Fighting Childhood Obesity by Design Thinking

Oct 9, 2013, 1:38 PM, Posted by Vanessa Farrell

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Gone are the days when the role of a designer was limited to boosting the aesthetic appeal of a product. Today, Design and design-thinking increasingly play integral roles in the research, development, and implementation of products, processes, services, and strategy. Design is becoming design thinking.

A quick Google search of the definition of design thinking states that “….it is a process for practical, creative resolution of problems or issues that looks for an improved future result. It is the essential ability to combine empathy, creativity and rationality to meet user needs and drive business success.”

That’s the kind of thinking that is needed to successfully tackle childhood obesity prevention—a fundamental issue for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Our stated goal is to reverse the epidemic of childhood obesity in the U.S. by 2015, but we recognize that we can’t achieve this ambitious goal on our own. We need all hands on deck. As we explore potential partners in this effort, designers emerge as a key ally who have not been fully tapped.

Designers can help create compelling solutions and concepts that can make healthy choices appealing and accessible, challenge conventional thinking, and shine light on practices and policies that need improvement. They can play an essential role by putting their design-thinking to work influencing human behavior around choices related to diet and physical activity.

In an effort to highlight the potential of such collaborations, RWJF will support a panel of leading design, education, and community health experts at the 2013 Head, Heart, and Hand: AIGA Design Conference Conference in Minneapolis, October 10 -12. The panel will discuss several approaches using design and design thinking to address childhood obesity prevention, in an effort to inspire designers attending the conference to better understand how their collaboration with key stakeholders can make a difference in the fight to reverse the epidemic of childhood obesity.

Vanessa I. Farrell Vanessa I. Farrell, MPH, is a program associate working on the childhood obesity team

Here’s a preview of the panel lineup. 

  • Dr. Matthew Trowbridge, MD, MPH, a pediatrician and faculty member at University of Virginia School of Medicine, will highlight his team’s collaboration with VMDO, a Virginia-based architectural/design firm, to implement healthy design features at Buckingham County Primary and Elementary Schools in Dillwyn, Va. In October 2012 the school was transformed into a modern learning campus aimed at addressing the growing concern around student health, with such features as a teaching kitchen, food and nutritional displays, a food lab, composter and outdoor student gardens.
  • John Bilderback, MS, the project director for Grow Healthy Together Chattanooga, a Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities grant funded by RWJF, will highlight data collected on the food and physical activity environment in various communities across Chattanooga, Tenn., using the Childhood Obesity Geographic Information System (PDF). With the data, Bilderback will show how design and design thinking plays an instrumental role in data visualization and telling an accurate and compelling story of the community needs and assets.
  • George Aye, a designer and co-founder of Greater Good Studio in Chicago, will highlight areas of his work focused on food waste in schools and how the design of the cafeteria setting can encourage kids to select and consume better food choices.
  • Doug Powell, designer extraordinaire and past national president of AIGA, will moderate the 75-minute panel. We hope the discussion brings to light the many ways in which designers can address childhood obesity, and how they can readily collaborate with other designers, researchers and public health practitioner alike to solve the crisis of childhood obesity.