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How good design can change lives

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16 May 2022

How good design can change lives

By the Lab4Living team

Monday 16 May • Reading time: 3 minutes

Our innovative products are improving quality of life for people with long-term health conditions.

In the last 10 years, our population has changed dramatically. People are not only living longer, they’re living with more complex, chronic conditions like cancer and dementia.

Conditions like these can change everything. From the way a person thinks and feels, to the way they move, communicate and live. What’s more, these physical and mental changes are often worsened by an accompanying loss of dignity.

So how can research help people living with chronic conditions to live better? Lab4Living is a group of transdisciplinary researchers making powerful links between health and design.

Working collaboratively, we apply our research to develop innovative products and services that promote dignity, enhance quality of life — and have patient needs at their heart. Often, our work has a global reach.

Here are four projects that show the breadth and impact of our work. 

Head-Up

There are around 5,000 people living with Motor Neurone Disease (MND) in the UK, and around 1,100 people are diagnosed every year. This progressive disease causes the muscles to weaken, which in turn affects everyday life and wellbeing.

When the muscles in the neck are affected, this can result in head drop. And when a person cannot lift their head, it drastically reduces quality of life. As well as exacerbating problems with breathing and swallowing, it stops people with MND from doing the things they love. And while support devices can help, our research found that existing models were restrictive, uncomfortable and unappealing.

Working with patients, carers and clinicians, we developed a more user-friendly alternative. Head-Up is the first fully customisable neck support collar designed specifically for people with MND. It’s adjustable, flexible and breathable — and resembles a simple black polo neck, rather than a clunky medical device.

Wearers described the collar as life-changing. By providing support and freedom of movement, it allowed them to do things we take for granted, like driving, going to work and meeting friends. They also praised its non-stigmatising look and adaptable design.

In a study of 140 patients, Head-Up scored better than previous collars in terms of satisfaction, support level, head movement and appearance. It also made it easier for people with MND to eat, drink and swallow. As a result, the collar is now offered by 25 UK hospital trusts.

Head-Up has been licensed and manufactured by leading medical device supplier TalarMade, who’ve sold around 3,000 units in the UK. It’s also now available worldwide, meaning more people with MND can regain some independence and live happier, fuller lives.

The Head-Up collar design
The adaptable, non-stigmatising Head-Up collar design

Support4All

Every day, around 150 women in the UK are diagnosed with breast cancer. For many of them, treatment involves surgery followed by at least 15 sessions of radiotherapy.

This process requires the radiotherapist to manually position the patient’s breast on the machine. This can be challenging for patients who may feel uncomfortable and exposed.

Together with patients, oncologists and radiotherapists, we designed a specialist bra to make the process more comfortable, more dignified and more accurate. 

Support4All works by stabilising the breast during each treatment. This can make positioning more accurate, reduce the radiation dose to healthy organs, and preserve the patient’s dignity and modesty. 

When the bra was tested in a trial involving 50 women, we saw a reduction in the amount of radiation the lungs were exposed to during treatment. Furthermore, patients said it increased their sense of wellbeing and empowerment.

In 2018, Support4All was named as one of the UK's best university breakthroughs. Further development is now underway, in the hope that the bra will be rolled out across the NHS and improve treatment experiences for millions of women.

Journeying through Dementia 

Dementia affects 850,000 people in the UK. By 2025, this number is set to rise to over a million. In the absence of a cure, patient quality of life is more important than ever. But what role can design play here?

To find out, we spoke to people with dementia and their families across the country. They told us that taking part in everyday activities was key to their wellbeing. Individuals wanted practical advice about how to live well with the condition.

This research led us to develop Journeying through Dementia — a unique group programme for people at an early stage of their dementia journey.

It’s based on engaging activities that give patients the skills to adapt their lifestyle to the challenges that dementia brings, and continue doing the things they enjoy for as long as possible. Using creative resources like photo cards, quizzes and memory games, participants can try out different techniques and share ideas.

The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Patients and family members really valued the opportunity to connect with other people living with dementia and learn new things in a supportive, informal setting. Now, the programme is shaping dementia care on a national level from Scotland to West Wales.

When Covid-19 hit, we moved the materials online. This meant people could still get vital support while confined to home. Connecting People, Connecting Support has been adopted by Alzheimer Scotland and endorsed by the Royal College of Occupational Therapists. Since launching in April 2020, it’s been accessed over 56,000 times.

A group of people taking part in the Journeying through Dementia programme
Journeying through Dementia participants in Llanelli, Wales

Life Café

During the last decade, medicine has moved on at a rapid pace. As a result, people are living longer, and facing multiple health conditions at the end of their lives.

This means there’s an urgent need to undertake research to find new ways to provide good palliative care. In partnership with Marie Curie, we set out to explore a creative solution.

As part of the groundbreaking Design to Care programme, we carried out research with 141 older people from UK community groups. We found that they lacked opportunities to discuss what mattered to them as they came to the end of their lives.

Through this research, we developed the Life Café. This product is made up of creative activities designed to spark conversations about what’s meaningful in life and care. All the resources were co-created by participants, so they truly reflect their needs.

Over 50 Life Cafés have now been held in communities, care homes, hospitals and hospices across the UK. They’re part of Marie Curie’s national programme to promote wellbeing for people with terminal illness, and have informed healthcare teaching at universities in Sheffield and Lincoln.

Talking about death is difficult — but addressing the subject can help us process and overcome pain. Life Cafés provide a safe space to break down taboos and share experiences within the community. They also allow people to voice their own care preferences, which can then be built into their care. 

The ideas captured during Life Cafés will go on to inform future services, so people can live as well as possible as they come to the end of their lives.

Creative resources from the Life Cafe kit
Some of the creative activities in the Life Café kit

Designs for life

Our work shows that good design can transform people’s lives, whatever stage they’re at.

Whether it’s finding innovative ways to support people in the community, at home, or in an acute hospital setting, designers have a key role to play in tackling today’s health challenges.

Brilliant things can happen when design research and healthcare meet. Here at Lab4Living, we’ll continue to make these life-changing connections.

Staff

Professor Paul Chamberlain

Professor Paul Chamberlain

Co-Director C3RI, Head of Art and Design Research Centre, Director of Lab4Living and Director of Design Futures

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Claire L Craig

Dr Claire Craig

Professor of Design and Creative Practice in Health

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Heath Reed

Heath Reed

Principal Researcher

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Joe Langley

Dr Joe Langley

Senior Research Fellow in Healthcare Innovation

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REF 2021 Research Excellence Framework logo

About this project

Explore the people and organisations behind this research, and find related publications by the research team.

Related courses

Our teaching is informed by research. Browse undergraduate and postgraduate courses with links to this research project, topic or team.

Get in touch

Find key contacts for enquiries about funding, partnerships, collaborations and doctoral degrees.

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