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Why Design Is a Healing Art

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This essay appears in today’s edition of the Fortune Brainstorm Health Daily. Get it delivered straight to your inbox.

The first thing I noticed about the entrance to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis was the ceiling. It was low—strangely low for a hospital, I thought—though I couldn’t have told you why I’d presumed a hospital entrance should have lofty ceilings.

When I asked Marlo Thomas, an actress, producer, and the closest thing that St. Jude’s has to a spiritual leader, about the ceilings, she explained they weren’t designed for me, a 6’3” adult. They were designed with kids in mind—scaled so that a three- or four-foot-tall child wouldn’t feel overwhelmed by the distance between floor and ceiling. Resting against the walls, richly colored with murals, were bicycles that kids could grab and ride through the hallways. There were play areas—and a secret room that only kids could go into: No doctors, nurses, and especially parents could enter. Nothing smelled like disinfectant.

The design of the space, by the Haizlip Firm of Memphis and ArtImpact, Inc., transformed the space. It didn’t feel like a hospital for children with the most challenging illnesses. It didn’t feel like the anesthetic 12th floor clinic of the National Cancer Institute’s Building 10, where I’d had chemo decades earlier at the age of 15. There was no din. No hum of the terrifying machinery of medicine.

At one point, I saw a group of kids chasing Dr. Ching-Hon Pui, a brilliant and pioneering leukemia specialist, through a central hub of the clinic. They caught him easily and pulled on the tail and pockets of his long white coat. I asked Marlo, whose father Danny Thomas founded the hospital in 1962 if this sort of thing happened all the time. Yes, she said. Chasing Dr. Pui was a popular sport at St. Jude. The space let them do that. (So did Dr. Pui.)

All of these dozen-year-old memories came rushing back to me last night as I was returning home from a wonderful “Brainstorm Design” dinner in Manhattan—part of a series of events that will lead up to a full Brainstorm Design conference in Singapore next March that is being hosted by Fortune, Time, Wallpaper, and the DesignSingapore Council. The gathering is intended to probe what companies from Johnson & Johnson to 3M to Samsung—as well as every leading consulting firm across the globe—have already discovered: that smart, creative, and bold “design thinking” is one of the most essential (if too-often-overlooked) pathways for companies to build better products, connect with customers, improve their collaborations, and make the day-to-day corporate processes that now drive most of us crazy less crazy-making in the future.

So what exactly is design thinking? After dinner, Time Inc. International’s Executive Editor Clay Chandler interviewed two practitioners who helped encapsulate the idea: Paola Antonelli, senior curator at the Museum of Modern Art’s department of architecture & design, and Mauro Porcini, the chief design officer at PepsiCo.

Porcini said there were three stages to the process: empathy, strategy, and prototype.

But of the three, I can’t help but conclude that step one is the most essential (and, I’m guessing, the one given short shrift by many companies): Start by thinking deeply about the end user of your product, understanding what she or he wants and needs and cares about. It sounds almost too obvious to mention. And yet, empathy—true empathy—is an active state, not a passive one. It requires more than mere thoughtfulness. It is soul-driven: Design, said both panelists, is ultimately a form of respect.

Yes, that is the core right there.

St. Jude—which has transformed every aspect of the modern research hospital in its half-century-plus history, making that research more collaborative, friction-free, and urgent—clearly gets the message of respect, too. It is designed from floor to ceiling to heal its vulnerable visitors. I cannot imagine a more beautiful design than that.