Inside

Oonagh Comerford

MRes Healthcare & Design, 2016–

What were you doing before you started at the RCA?

I studied fine art sculpture and the history of art and design at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin. Shortly after that I moved to London and got a job at the Design Council, where I worked in what’s known as the Challenges team, which looked at how design and the application of a design approach could help solve problems in society. It was a really exciting introduction to that aspect of design and I worked on a range of projects such as reducing youth unemployment and then later moved onto healthcare related projects.

How did you hear about the Healthcare Design programme?

I’d followed the work of the HELIX Centre for a long time; that’s the design studio on the site of St Mary’s Hospital. They bring designers and healthcare professionals together to work on healthcare challenges and I think that’s a really good approach.

I’d been working alongside a behavioural scientist at the Design Council and became interested in that field; understanding human behaviour is a big part of design, so there are many crossovers, but behavioural science obviously takes a more robust, scientific approach. I was contemplating taking a course to learn more about it, and considering doing a Master’s. When the HELIX Centre promoted the RCA Programme on Twitter one day, I looked into it and it combined everything I wanted, including a behavioural science module in the second year.

What is unique about this design programme in particular?

As a Programme, this is really the first of its kind. There’s so much coverage in the media about the NHS and problems in the healthcare system; people are desperate for solutions and I think design can play a massive part in that. I was attracted to the Programme because it recognises the importance of this subject and I’m hoping it will be the start of something – wouldn’t it be amazing if there was a design studio at every hospital in the world? In my experience, you can work as a consultant and parachute into projects when needed, but ultimately you need to embed design within healthcare systems in order to really make an impact.

How are you finding combining work and study?

I’m working full-time and have arranged for some study leave for the teaching blocks and then I use my holiday time to do extra study. When you’ve been out of the loop of doing academic writing for a while, it takes a bit of time to warm up and it was a bit of a wake-up call!

Balancing everything is a challenge and I definitely learned a few things that I can work on for next time. The Programme combines students from Imperial College and the RCA; there are five of us from the RCA and we’ve gelled really well as a group, so the mutual support is really good. We’ll be working with the Imperial students a lot more from now on, so I’m looking forward to building on that peer-to-peer learning and support.

Does it feel like it’s an advantage to be studying within the wider context of the RCA?

I did my undergraduate degree at an art college so, while I don’t take that kind of environment as a given, I do feel like it runs through my veins. Just being at the College feels great; it’s amazing how the physical spaces of the College change your experience, compared to, say, the lecture theatres at Imperial. Even seeing the emails going round about all the different workshops, talks and activities happening exposes you to such a variety of disciplines. It’s been great seeing the effect of the RCA and of a design approach on the work of the Imperial students when they come to work here as well.

What do you find especially rewarding about studying here?

The biggest draw for me is the multidisciplinary approach. The best way to tackle a real-world healthcare problem is by pairing up people from different disciplines, for example someone with a creative background and someone who’s a clinician, and that’s the model for this programme. Coming from such different backgrounds, we have so much to learn from each other’s knowledge and ways of thinking and working. You can see those collaborations really working at the HELIX Centre.
"The biggest draw for me is the multidisciplinary approach. The best way to tackle a real-world healthcare problem is by pairing up people from different disciplines, for example someone with a creative background and someone who’s a clinician, and that’s the model for this programme."
Oonagh Comerford
Oonagh Comerford