Design as a Servant

While on vacation in Birmingham, I had to rush my wife to the emergency room at the local hospital. Although I am somewhat familiar with the area, I had not visited this particular hospital in several years. Driving at night, trying to find a hospital in a town you don’t know with someone who’s having a medical emergency is no easy task.

To make matters worse, we almost missed the hospital entrance due to do poor typography on their entrance sign. I’m not kidding. Bad typography could cost some folks their lives finding this hospital. The architect (couldn’t have been a designer!) chose a narrow, serif typeface lit from the inside of each letter. In the daytime, the sign’s typeface is legible from a distance, but at night, the width and weight of the letterforms didn’t allow sufficient light to shine through for legibility. A wider, sans serif display typeface would have made all the difference for drivers at night. I can’t imagine how out-of-town folks find the hospital in the rain.

Even more interesting is the road sign I saw a mile away from the hospital with a large “H” in a blue field. I understood what the sign meant, but wonder if everyone in our society would. Would someone visiting from another country understand the “H” as a hospital symbol? There is another emergency symbol (see the Caduceus symbol above right with cross and snake), but I’m not sure it’s any better. Wouldn’t the internationally known and recognized symbol of the red cross be the clearest and best symbol to use for hospital road signs (see above). Militaries of all nations use this symbol in combat to mark non-combatant medical care facilities and personnel. Why not here in the States for civilian hospitals?

What does this have to do with the heart and soul of design? If there is one thing I’ve decoded about design’s DNA, it’s that design is practical and functional at the heart. Design exists for others. Unlike art which sometimes serves only itself, design should have an outward focus beyond its bellybutton. Design is a servant, and it’s important that design serves people well.


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