Designing a Difference in Public Health


Designers are more commonly known for conceiving and crafting interiors, graphics, and clothing but the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) has partnered with design professionals to develop innovative strategies aimed at reducing the city’s rates of unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among teens.
Suzanne Elder, program director for CDPH’s Office of Adolescent and School Health, directed communications and advertising for corporate and agency clients, including big tobacco. Today, she leverages those skills to advance public health goals. Elder says, “Design is, essentially, a problem-solving skill. It’s a way of thinking that can be used to improve public health outcomes.”
With high rates of pregnancy and STIs among Chicago’s teens, Chicago was primed for a design intervention. CDPH contacted Industry of the Ordinary’s Adam Brooks to help find the right design partnerships for Chicago. This early inquiry led to an innovative collaboration with Columbia College Chicago where Elder now works with faculty to integrate public health problems into senior level product and information design courses. Recently, dozens of design students competed to create custom condom dispensers for Chicago high schools which are the centerpiece of the city’s Condom Availability Program.
A similar partnership strategy has enabled CDPH to design program improvements for its school-based STI Screening Program and even create innovative public awareness campaigns.
Elder researched other youth-oriented ad campaigns and found one she wanted to adapt for Chicago but to do that, the originating agency would have to do something very unusual. Gary Mueller, founder of Serve Marketing, did something Elder calls “wildly generous;” he not only licensed images from campaigns he had developed years earlier, “he let us rework them for the Chicago market.”
To do that, Elder facilitated an advisory committee of more than 50 health, policy, and education experts and numerous youth focus groups and incorporated their feedback to create “Unexpected” (2013), a series of ads featuring Serve Marketing’s images of pregnant teenage boys. The re-themed images provocatively challenges gender stereotypes to raise awareness about preventing unplanned pregnancies and STIs. CDPH made an indelible mark on the public’s memory with the ads and earned local, national, and international media as well as more than one billion social media impressions from around the world.
This same expert advisory group worked together to develop Chicago’s Action Plan for Healthy Adolescents, which identifies more than 40 measurable goals and 60 strategies to reduce health disparities among adolescents. The plan has galvanized the city’s focus and established adolescent health as a planning, programming, and policy priority. The smartly designed, informative plan was developed to be used both inside and outside the public health world. CDPH uses the plan to engage parents, teachers, clinicians, and businesses in conversations about adolescent health.
Like the Condom Availability Program and the public awareness campaigns, the Action Plan grew from having cultivated trusted relationships with experts both inside and outside public health. “Good ideas generate energy and help move the design process along, but to deliver results that meet or exceed expectations, you have to have the ability to execute,” says Elder. At CDPH, we’re building the interdisciplinary partnerships to do just that.
Jay Bhatt is is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

Leave a Comment

One Comment

Leave a Reply