This week I talked with the graphic designer Andrew Lu. Now working as a UX designer at Microsoft, Andrew is a recent graduate of RISD where for his thesis project he studied the visual language of mental health. We talked about what brought him to this subject, how he made connections between psychiatry and graphic design, his proposals for shifting the focus of information to something more empathic and the reception of his ideas amongst his peers. Our conversation, and his work in this area, made me hope that some of this might be made real some day, that this might go beyond concept to implementation:
Joe’s Daughter: Let’s start with what brought you to the subject of mental health. It seems an unusual focus for a graphic design study.
Andrew: The Graphic Design Degree Project in our senior year at RISD is very open, and we have the opportunity to research and produce a body of work on any topic or idea that we are interested in or passionate about. Choosing the topic of mental health was very much personally motivated, but I had also started to understand it as a growing issue in our culture and society, and one that I felt design could play a critical role in addressing.
The summer before I had experienced an episode of depression after a particularly stressful year and a lack of awareness at the time about what I was going through and how to process it. Ultimately I was able to find a great doctor, start medication and make a full recovery, but it was a months-long process that was very daunting and scary to go through.
Reflecting on that process I felt like there were many aspects of the patient experience that lacked clarity, accessibility, and especially empathy – like understanding the illness, finding the right treatment, and identifying with medication – and I felt that this was largely a design problem. At the same time I learned that this was an increasingly common experience. Over 1 in 10 Americans use an antidepressant, and antidepressants are the type of drug used most by people age 18-44. So I was very driven to explore these issues and ideas for my Degree Project.
Joe’s Daughter: How did you approach this subject in a graphic design context? Which resources were you looking at? What form did the work take?
Andrew: I really looked at mental health and especially antidepressant use as an experience, and turned it into a design problem by asking how design could make that experience better, how design could improve our relationship to mental health and medication. What I ended up producing was a body of work that approached the problem from a couple of angles.
Some of the work was intended to disrupt, to use design as as criticism or as a statement to show what our current mental health experience looks like. For those projects I gained a perspective by doing a lot of reading on books like Katherine Sharpe’s wonderful memoir Coming of Age on Zoloft, reflecting on my own experience and interviewing friends and others who had had similar ones with depression and antidepressants. Those learnings inspired more art-like pieces, like an installation critiquing the overuse of medications off-label for depression, and Dose to Date, a series of hefty book objects conveying the chronic nature of antidepressant use and the burden associated with self-identification in the medication.
Some works were inventive, thinking about creating new tools that we could use to address mental health, and others works were about taking existing things that we use and encounter in that experience and making them better. In “rethinking,” I found great inspiration in existing design work that really reimagined common conventions, like the Help line of products that put a soft, non-threatening face on first aid and over-the-counter medication. Another inspiration came from the designer Kenya Hara, who designed a washable, cloth slipcase wayfinding system for a hospital to create a feeling of cleanliness and caring.
From those references I was inspired to redesign antidepressant advertising and packaging as with a fictional Solufta brand, which came to be a stand-in for many real antidepressants like Prozac and Zoloft. I created an ad campaign for Solufta that, somewhat surprisingly, drew upon the very positive and action-oriented drug promotion of Viagra, and gives the audience a sense of agency and confidence by focusing on resolution and improvement, rather than the images and messages of depression and illness itself that are so prevalent in antidepressant advertisements today. In a related packaging project Better Pill, I designed special blister packs for Solufta that incorporate positive messaging, and reimagine the rote act of taking a pill as an affirming and reassuring interaction.
Joe’s Daughter: What position did you take on this material? Were you critical of the industry, or did you take a personal stance on the subject?
Andrew: Personally I did feel that medication was valuable in my recovery, but there is certainly a lot of controversy over antidepressant use, how effective the drugs actually are, and whether their growing use indicates an improvement or a regression in the way that we treat depression and understand mental health. I didn’t think I could properly answer those questions and also felt that it was outside of my scope for designing a better mental health experience. I decided to take a more agnostic approach and focus on the notion of, if we allow that the diagnoses and treatments are appropriate, how can design make our experience with and relationship to them better?
One project that I think speaks very closely to this intent is Help Me Find, which was a proof-of-concept I designed for an online system that would help patients discover and understand the drug treatment that may be right for them. I was taking a close look at popular resources like WebMD, and felt that they were really very passive and even discouraging, doing little to connect with patients or give them a sense of support. So instead I designed Help Me Find to allow the user to consult the website in natural language, expressing their symptoms and concerns in very much the way they might to a human doctor. In return the system would provide a personal recommendation with information on a drug’s benefits, risks, and side effects in an almost conversational format, the intention being to foster a more human, reciprocated and empathetic interaction.
Joe’s Daughter: Could you take us through some other projects that deal with different aspects of mental health treatment, such as therapy and self-care?
Andrew: Absolutely. These projects came about by thinking of new tools or ways we could take care of our mental health. For example, I created an interactive website, called E-note, meant to help patients more easily express and describe their feelings and process through them, which could be by themselves, with a therapist or even in a group setting. The website contains adjectives commonly used to name emotions, which can be of a positive, neutral, or negative disposition, and of an active or passive nature. The user can add notes and flag emotions to add them to a personal collection, promoting healthy processing and awareness of these feelings within themselves and amongst each other.
Similarly, I designed a smartphone application called Moodite envisioned as a simple but useful way to help patients keep track of their emotional history. The act of using this application is meant to be intuitive and low-maintenance, allowing a user to note their mood and activity at any time on a simple positive to negative scale. Moodite would automatically keeping track of time lapsed, accumulate a visual representation of moods over time, and offer filtering functions to browse one’s mood history. The idea is that this would help patients understand their emotional patterns and triggers, and empower them to take more control over their mental well-being.
Joe’s Daughter: This thesis work was developed in parallel and supported by Active Minds, an organization that advocates for mental health information amongst students across US universities. How did they support your work?
Andrew: A counselor at RISD’s Health Services referred me to Active Minds’ Emerging Scholars Fellowship, which supports college-aged students in completing research projects related to mental health. As part of this program, I was connected with past scholars, experts in the mental health field, and the Active Minds organization and Scattergood Foundation. It was a network that provided valuable resources and funding for my project and also promoted visibility for our work and shared cause. It was also through the Fellowship that I had the privilege and great benefit of working with author Katherine Sharpe (Coming of Age on Zoloft) as one of my mentors.
Joe’s Daughter: Were you worried at any stage about the reception of this work amongst your peers? Were you concerned about how your projects, and in turn you, would be perceived?
Andrew: You know, while I was passionate about the topic of mental health and very much set on it, I did have those concerns in the beginning. I didn’t make it a point in my proposals or documentation, but I did want to be honest about my personal connection to the work, and I had worried that my project and I would be perceived negatively. But I found very much the opposite when I started presenting my project and my experience to my peers and professors.
Granted, this was RISD, an art school where the community is especially progressive. But people were excited about what I was doing, understood the issues at hand, and many even opened up about their own stories and relationships to mental health. It was amazing to see the response of genuine interest, acknowledgement, and dialogue, and I was happy to start the conversation. People don’t talk about mental health, but not because they have nothing to say. If allowed the opportunity, they will contribute to the discussion.