Rebranding healthcare I. Bridging fashion and health

Ahonen & Lamberg, John Lawrence Sullivan, print design, 2018.

Healthcare and fashion sectors seem a world apart, but they could learn from each other. How would designers specialised in fashion design a visual identity to a healthcare facility? Anna Ahonen and Katariina Lamberg from Paris-based creative agency Ahonen & Lamberg propose novel approaches to the challenge.

TEXT HEINI LEHTINEN IMAGES AHONEN & LAMBERG

Every business and service sector, such as fashion, healthcare, travel or sustainable building, comes with distinctive aesthetics. And rightly so. From these varying aesthetics sensibilities, we read meanings and understand what we are dealing with.

By time, the accustomed aesthetics might change, but the change is slow. Usually, the aesthetic conventions change when cultural and societal attitudes change. Perhaps the most striking recent example of a change of desired aesthetics has been seen in the fashion sector due to the rising demand on inclusivity and diversity.

Katariina Lamberg and Anna Ahonen / Ahonen & Lamberg.

Another major trend in the past some years has been the rise of the wellness culture. Well-being and health phenomenon has hit the mainstream from food to sleep to exercise through social and traditional media and retail. In the cliché of the wellness industry imagery, healthy people look eternally happy, doing yoga or sipping smoothies under an ever-present soft sunshine.

In healthcare, however, the mode is different. Although both conventional healthcare services and functional and alternative treatments are supported by the wellness phenomenon, the aesthetics of these sectors have remained fairly unchanged for a long time. Typically, there are two aesthetic directions: the clinical and the hippie.

Should this be changed? As long as the question comes down to quality of the designed aesthetics — photography, visual identities, spatial design — there is room for improvement. Well-designed, high-quality visual identities, imagery, websites and spaces have a positive impact on customer experience — and profit — in the healthcare sector as well.

The fashion sector — which doesn’t usually cross paths with the healthcare sector — is known for high-quality, carefully considered imagery and design that reflects on the world around. How would a hint of fashion sense impact our experience in the healthcare sector?

Finnish designers Anna Ahonen and Katariina Lamberg established the Paris-based creative agency Ahonen & Lamberg in 2007. The agency focuses on visual identities and art direction with a clientele varying from established luxury and fashion brands such as Lacoste, Printemps, Maria Luisa, Hennes & Mauritz, Cerruti and Wallpaper to music sector giants Universal and EMI and emerging artists and designers such as Rolf Ekroth, Terinit, Poiat and Achilles Ion Gabriel.

In an interview, we challenge Anna Ahonen and Katariina Lamberg to observe the current aesthetics of the healthcare sector, and discuss a novel approach to the visual identities and spatial design of healthcare facilities.

Ahonen & Lamberg, Dossier Journal, visual identity and art direction, 2008.

You work mainly in the fashion sector. How do you choose your projects?

First, many think that we only work in fashion. By coincidence, our work is focused on fashion, but it’s not the only thing we do, nor it is the only sector that interests us.

What stories people want to tell us has always been important for us. It also defines which projects we want to be involved in. Everyone from insurance companies to boutiques needs a visual identity. We are entering a society in which even people are branded. No matter what’s the story, if we find it interesting, we want to be involved — whether it’s for an individual or for a large corporation.

If there is an ideological framework in our work, it’s combining aesthetic, ethical and ecological perspectives. Everything visual around us impacts how people are feeling. Colours, fonts and others go directly to the subconscious. These are not yet considered from societal perspective, and this is something that should be researched further. We see a lot of consumer society visuals around us, which is also a reason why we work on them. The commercial visuals can also be done better. How things are done, matters.

Ahonen & Lamberg, Trabendo, visual identity, 2011.

You have also worked on space and designed immersive graphics and murals to fashion boutiques and a concert venue, for instance. How do you approach designing graphics to a space?

You have to think of the experience of a customer — or a patient in case of a healthcare facility — and what they can see. For instance, people go to a boutique to buy. In a concert venue, the acoustics and the atmosphere are completely different. These have to be taken into consideration in the design. You also have to thing how the space is used from the perspective of durability of the work. In a boutique, people do not scratch the walls in purpose, but in a concert venue they well might.

We designed a mural for a Parisian concert venue Trabendo in 2011–12. The mural is really large, and it covers the back walls at the concert hall, the bar, and the restrooms. We had to take durability into consideration, because prior to the renovation, basically all the surfaces in the venue were tagged and scratched. But, the mural has remained intact to this day. That’s the impact of aesthetics. Maybe the abstract design is something that speaks to many people — that’s also where the respect comes from.

If you look at wellbeing- or health-related aesthetics, do you see prevalent visual language?

Wellness and well-being culture is booming at the moment. In five years, it has become a cultural category of its own.

What’s interesting is that the idea of well-being and wellness has constantly changed in the past years, and there is new knowledge — based on both ancient cultures or new research — emerging constantly. However, we feel that the visual language used is stuck in the end of the 20th century. The new phenomenon doesn’t yet have a language of its own.

Stereotypically, most of it still draws from the medical healthcare or from the hippie aesthetics. For instance, [cosmetics brand] Aesop represents the medical aesthetics, and [cosmetics brand] Weleda the hippie aesthetics. Nothing is really new. And the closer we go to the Western medicine and the hospital sector, the more incomprehensible the clinical aesthetics become.

Should or could it be different from what it is now?

It could and it should. It would be really relevant to find the signs that represent the meanings behind well-being science and culture. First, we should research the meanings and the stories behind.

Ahonen & Lamberg, M&K Agence, visual identity, 2009.

If you were given an assignment to design a visual identity for a hospital, how would you approach it?

For us, feelings, emotions and the human experience are really important. To start with, it would be good to talk about the holistic experience of the patients, the staff and the visitors.

A hospital is a micro-cosmos, in which we are born and in which we die. It’s an in-between place, but visually, hospitals are usually lacking life. The experience of a hospital is an experience of a nuclear plant. It’s really cold. When I visited a hospital some time ago, I paid attention to the infographics, which reminded me of the signs of a nuclear plant. The same information could be said in a more human way. Infographics is crucially important in a hospital, but it doesn’t have to shout ‘emergency’ everywhere.

The notion of the in-between place between birth and a death is very relevant, although interestingly, now there actually isn’t that much of a difference in the aesthetics of a hospital waiting room and a morgue.

Everything is so clinical. Only 100 years ago we were born and we died at home, and today, both birth and death are isolated from our lives. We have become detached from death. We deny death although humans are mortal.

It’s interesting that in borderline death experiences, people rarely speak of blackness. It’s whiteness that depicts the experience of death. And Western hospitals are also white, similar to science fiction movies. If there is blue or green on the walls, the colours scream that they have been chosen because they are calming. Or, everything is pale yellow, and — pointedly — designed to ease removing bloodstains from the used materials. If we think of a hospital from the micro-cosmos perspective, the spaces should reflect the life that they preserve.

We should pay more attention to multi-sensoriality — touch, smell and sounds as well as to the physical positions of people. In hospitals, people stand a lot, but they are also in physical positions that they normally aren’t in in buildings like that. People are in wheelchairs or they are lying down, looking at the ceiling. The ceiling, again, is often a dull office-building ceiling with bright lights. Neon lights are needed in the operation room, but not where people spend hours or days.

The whiteness can be traced back to the 19th century when unclean and potentially sickness-inducing meant visible dirt. White or light-coloured walls were a proof of hygiene. It’s been known for ages that bacteria can’t be seen with bare eyes, but still the dominance of the white, the aesthetics of efficiency, prevails.

Yes, the medical aesthetics prevails. And there is a demand of aesthetics of neutralism. It has to please everyone. Certain pale greens and pale yellows are everywhere in hospitals. Would it be possible to take the local culture more into consideration?

Ahonen & Lamberg, Turo, creative direction, 2015. Photography Osma Harvilahti, styling Lotta Volkova.

As a thought play — what do you think, could the visual language of fashion be brought to a healthcare environment? How do you think that would be perceived?

No, it’s not possible to bring in signs of one sector to another as such. In those cases, meanings are always lost. Content and the culture of the sector have to match; nothing can be imposed on anything.

First, we should get into the stories and meanings of the healthcare sector. These meanings and signs have to be created together. Then we can talk about tools to make these meanings and signs visible. These tools and a certain level of quality can be borrowed from fashion.

Photography is a good example. In the hospital and pharmacy imagery, the quality of photography is often very poor, whereas high-quality art photography is used in the fashion sector. Not always, of course, but perhaps in 10 per cent of fashion visuals. This brings art to the mainstream. There is an aspect of high popular culture in fashion.

Fashion mixes beauty and brutality, and that’s why it’s so loved. There is a wave of freedom. A part of this freedom could also be applied to the healthcare visuals.

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The interview is a part of ‘Beauty in Exile,’ a research project by Brussels-based design and research agency Raven & Wood Agency. ‘Beauty in Exile’ looks into the meanings of beauty, design and architecture in societal contexts.