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Design Dash

Design Dash: Building for and with Patients

At an international conference on healthcare buildings in Basel, around 70 experts from 15 countries experienced how design thinking can help develop patient-centric ideas.

A contribution by Katja Rüegg, Senior Consultant & Micha Kämpfer, Partner at walkerproject 

This year’s European Health Property Network workshop took place in Basel between 18 and 20 September. It convened representatives from all over Europe from the fields of architecture and planning, health policy, project management and academia.

EuHPN workshops address issues of practical importance to the organisation’s members. These include sustainable, environmentally friendly designs for health buildings, designs for mental health facilities and dementia care, the impact of new technologies on the design of health buildings and tools for strategic investment planning.

In 2019, the theme was ‘Getting it right first time, for patients’. The interest was substantial: more than 70 participants from 15 nations took part. Many of them have lived through the experience of the coordination of a large number of highly skilled experts leading to an end product that does not work for patients, employees or society. Therefore, the topic covered why it is so difficult to plan healthcare buildings optimally from the start.

We believe the design dash offers a structure to get to the bottom of this question. It originates from design thinking. Challenges are formulated and analysed along the learning and development cycle. Then, solutions are worked out, tested and further developed. The design dash—as in the context of the EuHPN workshop—encourages participants to develop patient-centred ideas. It can help to break down difficult discussions and look at arguments from different angles.

For our 2019 workshop we wanted to move away from theory during one of our sessions, and get people learning and interacting through practical design work.  Post-workshop feedback shows that this was a real success, with many attendees commenting that they found the session highly informative, innovative and fun! 

Jonathan Erskine, Executive Director of the European Health Property Network

The design dash is also suitable for large-scale projects in which entire new construction plans are created in different stages over days and weeks. A good example of this is the concept for the new emergency centre in Oslo or the joint emergency centre at the St. Gallen Cantonal Hospital.

Iterative design cycle

Usually, a dash runs through the following six phases to ensure a collaborative, fun way of exploring new opportunities or getting ideas down to earth.

1.   Understand the problem and form a team

The first, ground-breaking step is defining and understanding the challenge.

What exactly do we want to change? What is the target? How would we like to work in five, ten or twenty years? What must the infrastructure achieve? Which trends do we have to consider?

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These discussions happen at the beginning, long before the draft of an architectural tender. For this, the right people must be brought to the table. But who are they? Are they representatives of the past or the future? Is it the ones with power and status or is it an equal representation with affected departments and professions? The optimal team triggers the first steps and steers a new construction project in the right direction.

2.   Know the user needs

What or whom should the focus be on? Whose needs must be met? Is it those of employees or patients? Or the head doctor or politicians?

For the design team, there is only one focus: patients. Defining patients’ needs is crucial; they determine the entire learning and development cycle.

Of course, during the design dash, care must be taken to ensure that employees have good working conditions. However, these automatically arise if one consistently considers how the patient is to be optimally embedded into the infrastructure in the future. Ideas and solutions are tested to see whether they address patient needs.

3.   Collect ideas

There are many tools and techniques to generate ideas. These include brainstorming, brainwriting, mind-mapping and more.

But the most important question in this step is how to manage the idea-generation phase. Who decides whether an idea is good or bad? Is it a question of who has the most influence? Or is it a question of technical feasibility? Should there be a democratic vote?

My personal learning from the prototyping session was to really value the synergy which flows from multi-disciplinary group design work. Once people step out of their professional silos, their differing perspectives and experiences quickly contribute to creating solutions which surprise, and even delight. With professional set-up and guidance, the whole really can be greater than the sum of the parts.

Jonathan Erskine, Executive Director of the European Health Property Network

In this third step, it is important to set no limits to creativity—for once, quantity is more important than quality. Some ideas will still offer too little substance for participants to really be able to say whether they have potential or not, so ideas should not be evaluated at this stage of the design dash. Prototypes are needed to test their suitability.

4.   Build prototypes

Prototypes are built with simple and inexpensive materials. The prototypes do not have to be true to detail. Decisions about technology or feasibility will be made later.

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In this step, the design team speaks for the first time about the prototype that is on the table. The most important thing in the first round is to present functionality, thereby making the idea tangible and testable.

5.   Test the prototypes

The user or customer—the one who will use the solution—benefits from it. Obtaining user feedback at an early stage is essential to avoid high costs later on.

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At this stage, prototypes can be inexpensively adapted or discarded if they do not work. If prototypes are called into question later on in the process—in a further planning phase or even during a new construction—expensive adjustments may have to be made, and a lot of time may be lost.

6.   Repeated testing

The previous five steps have to be tested repeatedly, which will lead to new insights. If necessary, the design team must be adapted.

It will become clear whether the needs have been properly identified. New ideas may emerge that lead to other prototypes being built or that require changes to the existing prototypes.

Following this method, the design team will gradually approach an ideal solution—one that has been tested and approved several times before implementation. This will lead to getting it right the first time.


Find the presentation from the EuHPN workshop here.

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