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Design Ambassadors: Transcending Disciplinary Boundaries with Human Centered Design

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of Portfolio magazine. Read the complete issue here

Students and graduates alike are taking the human-centered design principles instilled in them at KCAD and pushing outside the bounds of what are conventionally considered their disciplines.

Case in point: alumnus Wes Keely (’15, Industrial Design), who landed a coveted and highly competitive position at Mercy Health’s newly minted Innovation Hub late last year. There, he and his teammates craft new processes to streamline or otherwise improve patient care and patients’ experience throughout Mercy Health’s operations.

“Our team doesn’t necessarily have a health care background, so we see things in a different light,” says Keely. “They hired us specifically for that reason. Once people have been here for a while they tend to see things through a certain lens. We acknowledge that lens exists but we look around other ways and ask, ‘Well what about this?’ We’re able to bring up a lot of different viewpoints and find things like stakeholders who weren’t necessarily accounted for before.”

Keely says one of the general ideas his team is exploring centers on speeding up the patient waiting experience at the hospital. Keely’s team also trains members of other departments throughout Mercy Health’s operation on human-centered design principles. Though he’s not designing specific products, Keely always falls back on the human-centered design process when presented with a problem.

“You have to trust in the process,” Keely says. “Some people try to cheat the process and go right to solutions—and that doesn’t work. Trusting the process allows us to create new solutions, and if we’re not creating solutions, we can at least be tactful and mindful of bringing everything back to that patient experience.”

KCAD’s commitment to human-centered design principles also benefits current students, such as the Industrial Design and Interior Design students working alongside Spectrum Health Innovations (SHI). An eight-person collaborative team, SHI works with Spectrum Health staff and external professionals from diverse backgrounds to create cutting-edge health care products and technologies. KCAD students have collaborated closely with Spectrum Health and SHI staff to redesign rooms in Spectrum Health’s Epilepsy Monitoring Unit (EMU) with an innovative spatial concept that aims to increase the safety and comfort level of epilepsy patients who must remain in these rooms for an average of five to seven days while medical staff monitor them and develop appropriate treatment plans.

Industrial Design alumnus Justin Beitzel Industrial Design student Justin Beitzel (right) helps construct a full-size model of a redesigned patient room in Spectrum Health’s Epilepsy Monitoring Unit.

This type of treatment requires that patients have multiple seizures in the EMU so that their brain activity and behavior can be analyzed. Because these seizures can happen at any time, EMU patients are currently confined to their beds to protect them from injury during an episode. SHI’s concerns over the lack of patient mobility led the students to design room concepts featuring padded floors; curved surface edges; a soft, natural color palette; and lounge-type furniture that can easily be converted into hospital furniture—all in an attractive, homelike environment. The students are also exploring ideas for an EMU-specific bed that would allow a patient full control over its adjustability. 

Renderings of redesign of EMU patient roomsRenderings of the proposed redeisign of the EMU rooms. 

“Human-centered design really helps me get in other people’s minds and look at the problem or opportunity from their perspective,” says Xiaoyang Guo, an Industrial Design senior involved in the project. “That way we’re not designing something that makes sense only to us and not to other people. It’s important to understand their perspective.”

In addition to the EMU project, students from the Fashion Studies program, in conjunction with last year’s DisArt Festival, worked with SHI to develop specialized compression garments for children suffering from neuromuscular diseases. The students spent numerous hours with the children, taking detailed measurements and talking to them and their parents about their specific needs.

“The KCAD students are great at observing and understanding problems at a very core, humanistic level, and digging beyond the superficial level of just needing a device that does this or that,” says Scott Daigger, manager of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at SHI. “You can approach a problem that way, but I think having that more holistic viewpoint gives you a deeper understanding.”

DisArt Fashion ShowGarments designed by Fashion Studies students for children with neuromuscular diseases on display during the DisArt Fashion Show.

Both the EMU and garment projects underscore a cornerstone of human-centered design: empathy. 

“We try to teach empathy,” says Interior Design Associate Professor Lee Davis, who is involved in the EMU project. “It’s not just for me walking in that space, it’s for everyone. With the EMU space, students are trying to get inside the experience of an epilepsy patient, but they have to also see things through the doctors’ eyes, the families’ eyes—everyone’s eyes.” 

KCAD has also taken its human-centered design philosophy abroad. Since 2012, Industrial Design Associate Professor Jon Moroney has spearheaded an ongoing collaboration between KCAD, Grand Valley State University, and the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Nicaragua (UNAN) to teach human-centered design principles to students and faculty at the university. Now, the partnership, which has included Industrial Design students since 2013, has matured to the point that KCAD is working closely with a core group of UNAN educators to develop their own human-centered design pedagogy. A delegation from UNAN traveled to West Michigan last year to learn firsthand at KCAD and other institutions.

delegation from Nicaragua visits KCADA leadership contingent from the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Nicaragua tours the KCAD campus.

“I liked the methodology from KCAD, where professors and private companies commit to and work with young innovators,” says Beverly Castillo, a senior lecturer and coordinator of the Research and Innovation Multidisciplinary Regional Faculty at UNAN. “It was important to see the reflection process of young people on the basis of identifying problems, but also their commitment to their ideas and projects that contribute to solving these problems.” 

Moroney notes that teaching the humancentered design philosophy to the UNAN staff has required an adherence to the same open-minded principles that characterize it.

“They teach very differently than we do,” says Moroney. “We couldn’t just say ‘here’s what we do, now replicate it’ because they don’t have the programming, facilities, or structure to do it. It’s all about figuring out how they can learn from what we’re doing in a way that makes sense for their educational system.”

There’s little doubt that adopting human-centered design principles is invaluable to creative professionals, whether KCAD graduates, students, or professors 3,000 miles away. However, despite how wide ranging those roles may be, Keely says that at its core, the human-centered design philosophy hinges on helping others.

“The whole reason why I got into design in the first place was to create products that made people’s lives better. That was it.”

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