Stephen Reay

Dr Stephen Reay, Associate Professor in Art and Design, is director of Good Health Design, a collaborative design studio at Auckland University of Technology. As one of a multidisciplinary team, whose aim is to develop better health and wellbeing experiences, Steve’s research focuses on how the design of products and services may have a positive impact on people’s health and wellbeing. Good Health Design enables designers to engage with clinical experts, healthcare professionals as well as researchers from other disciplines, to share and test ideas and develop unique solutions. Digital and physical designs are prototyped for use in real world settings. This helps improve the end applications as well as to help generate conversations around design processes. Good Health Design has a teaching role as an “authentic learning” environment where students gain skills, such as problem-solving, and knowledge beyond the classroom by working on matters of real concern.

Learning from an embedded model at Good Health Design Lab

Health Collab Symposium guest speaker Associate Professor Stephen Reay is director of the Good Health Design Lab at Auckland University of Technology (AUT). Reay shares the lab’s experiences and approaches to design for health within a hospital environment and as external collaborators.

Five years ago, Reay and his team helped to embed a Design for Health and Wellbeing Lab (DHWLab) within the Auckland Hospital with an aim to directly demonstrate how design can play a positive role in improving experience for everyone - from patients, staff and clinicians to visitors in the hospital environment. The project had high-level institutional support with a strong track record of running small projects with health organisations.

“We focused on the idea of a lab and how this could work in a hospital setting. It was a big unknown. There were a lot of experimentation trials and idea pitches. We had to work out who needed to be involved. What was successful initially, was that both organisations had individuals at quite high levels that got in behind it and made it happen,” says Reay.

Bringing a university and a hospital together was challenging. While both organisations were focused on solving problems, the academic-based team were keen to collaborate in a way that advanced knowledge through design research.

“As a group of designers starting out in a big unknown, the situation created both opportunity and challenges. We had a naive understanding of what health was, and the hospital had a lack of understanding about what design was. Unsurprisingly, as the project advanced, a better understanding of expectations, and the challenges and opportunities developed,” Reay explains.

The DHWLab worked on hundreds of projects, by students, employed designers and consultants.  Many of these were concepts and ideas, others were formally implemented. This ranged from wayfinding, interior architecture to products.

“As designers we give form to ideas and can imagine futures. A lot of our projects were aspirational - imagining what a future might be. This was an important part of what we did - showing another way or a new approach to problems.  It was also about discovering what design for health ‘looked like’ for us as a design lab in a hospital setting,” says Reay.

“The lab was a space for design, where we could design better experiences and bring together different people along the way. We were in constant negotiation with people in an emotionally intense environment,” he says.

“There were complex challenges, but the lab was very successful. The most successful projects were the ones where designers worked closely with clinicians, where there was a tight relationship and a genuine collaboration was formed by being open to different ways of working. It was important that the designers were open to new ideas and new ways of working, but also clinicians and patients and families were involved and open to more creative approaches. This was the essential ingredient,” Reay explains.

The DHWLab project ended after five years. Reay and the design team have moved out of the embedded model and are now operating in the university environment.

“We are continuing our work on design health projects with healthcare organisations and hospitals. Being back in the university environment allows us to be much more future focused. We are still continuing to make tangible impact. Our work continues to use design and creative methods to question and explore. We have a greater opportunity to work closer with communities outside traditional healthcare organisations, to really focus on unpacking problems in greater depth, rather than being solutions focused,” Reay says.

“The embedded experience identified how design for health can be easily absorbed as a service, and that’s an incredible loss of opportunity. Maybe we should term it design with health to encourage stronger collaborations in health-related environments,” he says.

“Good collaborations are about developing really good relationships. It’s the relationships you have with people involved in the projects that make for strong collaborations. One of the benefits of the tool kit we have designed from our experiences, is to provide space to have these important conversations as interdisciplinary teams. These are about what we do and don’t have; what’s important; what we value, for example. They guide how we work together, rather than finding out along the way when things are a bit more tricky,” says Reay.

“At Good Health Design we keep going back to the importance of collaborative relationships that work well. There is an enormous number of problems and challenges in healthcare that are difficult to solve. That’s why it’s important for people to work well together. The limited shared resource goes into advancing understanding that leads to good solutions that are able to be implemented, and as collaborative teams we have fun and enjoy it. That’s what makes a project successful,” he says.