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Why Design Is a Healing Art

The first thing I noticed about the entrance to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis was the ceiling. It was low—strangely low for a hospital, I thought—though I couldn’t have told you why I’d presumed a hospital entrance should have lofty ceilings.

When I asked Marlo Thomas, an actress, producer, and the closest thing that St. Jude’s has to a spiritual leader, about the ceilings, she explained they weren’t designed for me, a 6’3” adult. They were designed with kids in mind—scaled so that a three- or four-foot-tall child wouldn’t feel overwhelmed by the distance between floor and ceiling. Resting against the walls, richly colored with murals, were bicycles that kids could grab and ride through the hallways. There were play areas—and a secret room that only kids could go into: No doctors, nurses, and especially parents could enter. Nothing smelled like disinfectant.

The design of the space, by the Haizlip Firm of Memphis and ArtImpact, Inc., transformed the space. It didn’t feel like a hospital for children with the most challenging illnesses. It didn’t feel like the anesthetic 12th floor clinic of the National Cancer Institute’s Building 10, where I’d had chemo decades earlier at the age of 15. There was no din. No hum of the terrifying machinery of medicine.

At one point, I saw a group of kids chasing Dr. Ching-Hon Pui, a brilliant and pioneering leukemia specialist, through a central hub of the clinic. They caught him easily and pulled on the tail and pockets of his long white coat. I asked Marlo, whose father Danny Thomas founded the hospital in 1962 if this sort of thing happened all the time. Yes, she said. Chasing Dr. Pui was a popular sport at St. Jude. The space let them do that. (So did Dr. Pui.)

All of these dozen-year-old memories came rushing back to me last night as I was returning home from a wonderful “Brainstorm Design” dinner in Manhattan—part of a series of events that will lead up to a full Brainstorm Design conference in Singapore next March that is being hosted by Fortune, Time, Wallpaper, and the DesignSingapore Council. The gathering is intended to probe what companies from Johnson & Johnson to 3M to Samsung—as well as every leading consulting firm across the globe—have already discovered: that smart, creative, and bold “design thinking” is one of the most essential (if too-often-overlooked) pathways for companies to build better products, connect with customers, improve their collaborations, and make the day-to-day corporate processes that now drive most of us crazy less crazy-making in the future.

So what exactly is design thinking? After dinner, Time Inc. International’s Executive Editor Clay Chandler interviewed two practitioners who helped encapsulate the idea: Paola Antonelli, senior curator at the Museum of Modern Art’s department of architecture & design, and Mauro Porcini, the chief design officer at PepsiCo.

Porcini said there were three stages to the process: empathy, strategy, and prototype.

But of the three, I can’t help but conclude that step one is the most essential (and, I’m guessing, the one given short shrift by many companies): Start by thinking deeply about the end user of your product, understanding what she or he wants and needs and cares about. It sounds almost too obvious to mention. And yet, empathy—true empathy—is an active state, not a passive one. It requires more than mere thoughtfulness. It is soul-driven: Design, said both panelists, is ultimately a form of respect.

Yes, that is the core right there.

St. Jude—which has transformed every aspect of the modern research hospital in its half-century-plus history, making that research more collaborative, friction-free, and urgent—clearly gets the message of respect, too. It is designed from floor to ceiling to heal its vulnerable visitors. I cannot imagine a more beautiful design than that.

More news below.

Clifton Leaf, Editor in Chief, FORTUNE


Warby Parker is replacing optometrist appointments with the smartphone. The New York City-based eyeglass startup is testing an app that, via a series of vision tests, can determine a customer’s prescription. The results are then reviewed by a doctor, but the entire process is done remotely. While the app’s rollout is limited — for now, it’s only available in California, Florida, New York, and Virginia, and can only confirm whether an existing prescription is still correct — the company eventually plans on providing new prescriptions. (Inc.)

Silicon Valley is hiring doctors. As the biotech space continues to heat up, traditional Silicon Valley venture capital firms are looking for partners who can stop them from investing in the next Theranos. According to CNBC, Menlo Ventures, CRV, and Eric Schmidt’s Innovation Endeavors are all firms that either want, or have recently hired, an investor with a medical background. (CNBC)


The FDA approves a novel cancer drug. It’s the first time the agency has approved a drug that targets cancer based on a tumor’s genetic traits, rather than where it is located in the body. Produced by Merck, it uses genetic biomarkers, rather than tissue type, to target tumors — which means it could treat a number of different types of cancers. (Reuters)

FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb wants the agency to take “more forceful steps” in combatting the opioid crisis. In a blog post, Gottlieb said he is establishing a committee that will “develop additional tools or strategies” the FDA can use “to confront this crisis.” On the agenda for discussion: whether the FDA should implement a mandatory education program on opioid prescription for doctors, and whether the agency should limit the number of opioid doses a patient is prescribed. “Only a few situations require a 30-day supply…But there are plenty of situations where the best prescription is a two- or three-day course of treatment,” Gottlieb wrote. “So, are there things FDA can do to make sure that the dispensing of opioids more consistently reflects the clinical circumstances?”


Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus will lead the World Health Organization. Ethiopia’s former health minister, Tedros beat out David Nabarro, of the UK, and Sania Nishtar, of Pakistan, to become the agency’s next leader. When he assumes the position on July 1, he will be the WHO’s first director-general from Africa. (Nature)

More evidence chocolate could be good for the heart. So suggests a new study, which was published yesterday in Heart. Using data from a large-scale study that tracked participants’ diet and health information for more than a decade, researchers found an association between moderate chocolate consumption and a lowered risk for atrial fibrillation. After controlling for a variety of factors (including exercise, smoking, alcohol consumption, and BMI), participants who ate between two to six 3 oz servings of chocolate a week had a 20% reduced risk. (New York Times)


Barnes & Noble’s New CEO Gives A Full-Throated Defense of Physical Stores, by Phil Wahba

Coach Thinks Outside the Bag, by Phil Wahba

Google Might Be Sitting on a $70 Billion Rival to Uber and Tesla, by Lucinda Shen

Americans Are Still Terrible at Taking Vacations, by Claire Zillman

Exclusive: Campbell Soup Invests $10M in Meal Kit Startup Chef’d, by John Kell

Produced by Laura Entis

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