Sheffield Hallam University
North West England

I’ve been a medical doctor all my working life and in July, for the first time I found myself walking through the doors of a design conference. Slowly, I emerged from the confined darkness of 21st century medicine…

Design4Health is a biennial conference that explores the relationship between design, health and wellbeing – with the overarching intention of enabling lives of dignity, independence and fulfilment.

The conference had an expansive structure, that enabled dialogue between designers, health professionals, funding bodies, researchers and end users. No less than 5 platforms were employed: a 24 hour design challenge, an exhibition, international keynotes, research paper presentations and a design hacking finale.

24 Hour Design Challenge

As a prelude to the conference, four teams of designers, clinicians, those living with chronic conditions and their carers worked through the night, responding to a set brief to deliver design concepts for cystic fibrosis (a debilitating lung disease of childhood) and motor neurone disease (a relentlessly degenerative muscle-wasting condition).

The challenge offered a first glimpse of the tripartite dynamic that spearheaded this conference: the brutal reality of illness, compassionate design that understands the human condition, and the visceral drive to bring them together.

Two teams shared the Judges’ Award. Team Blown Away [see photo], turned the clunky uncoolness and stigma of home lung function testing into a sharp, smart mouthpiece linked to an iPhone app. Team Reach used augmented clothing (embedded with electrically-flexing fibres) to facilitate daily activites for users with motor neurone disease.

Another stand-out entry was from Team Our Bear [see photo], a self-care tool for cystic fibrosis – an irresistible teddy bear complete with pink lungs, friendly antibiotics and nasty sputum plugs, with his own backpack, gold medal and passport. Our Bear taps deeply into the psychology of childhood: a bear in the same boat, a bear to love and to look after… and who visits the doctor too.

Curated Exhibition

Curated by Professor Ian Gwilt and co-ordinated by Jackie Leaver, 19 exhibits were arranged over two floors and acted as a physical centrepiece to the entire conference proceedings. On entering the gallery the immediate aesthetic was of installation art, and it could have held its own on that basis alone.

More practical exhibits included bespoke neck support for motor neurone disease (Head-Up, the prize winner [see photo]), a Kinect™-based self-positioning device for radiography (reducing the passivity of cancer treatment) [Tara Mullaney] and a 5-pillow system that expressed and soothed emotional states by reactive mood lighting [Nurgül Işik].

Sonja Baümel’s work [see photo] looked at ways of using art to describe science, given that design is visual and science is data. One could not fail to be drawn to her 7-foot petri-dish into which she had climbed to culture her own bodily bacteria – a piece which drew you into a world of ideas on a living skin, symbiosis and hidden connections, and the parallel worlds of microbiological and human culture.


The spectrum of paper presentations was broad and inclusive: service design, co-design, participatory design, self-management, healthcare environments, communities, devices, clothing, gaming, multi-sensory design (and single sensory components), communication, empowerment, safety and open-source design.

A variety of user groups were catered for: the older person, children, those with autism, diabetes, dementia, cystic fibrosis, motor neurone disease, mental health and more.

A salient examplar of the D4H ethos came from one of these papers. By turning convention on its head and daring to ask questions that were an alternative to, rather than an extension of, what has come before, Teal & Geddes [see photo] looked at communities in the best disruptive best sense – not at what’s wrong with them but what’s right. Their first research stage for community health concluded with: Shine, Flourish, Discover, Connect.


My lasting memory is of a future-looking conference community – open-minded, dialectic and enthused. A community very much concerned with devices, environments and systems, but also with redefining emotionally purposeful, relevant paradigms.

Whatever the platform and whatever the health condition, presentations ran the gamut from the conceptual to the grittily practical – suffused with a spirit of collaboration and communication, and an inclusive intent, to improve everyday lives.

And this was no fanciful, unrealistic gathering. When a keynote from a researcher recently suspended naked in agar is followed by the Head of New and Emerging Technologies for the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, you know you are amongst a community in awe of, and rooted in, real life.

This 2nd conference was hosted by Lab4Living, a collaboration between the Art & Design and Health & Social Care Research centres at Sheffield Hallam University, and a core team of inter-disciplinary researchers and end users.

*The 24 Hour Design Challenge format was developed by Julia Cassim, visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, at the Royal College of Art.