Type Tuesday: Stephen Minasvand Tackles Type in the Healthcare Industry

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minds+assembly is an international creative agency using design as a force of good. The agency focuses on measurement, strategy, and communication, specifically within the healthcare and science sectors. However, instead of emphasizing the medical side, minds+assembly has the unique philosophy of creating empathetically captivating designs.

While the healthcare industry wasn’t previously known for its innate creativity, this unique strategy helps to create pharma design that’s more community-oriented and, therefore, inclusive. I had the opportunity to ask minds+assembly’s Head of Design, Stephen Minasvand, a few questions about how design, particularly typography, can impact the healthcare and pharma industries.

How did you get into the pharmaceutical design space? 

Before pursuing healthcare and pharma, I was your ordinary consumer art director / designer, working at big and small advertising agencies and design shops alike. I worked in every domain, from the U.S. Army, Verizon, Playboy, and MAC, to New York City locals like Chelsea Market and Industry City. Somewhere along the way, I lost my sense of direction. My career was moving along, but without orientation or purpose. I was exhausted and unfulfilled by the consumer industry.

For most designers, pharma and healthcare has a reputation for being the farthest thing from a gateway to a successful career. However, that’s precisely when I decided to see it as an opportunity to stand apart; to change what it meant to be a designer in healthcare; to do something potentially career-ending.

If I was going to possibly fail in this absurd endeavor, I was going to fail fast. I expeditiously jumped into the complex, beautifully constrained industry of pharmaceutical and healthcare creative. Much of my time was spent studying empathy, human-centered design, and how patients and doctors were spoken to. Placing myself into the position of who I’d be designing for; quickly realizing that those who suffer from illness, from lack of clarity, from confusing narratives were in dire need of more powerful communications, more authentic experiences, and more beautiful design. 

I connected with my colleagues and partners Ben Ingersoll and Joelle Friedland, who, like me, saw everything that was missing from the healthcare creative world.  

Now we acknowledge that design has a purpose of elevating people’s lived experience in genuine ways, and I personally benefit from building empathy through design to help connect people to the products they use. 

How can design help change people’s views about the pharmaceutical space? 

Human centered design, by nature, is empathetic. It’s built on genuine insights into needs and behavior. For decades, pharma and healthcare have been more interested in speaking at people rather than listening to them. The industry propagates mediocrity and inauthentic expressions of design, creativity, and experience. 

If you look at anything medical online, there’s loads of important safety information, incomprehensible data, and intimidating claims. Sadly, the industry that should matter most has fallen victim to, and accommodates, these complex narratives and artificial communications. In particular, the mental health category is rife with glib, tepid generalizations and visualizations. How can a person who suffers from a mental health condition connect with design that is entirely inauthentic and unrelatable?

Otsuka Pharmaceuticals challenged us to break the fourth wall separating them from Gen Zers living with mental health conditions. The result? Society of Valued Minds, a social media initiative that recognizes the value of every mind, giving voice to the thoughts and feelings of people living with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and more. 

Design, typography, verbal tone, composition, color— all of it has an impact. With SoVM, every aspect of design is considered and built to strengthen the connection with our audience. Typography and visual style let people know that they are both seen and heard. The design is a representation of them. When design and typography is weak, poorly laid out, lacks visual consideration and communication, the audience feels it, because they rely on it. When the product or experience expresses power, beauty, and simplicity, it’s an entirely different and new representation and effect. Beauty is the entrance into any experience. It simply makes people feel better. Beauty can be therapeutic, but far too few companies prescribe it.

More specifically, how can typography help improve the patient experience in pharma? 

Typography is simply one of the most significant forms of expression. Typography represents text, letterforms, words, sentences, paragraphs, narratives, stories, our thoughts, and our intent. It is, in some ways, the most direct form of communication we can offer. It’s also one of the most powerful tools in communication we have as designers. 

Typography offers its own narrative. Strangely, for something that is used to create words, there’s another language of type that is completely non-verbal. It is unspoken. Serif, sans-serif, light, thin, regular, bold, black, and every variant in between communicates something. Elegance, strength, academia, playfulness, power, volume, and beyond. Being able to choose the correct type for your design alone, is one of, if not, the most important decisions you will make as a designer, especially when it comes to the health and wellbeing of the people you are communicating to. 

Also, let’s not forget the functional significance of typography and how it’s experienced. Designers have tremendous responsibility, especially today, when it comes to working in healthcare. We deliver creative and communication that is meant to be functional, human-centered, and considerate of the person experiencing it. Content like important safety information, data sets, disease education, are knowledge and instruction that will potentially save your life, and it should be a priority for designers. Consider the person who is experiencing the product. 

Do you think typography and design are seen as an afterthought in the medical space? If so, how can designers help change this? 

Absolutely. The industry is dominated by brand-out sales, rather than customer-in conversation. This propagates a mentality that design for things like medicinal packaging, product claims, drug websites, communications, and beyond, can be de-prioritized, or lack creativity, innovation, and beauty. The pharma industry accepts mediocrity, due to the false assumption that people will buy medicine because they need it. It’s so much more than that. To make people better, the pharma industry needs to do better. 

We need designers to join our cause, and convincing them is difficult. Design often takes a backseat, due to the regulation and limitations around developing beautiful work. However, we believe it’s this limitation that breeds creativity, and there’s a responsibility to push as much as possible to make it better. The biggest danger for a designer is believing they can’t do more. We must enforce change in the world of pharma and health through simple, yet powerful pursuits such as typography. We need to connect beauty and design with the needs of the people who will ultimately rely on this product because, in some cases, their lives depend on it. 

Where would you like to see typography evolve in pharmaceutical design?

I envision a future where typography alone becomes as recognizable as part of the brand as anything else. A time when the letterforms and composition convey as much emotion and meaning as do the words they form, and the images they are surrounded by. Pharmaceutical advertising has a reputation of piling mountains of generic type, important safety information, and confusing paragraphs of incredibly serious and indispensable information. The solution to finding meaning and navigating this content is meaningful design. Today so much of type design is dumb and functional when it has the clear opportunity to add wit and emotion to communications. People who are ill, lost, and in need of it, deserve it.