Meg Beckum on Authentic Healthcare Design

Meg Beckum helps businesses uncover and cultivate authentic brand narratives and expressions through imagination, craft and storytelling. With a MFA in Design from SCAD and BA in Journalism from University of Georgia, Meg has worked in publishing and branding for 20 years. She has developed identities, campaigns, and experiences for some of the world’s most recognized brands including Heineken, Kimberly-Clark, GSK, Danone, American Express, Verizon and Bank of America. While brand building is her focus, Meg is most proud of her work with organizations empowering women and children — including The Girl Scouts, Planned Parenthood and Teach for America. Featured in FastCo, The Drum, Digiday, and Creative Boom and a recent AIGANY board member, Meg was named GDUSA’s 2021 Person to Watch.

The Need For Authenticity

The Covid pandemic reminded us all of the pivotal role that healthcare plays in the lives of America’s communities, inspiring an outpouring of appreciation for frontline workers. Yet the bonds forged between healthcare professionals and the patients they serve hasn’t always been reflected in healthcare branding.

For too long, the sector has been dominated by bland semiotics that feel cold and clinical; with brand design that fails to inspire a meaningful connection with patients. Yet, as the US population becomes steadily bigger, older and more diverse, the importance of a well-communicated healthcare system will only grow.

Moreover, a widening strata of pressures including medical burnout, and an ongoing struggle for healthcare equity, risks a widening gulf between healthcare organizations and the communities that they operate in. A new type of healthcare design, then, can both rectify the detachment seen in many healthcare identities, and also help sow the seeds of greater human connection.

Designers have a central part in shaping this authentic, more personable healthcare approach in both public and private sectors – here’s how. 

Community and Togetherness

From internal wayfinding to iconography, graphics, typography and colors, we should be designing identities that speak to people’s need for inclusion and connection – rather than reinforcing feelings of otherness.

Even small design actions can turn a clinical identity into something far warmer and inviting. For example, we recently worked with Summit Health Cares, a non-profit healthcare provider for marginalized communities in the New Jersey and Greater New York City areas. A core part of the rebranding project was the creation of an open heart logo, designed to welcome in and embrace different members of the community. 

This is an organization that’s played a vital role throughout the pandemic in giving people access to life-saving healthcare and health education. So now, when Summit Health Cares vans carry that logo through local neighborhoods to provide vaccines, health screenings and more, the open heart helps show people that this is a brand that truly cares about them and their families’ needs. 

The heart provides a simple and adaptable brand icon that can be applied across all design assets – physical and digital – creating instant recognition for the brand and delivering a holistic sense of warmth throughout the patient experience. As a symbol, the heart also has universal meaning, allowing Summit Health Cares’ identity to resonate with all communities.

Design that captures a sense of inclusion is paramount in a healthcare context. By 2050, it’s estimated that racial and ethnic minorities will comprise over a third of America’s over-65 population. Healthcare design must adapt accordingly, finding new ways of open and inclusive communication to ensure no-one gets left behind. 

Simple, Authentic Design

People can also feel excluded by healthcare systems due to overly complex or confusing structures. Again, design can provide a certain balancing force here, with iconography that is accessible and simple. 

One example is the new UK contraceptive pill for women “Hana” – a name that represents a move towards more relatable and easy-to-pronounce femcare branding. In stark contrast to the clinical and cold design semiotics of traditional contraceptive health branding, Hana uses a more modern color palette with Instagram-friendly photography to give the brand a warm and inviting feel.

Humor is another way that healthcare brands can achieve a more authentic and human identity that boosts accessibility. Topical hemorrhoid cream, Preparation H, for example unveiled a series of images and animations that softly poke fun at the treatment, and moved away from medical terminology in favor of colloquial language like “Keister” and “Derriere”. The effect is that, through humor, Preparation H has become a more relatable brand, able to connect on a deeper level with consumers. It has also helped the brand to tackle the stigma associated with hemorrhoids, another barrier that can hinder accessibility for brands in the healthcare space.

The Impact of Visual Language

Over 37 million adults in the US speak a language other than English, and 18 million speak English less than “very well.” This communication obstacle has a direct impact on the quality of healthcare received in the States, with low health literacy closely linked to poor health outcomes.

Healthcare brand designers should therefore double down in their efforts to overcome linguistic and cultural barriers, focusing on an open visual identity that encourages both simplicity and cross-cultural understanding. Often, this will involve user surveys or even a co-design process, in collaboration with an organization’s local neighborhood groups. 

We live in an age where healthcare providers – public and private – are increasingly merged with the people and problems they serve. Healthcare, in turn, must break free from a history of clinical professionalism, and instead put the human experience in the foreground of design.