A Language of Design for Healthcare

Post Written by Guest Blogger Joyce Lee

Have you ever heard of this condition called:

Low Lego Literacy Definition:

The degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic lego information and services needed to make appropriate lego creations.

Ok, I admit, I made up this definition based on the definition for health literacy, which is defined as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions” (Ratzan and Parker, 2000).

I had to make it up, because I have never heard of the term. Have you? I haven’t seen national committees declaring low lego literacy a problem, and there isn’t a voluminous body of scientific literature describing the phenomenon. When you search for the term “low lego literacy”, you can’t even find mention of it in Google. I suspect that it’s because legos represent a language of design.

What is a language of design?

I have to thank Jose Gomez-Marquez, friend and #makehealth colleague at the Little Devices Lab at MIT, for introducing me to this concept. Jose was one of the keynote speakers for our We #makehealth Fest (Check out his video here!). His work and ideas have really enhanced the way that I think about the role of design for healthcare. Here are some examples of a language of design:


Legos are a prime example of a language of design.

Kids know what to do with legos the minute they pick up the bricks. They start interlocking the pieces and a lego creation unfolds!

The instructions are intuitive as well. They are shown in 3-D, they are color coded, and there are no words! The user is guided, step by step, page by page, and the scale even changes when you have to combine different components.

Legos are visual, tactile, logical, and intuitive. Almost anyone regardless of age can follow the instructions to make a Lego creation.

That is a language of design.

What are some other examples of a language of design?

Lincoln Logs

Photo by Carissa Rogers http://goo.gl/shTdJj

Kids just know what to do based on the design of Lincoln Logs. They see the indentations on the logs and start stacking. It’s totally intuitive!

IKEA Instructions

Photo by James Lee http://goo.gl/75Gywj

All pictographs and no words so that anyone can put together a piece of furniture regardless of language.

Swish Card Game

Can you find the swish?

“A Swish is created by layering two or more cards so that every ball swishes into a hoop of the same color in the same orientation and no hoop or ball can be left unmatched”

Go ahead give it a try.

Did you figure it out?


(Hint: The stacked cards on the left are a Swish!)

The Swish Card game is a language of design. My daughter, who can barely read, is our resident Swish champion. She understands the colors and the positioning; no literacy needed!

Suzuki Violin Youtube Videos

I even discovered a very useful language of design as a #lazytigermother! We don’t have the soundtrack for the Suzuki Book 3 so B uses the video as a guide while he practices. The instructor wears a different colored shirt for the songs from Suzuki Books 1 (green) , 2 (orange), and 3 (yellow)! Genius!

Now let’s contrast this language of design with the obtuse language of healthcare

The Epi-Pen

I have given talks about the poor design of the Epi-pen, the auto-injectable medication that is given for life-threatening allergic reactions. The cap and the needle are opposite to each other, leading to lots of accidental injections. A clear example of the lack of a language of design.

The Allergy Action Plan

I have also spoken about the design fail of the Allergy Action Plan, the written instructions provided by the healthcare system about how and when to use the Epi-Pen. 

We confronted this design challenge as a family and created our own solutions (see B’s blog here: http://ihavefoodallergies.tumblr.com/) because of its failure to use a language of design.

Low lego literacy, an oxymoron?

In my humble opinion, there is no such thing as low lego literacy because legos use an effective language of design, that all humans can understand. The next logical question is:

How might we create a language of design for healthcare?

This will be the first of a series of posts about the language of design. Related to this theme, check out my previous posts:

Flipping the Concept of Health Literacy

#healthdesignviz #9: Low Levels of Health Literacy or Design Literacy?

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Correction: @jfgm is with the Little Devices Lab, not the Tiny Devices Lab as was originally mentioned in the piece.