“Make no little plans”… And a Few Other Things Health Communicators Can Learn from Designers

Date: August 24th, 2017

Nicholas Sufrinko

With just an internet connection and a bucket of ice, Pete Frates cut through the incessant hum of social media and the 24-hour news cycle to inspire 2014’s Ice Bucket Challenge, raising awareness and funds for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). His clever foray into health communications underscores that today more than ever, just about anyone can launch a viral event or sustained campaign focused on health awareness, fundraising, or behavior change. And many have taken note. From small nonprofits to school nurses, people from all walks-of-life are using the internet and social media to promote health.

I spent my professional life straddling two fields: public health and design. And while it is true that “design thinking” is quick becoming the latest buzzword to visit the public health, it is also true that design training is a valuable and unique model, more iterative than linear and as intuitive as it is analytical. As such, I believe health communicators can benefit from the application of a few design concepts and axioms, whether creating a multi-million dollar social media campaign or low-budget bulletin board outside of the nurse’s office.

Here are just a few of them:

  1. Make no little plans.


“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood,” said architect and urbanist Daniel Burnham. Similarly, health campaigns that make only small, banal asks can leave their audiences feeling uninspired—and, ultimately, unhealthy.

Instead, health campaigns should aim to be just as blood-stirring as the Burnham-designed 1893 World’s Fair, which captured the public’s imagination with an early display of electric bulbs and the world’s first Ferris Wheel.

One initiative known for imagination-capturing campaigns is (RED). An initiative that leverages iconic brands to raise funds for HIV/AIDS grants in Africa, their campaigns include stirring taglines like “Let’s end AIDS.” Against the backdrop of a multitude of campaigns that “merely” ask individuals to reduce their personal risk by practicing safe sex—an ask as banal as it is lifesaving—the prospect of a world completely free of HIV/AIDS is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

An AIDS-free generation? No little plans, indeed.


  1. Fight for your right to “parti.”


Beastie Boys aside, health communicators often aim to change quite a few risk and protective factors of health behavior in one campaign. It’s no wonder then that some campaigns can seem discordant—a dog’s breakfast of well-meaning messaging and graphics, with varied tone and style.

In contrast, designers aim to center projects on a single “big idea,” with all design features existing in service to that “big idea.” In architecture in particular, this idea is represented in a parti, a diagram that describes the entire essence of a structure with as few pen strokes as possible.

Instead of seeing campaign branding as ways to “dress up” a multitude of health-affirming messages after the fact, consider first organizing a campaign, or even a curriculum, around a single “big idea,” much like a designer. If a message or graphic aimed at changing a risk or protective factor does not reinforce this idea, don’t include it.

Case in point: the Iowa Initiative’s now defunct “Avoid the Stork” campaign. In it, unplanned pregnancy is reimagined as an “overnight delivery service,” manned by a single comically awkward, 7-foot-tall stork. Rather than recirculating the same dry, very medical content too many sexual health campaigns rely on, Avoid the Stork reinforced the stork-manned overnight delivery service idea by recasting birth control as “Stork Insurance” and sexually transmitted infections as “Package Problems.” A personal favorite, this campaign is memorable, in part because every element, from copy and design to tone and style, exists in service to its squawking, feathery, delightfully goofy “big idea.”


  1. Design for someone, not everyone.


“Design for everyone is design for no one,” is a design adage too seldom recognized by health campaigns. Sure, we often target campaigns to a certain age group, or a certain locality—but in so doing, are we really designing for someone?

Often, even so-called targeted campaigns make an effort to appeal to the many—many subcultures within an age group or many users within a locality. Worst still, some campaigns aim to reach the fabled audience of legend, “the general public.” In so doing, we are often left with washed-out health campaigns—campaigns that chase the lowest common denominator of shared values, interests, or norms. These non-specific campaigns appeal to no one.

Instead, target as specifically as possible—and build a campaign integrating specific users’ shared values, interests, and norms. Take “Down and Dirty,” an anti-tobacco campaign launched by the Vermont Department of Health and the Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth. Rather than look at all teens or even all rural teens as a homogenous group to deploy anti-tobacco messaging to, “Down and Dirty” is targeted to a specific subculture of rural teens: so-called “country teens.” With this in mind, the campaign taps into country teens’ shared values, interests, and norms to sell its anti-tobacco stance.

For example, because these teens, more than other subcultures, respect the rights of companies and corporations to market whatever products they want, an exposé of the industry is likely to fall flat; instead, “Down and Dirty” ads align with the values of personal freedom, love of country, and family, and feature images of fairs, mud bogs, and 4×4 competitions.

In the era of unprecedented media saturation, it is important now more than ever that health communicators break through the noise to inspire health awareness, fundraising, and behavior change. Design offers a few ways to do that. Whether you have a large budget or no budget, a bucket of ice or a well-rounded creative team, consider how you might use these concepts or axioms in your own campaigns. With any luck, you’ll inspire the next Ice Bucket Challenge.

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About the Author

Nicholas Sufrinko, Digital Health Communications Specialist at Healthy Teen Network, is a designer, writer, and educator whose work occupies the intersection of public health, advertising, and technology. He has over five years of experience designing and implementing public health communications campaigns and promoting inclusive, comprehensive sexuality education through coalition building and grants management.

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