Universal health-care symbols aim for clarity
Consider the last time you had to navigate the hallways of an unfamiliar hospital or clinic. Now think about how much more difficult that would have been if you couldn’t read the names of the departments to find your destination.
A group of 11 Iowa State University graphic design graduate students were part of a two-year collaboration to create universal symbols to help non-English speakers find their way through health-care facilities. The ISU team collaborated with design students at three other universities to develop 22 new navigational symbols.
Those 22 new symbols, along with 28 others previously designed by professionals, were released this fall for use in health-care facilities around the country. Hablamos Juntos, a University of California, San Francisco initiative that focuses on eliminating language barriers to health care, coordinated the project, called “Signs That Work,” with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
“This was the first time this type of collaboration has happened nationally, with multiple design programs working together on one design project,” said Lisa Fontaine, an ISU associate professor of graphic design.
Working with Fontaine’s ISU team on the project were groups from California Polytechnic State University, Kent State University and the University of Cincinnati. The consortium of graduate students and professors held weekly teleconferences to collaborate.
“The faculty wrote different parts of the curriculum, and we constantly shared that with each other,” Fontaine said. “So from a faculty perspective, we saw it as a way of sharing teaching methods across universities. It was really kind of fun.”
Each of the design classes worked on a different subset of 22 symbol topics; the Iowa State students worked on symbols for imaging, alternative medicine, health education, kidney center and mental health.
Forty symbols designed by ISU students made it to the testing phase; one of those images, a representation of a catheterization laboratory, was selected for the final set of 22 symbols. Emmanuel Saka, an ISU graphic design graduate student from Ghana, designed that symbol.
Fontaine led the testing phase of the initiative for the three universities that participated in the testing, which included 231 people from four language groups – English, Spanish, Asian and Indo-European. The majority of the respondents were volunteers from the community, she said. “We went to Spanish Mass to find Spanish-speaking people, and we went to Des Moines to find some others,” Fontaine said.
Five different student-designed symbols representing the same medical department or location, along with that location’s name, were presented on one page. Respondents were asked to estimate what percentage of people who speak their language in the United States would understand each of the symbols shown.
“Our main goal was to select the symbol with the best results overall,” Fontaine said. “Fortunately, we didn’t see much difference from one language group to another. What was clear to one group was clear to another.”
Hablamos Juntos selected four major medical centers around the country as lead hospitals to begin using the symbols, including Children’s Mercy Hospital and Clinics in Kansas City, Mo., which incorporated the symbols into a recent expansion of its emergency department. Hospitals may also download and use the symbols, which are available at the organization’s website (www.hablamosjuntos.org).