also enables the forming of new habits, helping users establish a health routine that can help minimise the spread of infectious diseases.

Image credit: Kiran Zhu

Other good examples of product experience come from the beauty industry, an industry well versed on eliciting desire and a sense of identity through design. In the early days of the pandemic, when hand sanitising solutions became indispensable and were in short supply around the world, the beauty industry started producing items for those working on the frontline – doctors, nurses and other essential workers.

We saw key players like LVMH–owned Bvlgari, Dior, Guerlain and Givenchy use their perfume and cosmetic laboratories to manufacture hand-disinfecting products that were practical and desirable and delivered them free of charge to hospitals and health authorities in Italy and France. Although the design of these products was in part driven by urgency, and the need to tap into existing factories and packaging processes, the result illustrates how you can address an immediate problem while enhancing the user experience with a premium look and feel.

Image credit: LVHM

A multisensory experience

In a similar spirit, Bompas and Parr, a London-based experiential studio, launched the Fountain of Hygiene: Sanitiser Design Competition. With entry fees donated to the British Red Cross, they invited creatives around the world to come up with ingenuous takes on sanitiser pumps to accelerate the take-up of new, personal health habits. The shortlisted projects provided not only invaluable prompts to inspire future designs – such as intuitive UX, ensured fun and prolonged interactions – but also tackled environmental concerns, like single-use packaging.

Building on the idea of how multisensory hand cleaners might encourage people to wash their hands for longer, several participants introduced tactile ingredients, such as coffee, and water-responsive pigments into soaps, while others proposed temporary tattoos to challenge consumers to wash off the design by the end of the day. Others used packaging to shape behavioural responses, with designs that resemble everyday staples, such as medical blister packs, mobile phone cases, pendants or watches filled with perfumed sanitiser to ensure it is always on-hand. Overall, it is an inspiring exploration that pushes the boundaries of sensory design, in a playful way.

Image credit: Studio Rama, Kate Strudwick, Amos Oyedeji, Alexander Facey & Nicole Stjer, Charlotte Barry

Image credit: Terry Hearnshaw, Tanapon Lertchairit & Parima Juthakorn

Designing for empathy

In the context of Covid-19, one of the greatest challenges designers are facing is how to address two seemingly conflicting needs: the need to protect ourselves, and the need to connect and interact with others.

As more governments start to recommend the use of face coverings in public spaces, people increasingly want to bring back a sense of normality into their lives, looking for designs that reflect their personality and allow them to communicate with others through visual cues.

Responding to that need, designer Danielle Baskin has created a series of masks that incorporate the user’s image to create the illusion of not wearing a mask at all. The designs are individual and attractive and enable people to maintain social interaction while using  Face ID technology. This means people can use their phone without putting themselves and others at risk by removing their masks. The masks can be printed with the users’ facial features, which results in an almost “invisible” shield against airborne particles. It is, as Baskin puts it, a “trendy dystopian product”.

Image credit: Face ID Masks

With so many face masks focusing solely on disease spread prevention, Ashley Lawrence’s designs are also inspiring. They take into consideration an important group of people, heavily impacted by the lack of visual cues and facial expressions: the deaf and the hard of hearing. Her face masks feature a clear window that enables others to read lips and understand meaning and intention, therefore boosting this much-needed sense of human interaction.

Image credit: gofundme

As face masks become part of our routines in the foreseeable future, seamlessly integrating them into people’s lives is the way forward. This realisation has inspired a series of designers to come up with face masks that can be mixed and matched according to one’s clothing. Artists such as Collina Strada are making use of deadstock material from previous collections by turning it into unconventional masks able to spark joy and “making a statement” during these times when “friendship networks are more crucial than ever.” For every mask bought, they donate five to the New York healthcare workers.

Image credit: Collina Strada

As our societies adapt to the long-term impact of the pandemic, we have a unique opportunity to rethink the world we live in and create the products, services and technologies to help people navigate those changes.

Over the last few months, we have seen designers around the world step up to that challenge, turning constraints into agile, inventive solutions. By putting people at the centre, we all have a unique opportunity to create a better, more connected, world.