How Good Design Can Save Lives

gravitytank / Project Pasteur
gravitytank / Project Pasteur / gravitytank / Project Pasteur

Lately the news has been full of outbreaks of diseases that could have been prevented by vaccination. Using an interactive map you can explore outbreaks of whooping cough, measles, mumps, and other vaccine-preventable diseases across the world—including the United States, where access to vaccines should be quite easy. The map is based on news stories, and you can click on each point to read the story backing it up.

Just one example: in 2013, the U.S. saw 189 cases of measles, more than triple the typical 60 cases per year. The reason? Many kids are not being vaccinated.

The United States has a proud history of inventing vaccines and keeping our kids healthy. When Jonas Salk invented the first polio vaccine, children were given Polio Vaccine Cards that recorded the dates it was delivered. These cards served as a record (and a reminder) that protection from polio required multiple rounds of dosing (by 1962 the oral "Sabin vaccine" was favored, and delivered in three doses). But childhood vaccinations went far beyond polio; kids who traveled were vaccinated against a laundry list of wild diseases, and those records were often kept with the child's passport. These days, the vaccination schedule is rather complex. (Fun test: look at that schedule and try to figure out whether you've received all of those vaccinations. I can only point to a few that I know for sure I have received—I'd have to go back through a pile of medical files to track down the rest. Now multiply this problem by every living person and you see the scale of the issue.)

Today in the U.S., most doctors use electronic records to keep track of things like vaccination (though the CDC offers a paper record you can use if you wish). But in much of the world, paper immunization records kept by parents are still the standard—even though they must track a dozen or more vaccines, often delivered in multiple doses with specific time intervals in between. Paper records are cheap, portable, and require no electricity. What's more, a paper record can have extra information printed on it, like instructions on how to care for a baby and when to expect certain milestones on growth and development. But some of these strengths are also weaknesses: paper can be ruined by a little rain; text about childcare is useless to the illiterate; and a small bit of paper is easy to lose or forget. If the record is ruined, lost, or misused, that really can be life-threatening. While immunization programs are succeeding around the world, there's still room for improvement.

Here's an example of an immunization card used in Bolivia, which has successfully fought rotavirus via vaccination:

Image courtesy of National Immunization Card Repository.

And here's one introduced in 2010 in the United Republic of Tanzania (which began using several important new vaccines in 2012):

Image courtesy of National Immunization Card Repository.

Enter the Records for Life Contest, a challenge in which designers were asked to rethink and redesign these paper records. (More details in this PDF.) The solution space was broad, and more than 300 teams submitted new designs. The grand prize went to Project Pasteur, designed by members of the consultancy gravitytank. While 10 other winning designs have interesting characteristics, Project Pasteur includes some truly transformative design features.

To me, Project Pasteur's most exciting feature is the inclusion of a child's photograph on the front of the folder containing the health record. By giving parents a photograph, the health record is turned into a keepsake, and something that is likely to be displayed rather than tucked away somewhere. Further, Pasteur uses icons with minimal text to explain basic childcare information, and a simple chart to explain which diseases are covered by which vaccines. In other words, the design shows the benefits of vaccination rather than simply telling a parent they're important. You can learn much more about Project Pasteur in this slideshow:

gravitytank // Project Pasteur from gravitytank

For a look at another top-ten finalist, check out The Picture of Health by Trip O’Dell and Umberto Fusco.

All of the designs in the Records for Life challenge are still prototypes. The next step is to work with health officials in developing nations to find the best features of each design, creating new health records that can be tested—and help save children's lives around the world.