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Meet the RCA: Professor Ashley Hall – Part One

Healthcare Design and Covid-19

The following article is part of a series examining how creatives in the RCA community are responding to the unprecedented challenges posed by Covid-19.


portrait of Ashley Hall
Professor Ashley Hall

We spoke to Professor Ashley Hall, Professor of Design Innovation, Postgraduate Research Lead in the School of Design and Head of Programme MRes Healthcare & Design, about the ways design can help address the challenges of Covid-19 and why working across disciplines is an important aspect of the MRes Healthcare & Design programme.

Healthcare is facing unprecedented challenges because of Covid-19. How can designers contribute to finding solutions? 

Designers can develop tangible solutions like new ways to locally produce personal protective equipment or better and faster ways to manufacture ventilators with less parts, but the most important level is how design can interface between government and science to limit disease transmission. We need to bridge this gap by allowing new routes for design solutions in times of great change and chaos. Most importantly this means designers influencing new visions of the future and ‘prospecting’ for directing us to the types of future we want and need, rather than settling for the types of futures we have come to expect. 

We can’t wait until we fully understand all the aspects of the current crisis with Covid-19 as the situation is changing faster than we can react and our information is always behind developments. A designer’s viewpoint is you have to change the world in order to understand it so we would explore directly ‘in action’ rather than waiting for knowledge to act. Time is of the essence.

Three people look at design mind map
MRes Healthcare & Design
Are there particular approaches or methodologies that are taught on MRes Healthcare & Design that offer ways forward?

The warning signs for a Covid-19 like pandemic have been out there for years. One of the big challenges for design is how to communicate impact in a way that drives leadership to action. We are addressing this on the MRes Healthcare & Design through a leadership module as we recognise that developing the design and innovation thinking is just part of the solution, but we also need to leverage design leadership to design-in the route to delivery and success. 

Healthcare environments and challenges are notoriously complex, so we are also doing some work on mapping wicked problems, designing with behaviour change in physical-digital systems, bringing in some ideas from cybernetics, causal loops and systems thinking into healthcare design to look at how we can educate a new generation to take on and deliver on these big global healthcare challenges.

What do you think the long-term impacts of Covid-19 will be for design and healthcare?

In the longer term I think Covid-19 will push healthcare design further up the agenda and hopefully highlight the fact that healthcare resilience needs to be responsively and flexibly designed; funding, regulations and policies have profoundly failed to prepare us for what is likely to be the biggest challenge in our lifetimes and one that will ripple throughout our lives for many years. Lessons and methods from the past are poor performers for the challenges of transforming the future. This is where design research can make an important contribution because we are always looking at what should be, what ought to be, and what could be.

Helix Design Studio
Helix Design Studio
Photographer: Matt Harrison

What led to the MRes Healthcare & Design programme being established at the RCA?

There were several different motivations. One came from the history of the RCA’s School of Design, which has been producing groundbreaking healthcare innovations ever since Bruce Archer and his team’s NHS hospital bed project in 1963. While another came from the innovative ‘burst mode’ teaching model which was new to the RCA and allowed a whole new group of globally diverse students to come and study with us. But the key moment came out of the HELIX Centre setting up a design consultancy in a hospital for the first time in the UK and an agreement between the RCA and Imperial College London to set up a healthcare design programme. 

My own motivation comes from realising that life is fundamentally about quality and at the heart of that is our health. However, there are very few courses specialising in healthcare design and so far, ours is unique with its open disciplinary perspective and being hosted between the RCA School of Design and Imperial’s medical school where we often teach in a hospital setting or with the support of the HELIX Centre during their design dash.

hospital bed design
Prototype for the King’s Fund Hospital Bed designed by Kenneth Agnew at the Royal College of Art, 1962–67
© Kenneth Agnew Collection, RCA.
On the MRes Healthcare & Design programme you welcome students from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines  from architecture to graphic design, sociologists to surgeons. Why is this mix important, and how does it work?

We set up the MRes Healthcare & Design as a context, as opposed to a discipline based on expected industrial outputs. This allowed us to embrace all forms of design ranging from built architectural scale to software, design experiments, experiences and services, future healthcare methods and of course physical products. The diverse mix is crucial. From teaching Innovation Design Engineering (IDE) I understood the importance of curating interdisciplinary learning environments and empowering students to learn as much, or even more, from each other as they do from us. Much of this comes from developing advanced team working skills but it also helps students develop cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural languages where they gain confidence speaking to experts in other fields. Something that is of great importance in healthcare design. 

design students discuss drawings
MRes: Healthcare & Design Workshop

Do you think disciplinary distinctions are still relevant, or important?

To be interdisciplinary first of all you have to be disciplined so there is always the need to have the depth of thinking and process that comes from a certain level of expertise that you build from a set of methods and approaches. We are now seeing the end of design disciplines being defined by the types of outputs they deliver and you can see that in the RCA graduate work where increasingly projects could be swapped between programme areas and live in several design disciplines at once. What continues to define us though is our cultures of thinking and approaches to creativity, so this has increased as the deliverables blur. As we go on into the future, I think we will move further in this direction towards diverse creative perspectives that have been liberated from classic industrial definitions.

I still think disciplinary distinctions are relevant from the point of view that you can only transgress what you can identify, and the importance is that they have allowed us to see the big collaboration gaps that we can see between the sciences and design. Again, that is a crucial area to tackle in our current crisis.


This is the second part of an interview with the RCA's Professor Ashley Hall, you can read part two here.

Find out more about the MRes: Healthcare & Design at the RCA and how to apply.