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Designing for Mental Wellness

Cancer patients face substantial challenges — including depression, anxiety and insomnia — that can affect their mental health and commitment to treatment. Costs, logistics and stigma surrounding mental health severely limit the number of patients receiving optimal care. To address this need, Blue Note Therapeutics engaged ArtCenter to develop a Sponsored Project—one of the College's signature academic programs designed to bring industry partners into the classroom to engage students in design thinking around current and future initiatives and ideas. The resulting course equipped students to build a digital, FDA-approved device that allows oncologists to prescribe mental health care in a way that engages more patients.

This project concluded on a particularly high note for all involved. Blue Note was so happy with the results of the collaboration it offered two part-time job opportunities to students (who readily accepted) and purchased a student design for further development.

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Designing for Mental Wellness

This class teaches us how to use our power as designers to improve the bottom line of a business and the mental well-being of our users.

Krish RahejaProduct Design

Interview with instructor Jeff Higashi

ArtCenter: How would you describe this class to a prospective student?

Jeff Higashi: It's an opportunity to create a digital experience or app to help patients access support for mental health challenges that come with coping with cancer, especially stress, anxiety and fear. It's a particularly meaningful project for me because I have a friend currently going though chemotherapy.

AC: How did you come to partner with Blue Note Therapeutics for this course?

JH: For the past few years, I've been teaching classes that focus on designing for physical disabilities. We've been wanting to move into designing for mental wellness, so this felt like an ideal fit. The prevalence of mental health is an area we can't ignore, especially for young people. There's a real need.

AC: How would this digital device help patients and oncologists?

JH: Many patients haven't dealt with the specific challenges and emotions that come with treatment. The experience we're designing would serve as an entry point for people to get support, guidance and therapy.

Oncologists often can't prescribe mental health resources because many insurance holders don't have coverage as part of their cancer care. There needs to be something in between — some sort of access to support, even if patients don't have the resources to pay.

Additionally, there's a very high burnout rate with oncologists; we hope this will give providers peace of mind, knowing patients have access to resources oncologists can't provide.

AC: What inspired the direction you took with the curriculum for this class?

JH: We had strong guidance from the client who had something specific in mind they were trying to achieve. Still, we tried to set up a curriculum so students could be creative and weren't necessarily boxed in by the limitations of what the company requested or what's within FDA guidelines.

Another core theme of the class is for students to gain a better understanding how to develop a truly engaging app or experience, and more importantly, how to sustain that engagement over time. We've been exploring the most popular apps and trying to understand why people love engaging with certain services, like Uber and different social media apps.

We've also looked at experiences like wearable fitness trackers — there's a huge intake rate at the beginning of the program, but after three to six months, engagement tapers off dramatically.

We're studying these products so we can more appropriately create an experience for cancer patients that's continuously engaging and useful. That's our main approach: looking beyond mental health and medical apps to inform what is good design.

AC: What are some of the most important concepts and ideas you hope students take away from the experience/classwork?

JH: First, we want students to gain a better understanding of empathy; that's something we always try to instill at ArtCenter — to have an empathetic point of view.

We aren't designing products for ourselves. We want students to see things through the eyes of others, so they can make better decisions for the audience they're designing for.

The second core concept is the idea of "build it, try it, fix it, build it again." In software design, it's called "agile process," this cycle of exploration and prototyping.

Lastly, I want students to learn how to handle a client. Teaching our designers to communicate with clients in an effective way is such a valuable lesson. If students are good communicators, they'll be more relevant in the boardroom and more influential in the outcome of the end product.

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