Design Thinking and Public Health

Last Friday, I had the honor and pleasure of being part of an exciting event, Ignite! Talks, organized by the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota. There were 19 rapid, provocative presentations delivered by ‘University of Minnesota’s most future-focused faculty’ on the future of public health. Below is a summary of my talk.

Perhaps you are already familiar with design thinking, a phrase related to innovation that has been gaining attention in recent years.   Business and Health Care are two fields that have been early adopters of design thinking outside the fields of design (architecture, landscape architecture, graphic design, web design, for example).  In brief, design thinking moves participants through systematic steps of Empathy, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. Among these, of special note are the steps of Empathy that steeps the designer in learning about the user(s) of a design and their needs; Ideate that involves visual brainstorming and sketching as part of the process; and Prototyping that involves quick mock-ups of key ideas generated in physical form. For example, even a low-resolution prototype is eminently productive taking the the idea from paper to reality in three dimensions.

The first power of  design thinking, in my view, lies in its application beyond products to systems and processes. The second, in its engaging large groups of people (particularly users of the system or process) in providing creative ideas at the outset to shape the designs and feedback during the process. The third power of design thinking is that it confirms we are in an age of creative literacy.  Increased creative literacy by each of us will benefit all of us just as literacy involving reading and writing has been essential for the individual and societal progress. This is also confirmed by design thinking’s popularity among the public particularly those outside the field of design.

Public health, says the august Wikipedia, is ‘the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting health through organized efforts and informed choices of society, organizations, public and private, communities and individuals.’ Design Thinking is especially relevant to public health then, in the sense of organized efforts and creative choices of communities and individuals.


In a program called Design for Community Resilience that I lead as part of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Sustainable Building Research some of our work relates strongly to public health. We use design in the development of community  gardens and greenhouses to increase local food production in the cold climate of Minnesota (recent projects were in Bemidji, Cass Lake, Fergus Falls, Brainerd, North Minneapolis). Another effort is about fostering physical activity and connection to nature such as our Children and Nature projects in the work we have done to develop nature-based play areas (recent projects were in Crookston, Fertile and we are currently developing an accessible nature-based play space in Ellen Hopkins Elementary School, Moorehead). In this work the we use design and design thinking and engage users in the creative development of the designs for their future. By engaging the individuals and communities in the design of their future health, we invite their ownership in continued engagement and the success of health outcomes.

Here are three possible next steps to integrate design thinking and public health:

  • Engage the intergenerational public in the design thinking of their spaces, processes and schedules of health.
  • Connect people using design processes to their own health and the health of their land
  • Engage university, community, health providers, and funders in cross sector partnership

The future of public health is waiting. Let’s get started. Thank you!



Image source: Virajita Singh, Visual Note Graphics of talk made by Sook Jin Ong

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