From Deep Expertise to Broad Experience

Transitioning from Wayfinding to Healthcare Experience Design


At age 51, my wife and I had each survived unexpected bouts with cancer, celebrated 25 years of marriage and sent our two sons off to college. And even though I was leading a successful design firm, I began to look closely at my life’s work, considering the second part of my career in design: what had it involved? What might it become?

My early career in graphic design led to 24 years at a design firm that evolved from interior design & space planning, to brand and marketing communications, to Wayfinding Signage design. For 13 years, I led that firm proudly as its president — the majority of our work during that time developing wayfinding systems for healthcare clients.

Since the start of my career, a robust industry has grown up around Wayfinding Signage design, and I was part of its evolution as I served on the international board of the Society for Experiential Graphic Design (SEGD). But as with any design discipline that becomes mainstream, there are inherent disadvantages: while we were a highly specialized group of designers filling a critical communication need, we were limited by the expectations of our clients and the constraints of our project budgets.

All the while, we were uncovering previously unseen cultural hurdles that gave rise to the problems we were working to solve: alleviating stress for patients, families and caregivers by connecting them in meaningful, relevant ways.

The expertise I’d built over years had narrowed my personal impact as a design consultant.

With over 30 years in design consulting, I felt there had to be more I could contribute to the world — and after starting this new venture, my family began to experience firsthand the challenges of patients and families in crisis.

Snack time for Dad’s TRUE caregiver.

Snack time for Dad’s TRUE caregiver.

My Dad is 89 years old and has glioblastoma, the same as former Sen. John McCain. He’s doing well despite his condition, and my four siblings and I are surrounding him with support: my brother and sister live locally and are his primary care team. As a family we have a weekly check-in conference call so we’re all contributing to his care; those of us living out of town travel as often as we can to share caregiving time.

In February I traveled to stay with Dad for a week. First thing Monday, I took him to a progress appointment with his neurology team. Dropping in from the outside, I had almost no current knowledge of his condition or medications. Because of that, I was unprepared when the staff person at reception handed me a sheaf of paper on a clipboard to fill out — by hand. I asked her whether it was necessary since my Dad’s entire medical record resides within this one health system; she confirmed that yes, it was necessary.

I was faced with the realization that the information I provided, minimal as it might have been, would somehow impact the care he was to receive or the data in his medical record. And my Dad, in his current condition, was unable to help. I started filling in his name and birth date. After a few minutes, his nurse came through the door to call us for the consult. I asked her whether it was necessary to fill out the forms, and she said “no, of course not — give those to me.” Dad and I were both relieved.

Reflecting on this 6-minute interaction, I’ve mostly thought about the staff person at the front desk, who was as much “at the mercy of the institution” as we were. She’s directed to tell everyone to fill out paper forms as they enter, and presumably do something with them when they’re brought back. She’s not empowered to allow us to skip that step — when we clearly would have been much better served with a welcome, acknowledgement of check-in, a cup of coffee and a short wait.

A positive healthcare experience is as much about what you DON’T ask of patients as what you DO ask of them.

The rest of the story: Because this is my profession, I requested a meeting with the VP of Patient Experience. I brought this story to her attention as an experience design challenge, describing the momentary stress that this created for me and my Dad. To her credit, she admitted “you want to know the biggest sin? Even if you’d filled it out completely, we have no means of actually recording that information.

These are the types of service and behavioral disconnects I’m now working alongside clients to resolve using human-centered design thinking.

Healthcare Experience Design involves working closely with staff and patients to develop common-sense approaches to reducing stress in healthcare environments. And that’s done by understanding the systems that underlie all forms of communication, identifying gaps and making critical connections, which in turn fuel positive healthcare experiences.

It also allows us to move beyond presupposing what might be needed to exploring and testing what’s truly required to resolve situations like the one I’ve described above. Targeted, appropriate, cost-effective solutions result — because caregivers and patients are continually involved in the design.

While I still very much believe in the importance of wayfinding signage to the overall patient experience, I’ve realized that it’s the design of less tangible interactions around those artifacts that helps to resolve the root causes of the stress and confusion that caregivers, patients and families experience.

“… design is not a silver bullet. We have some lovely healthcare buildings … that still manage to be confusing places for patients and their loved ones.”

Kim Bellard, Editor,

Since starting this new role, I’ve transitioned from volunteer leadership in the SEGD to multiple speaking/writing opportunities for the Beryl Institute, an organization dedicated to improving patient experience. I’ve recently had an opportunity to describe to their membership what Healthcare Experience Design is, and how it benefits both caregivers and those they serve.

Having played a key role in the definition of healthcare wayfinding in my past position, my partners and I are now working to define a new design discipline: Healthcare Experience Design. Through writing, speaking and client engagements, we’re shaping a communication design discipline that enables caregivers to effectively deliver — and empowers patients to confidently navigate — every healthcare experience.

Personally and professionally, I can’t imagine more important work.