All medicines are information dependent. A great deal of medicine information is poorly designed. But equally, many medicines are poorly designed. In many instances the leaflets, labels and other information we design for people to use these medicines are compensating for the poor quality of the medicines’ design. A couple of examples:

  • A medicine used to treat osteoporosis (thinning of the bones) is coated with a non-active ingredient that will burn your throat if it lodges temporarily after being swallowed. The highly-usable instructions we designed instruct the medicine user not only to remain upright during and immediately after taking the medicine, but also to walk about. Typically the medicine is used by frail older people not given to much walking about. Our beautifully-designed information is a prosthesis compensating for the poor design of the medicine.
  • One of the smorgasbord of medicines used to treat HIV has to be taken at regular intervals, three times a day, one hour before food; others have to be taken at different intervals. Our highly-usable, clear instructions make it less likely that people will do the wrong thing. As before, our beautifully designed information is a prosthesis compensating for the poor design of the medicine.

I was prompted to write this blog after reading a recent announcement from the FDA that they had just approved the first once-a-day three-drug combination tablet for treatment of HIV. Hallelujah! This is only ten years after we designed our beautiful prosthesis for a poorly-designed medicine. The technology for making better medicines—controlled slow release etc—is well established. I can even buy controlled slow release fertilizer for my garden! The issue is incorporating such technology into the design of the medicine. In the case of the HIV medicine it involved getting a number of companies with patents in particular products to work together.

I could go on at great length. The point I want to make is about design in general, not just information design. One of the dominant ways of thinking about design derives from the romantic tradition within fine arts. Design, it is thought, is a harmonious, beautiful bringing-together of form and function for a purpose. Within that purpose—within the frame or on the plinth, as it were—we have a beautiful object, a perfect solution. Whether the design is for a toaster, a building, or a medicine instruction, there is a fanciful notion that a ‘good’ design is one that looks like a harmonious perfect solution on its own, a panacea.

But nothing is on its own, unrelated to other things. Isolating something in this way is a human conceit, an act of framing, of pretending that such ‘solutions’ enable us all to live happily ever after. In some instances this pretence is harmless enough. But in many instances it can be misleading to suggest that a design is a panacea when it is really a prosthesis for something else that is not working well. Not that there is anything wrong with designing prostheses. It only becomes wrong if we think we have developed a ‘solution’ rather than a temporary fix. And contrary to the dominant and romantic view, most of what we designers do is tinkering and temporarily fixing.