The Picture of Good Health

Creating more comfort and better way-finding in hospital

On the first visit to Thistle Ward at Newham Hospital, then-third year BA Graphic Design student Rebecca Thomson caught glimpse of a woman walking the corridor, disoriented and trying to locate her room. “A staff member walking by was carrying trays of food,” she recalls, “so he couldn’t point her in the right direction. I looked at the door and realised that I would find this confusing, let alone if I had dementia or had just come out of surgery.”

The brief for the Newham Hospital project, run in collaboration with Vital Arts, was to tackle this homogeneity, to create way-finding and a sense of comfort for patients. The ward was specifically for older patients, recuperating from surgical procedures and often suffering from symptoms of dementia. 

The project began in 2014 with Graphic Design tutor Luise Vormittag who runs a pathway dedicated to socially-engaged practice. Vormittag, having worked with the NHS before, approached Vital Arts – an arts organisation for Barts Health NHS Trust, the largest hospital trust in the UK – to gauge its interest in collaborating. Vital Arts identified a ward in Newham Hospital for the project to focus on: “It was a new build hospital, lots of white walls which was a good start,” says Vormittag, “but whitewalls in the NHS still have hand wash, notice boards, health and safety signs, loads of things. So it’s a good challenge.” 

The students were invited to tour the ward, meeting both Vital Arts representatives as well as the hospital’s staff and patients. “I like taking people out of the College into other environments where they encounter other types of people, other types of concerns,” explains Vormittag, "I want them to think about how they might implement design in those contexts, where people’s primary concern might not be for art and design, but where you could address a problem with these approaches. In this case, it worked really well.”

While the designs are focused on the experience of patients, the staff are central stakeholders, so schemes had to avoid giving additional responsibility in terms of maintenance. “It’s important that the staff are excited about the work because they look after it, they need to take ownership of it,” says Neesha Gobin of Vital Arts. 

This was the first commission by the arts organisation for this particular hospital and perhaps more importantly it was its first time working with students. A few weeks after the visit, their proposals were presented. “It was a test really,” Gobin recalls, “if the designs weren’t right we wouldn’t have used them but the ideas that came back were feasible and really good solutions so we realised two of them, instead of one!”

Rebecca Thomson’s design, the first of two to be commissioned, transforms the Thistle Ward into “Thistle Street”. Each door given its own identity through clear and colourful vinyls supporting way-finding by creating individual looks for each room but also offering a sense of domestic familiarity. Thomson’s designs not only altered the main corridor but each door has its interior side, meaning the scheme extends into patients’ own rooms.

“The response has been amazing” says senior nurse Dionne Daniel, “it’s a great conversation starter for patients, relatives and staff. The other day I heard a young boy say ‘grandpa lives in the grey door’ and I knew that it was working.” 

Thistle Street at Thistle Ward, Newham Hospital, Rebecca Thomson
Thistle Street at Thistle Ward, Newham Hospital, Rebecca Thomson 2

Having installed Thistle Street, Thomson now sees the possible application for her design across other wards and hospitals: “The environment of the hospital is so mixed – the maternity ward might be next to the dementia ward – the energy walking through each ward is completely different, so each series of graphics could be designed to tailor to each ward’s need.”

But Vital Arts didn’t stop there, as it commissioned another design for another ward. Jessica Hook and Florence Meunier’s scheme for Tayberry Ward at Newham brings the outside in. Initially working individually on schemes inspired by bus routes and the local area, the design grew as the two decided to collaborate, to include St Pauls and various other more famous London landmarks.

While such collaborative projects are focused on delivering successful outcomes for the client, they also reciprocate impact by shaping the experience of the young designers. The Newham Hospital project is a perfect example, since graduating in 2015 both Hook and Thomson have continued to work on socially engaged projects in the charity sector.

Hook in particular credits the project for her future direction. Straight out of College she worked for a start-up online marketplace for products and services for people with dementia and now works for CLIC Sargent, a cancer charity for the young.

It was such a different project – we were used to print or digital. But this was an actual installation, a bit removed from what we might typically think of as graphic design…It really helped me get into social design. I’m sure I wouldn’t be in my current position without the Newham Hospital project.