How brand thinking could help the NHS thrive
High-quality care, free at the point of use to anyone who needs it. To say Britain’s National Health Service is one of the best – and best-known – healthcare brands in the world is hardly an exaggeration, but the world has changed considerably in the 70 years since it was founded. Could a dose of modern brand thinking ensure it is fit for another 70?
For many, the very thought of the NHS being considered a ‘brand’ is enough to make them feel sick. The notion that something British citizens hold such a personal stake in could be boiled down to a term closely associated with the market economy is contentious territory.
Indeed, when a 2014 independent think tank suggested the NHS could be run in a similar way to large private corporations – like supermarkets – doctors were quick to point out that the comparison was highly unrealistic and that the proposal simply masked a deeper agenda of a push towards privatization.
The dark shadow of money will always make brand and healthcare uneasy bedfellows, but, if we set commercial conversation to one side, could a pure dose of brand thinking help improve the condition of our health service?
The truth is, thinking like a modern brand is about much more than simply delivering on the bottom line. It’s also about protecting what matters, maintaining trust, helping people navigate the world in better and safer ways. Most of all, though, it is about supporting the people who work within an organization so they feel recognized and valued. In its 70th year, one could argue these traits are exactly what the NHS needs in order to raise its pulse.
Design with the head and the heart
The peerless gov.uk website, which is home to information on all UK government services, is a shining example of a publicly funded entity that benefited hugely from brand thinking and which, in turn, benefited us all – relevant, simple, cohesive, smart and, at the time, very bold, it pushed boundaries and delivers a best-in-class experience. The BBC, meanwhile, though an organization that flits between public and private sector, is undoubtedly one of the world’s most enduring and engaging brands.
Both examples are built from smart brand thinking and, critically, well-constructed design that actively makes them better. It’s a shame that public ire is reserved for design (and particularly brand identity) in the public realm.
From London 2012 to BBC Three, the debate normally starts and ends with money. For an organization like the NHS where every penny counts, thinking about ‘nonsense’ like logos and typefaces is seen as vulgar and distracting. While it’s clear the health service needs proctologists far more than typographers, even this seemingly superficial level of brand thinking could have a positive impact if done well. It is the time and money wasted on incoherent, disparate and lazy design that should be pilloried.
When launched in 2017, the media reported the ‘fury’ that ‘identity managers’ were being employed to roll out a new NHS identity. What was reported far less at the time was the rationale for the change.
The NHS identity we know and trust is relatively new. According to Warwick University’s People’s History of the NHS, the visual system we see today was a response to the chaos caused by the introduction of a competitive internal market in the NHS in the 90s. Huge amounts of visual and tonal fragmentation occurred as people within the same organization fought against each other to be recognized – essentially so they could claim a share of the same buck. It’s something that is highly prescient of modern tech organizations that have grown fast and messily, leaving cul-de-sacs of sub brands and confusing narratives in their wake. In 2018, a brand creative’s first challenge is often undoing viral and organic design work that has confused, distorted and ultimately weakened the whole, then building a meaningful, coherent system in its place.
At the end of the 90s, the Labour government – in one of its more decisive moves – decided to align the health service (in England) within a single identity. In doing so, the NHS lozenge logo was introduced alongside a highly rationalized design palette. In a similar way to the private sector, this wasn’t necessarily well received internally. Pillars of the health service, like Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) and the Whittington Hospital in London, had identities that were well-loved and recognized – in the case of GOSH, so loved it remains and even replaced the NHS logo at the opening ceremony of the 2012 London games.
The design change added positives and negatives to the day-to-day life of the people in charge of implementing it. It raised (but didn’t answer) questions about the importance of emotional resonance and the role heritage plays in retaining trust. But it did start to bring simplification and order to what was once a wild west, and legibility to places where it had never been considered.
The NHS logo is now recognized by up to 95% of the public. These are the kind of stats usually reserved for internal PowerPoints, but when recognition brings visibility, security and reassurance to its audience, it’s something that should be celebrated.
Like the NHS itself, the design system is far from perfect. But this singularity of intent – ahead of its time – has provided a good scaffolding around which a more holistic, digital design system can be built.
Bring your human to health
For an organization that literally deals with the hearts and minds of its audience, the way the NHS looks and feels is surprisingly stand-offish and corporate. Pantone 300, otherwise known as NHS blue, is clean and clinical. But it’s also the most institutional of colors – the color of finance and professional services, distant and cold. This isn’t a problem for hardwired assets like navigation and screen presence, but in delicate communications it lacks a more human touch.
This lack of bedside manner is perhaps most reflected in the netherworld of imagery it uses, which is neither authentic nor styled – it nearly always jars and is tough to relate to. There’s much to learn here from other organizations who must talk about difficult stuff without resorting to the stock library, from Macmillan’s human typography to the joyful illustrations of meditation service Headspace. It would be great if hard edges were matched with tenderness.
Perhaps most of all, as voice becomes a more prevalent form of branding, it will be important that the National Health Service finds ways to join up and make sense of its sonic output – from interactive voice responses and hospital navigation right the way through to prescriptions that can give their own dosage instructions, it would make sense for the NHS to think how it will talk with a considered, authoritative voice.
Making and maintaining a universal language is critical to the very essence of the health service. Non-English speakers and people with impairments need to be able to not only recognize the communications but fundamentally understand and navigate them even when under duress.
The NHS is not a brand in the traditional sense. But the way it communicates with us is something we need to protect, streamline and enhance in a similar way to successful global brands.
Used from a distance, design is a blunt tool that can cause more harm than good. But used surgically, with care, knowledge and skill, it could go towards ensuring the NHS not only survives another 70 years but thrives.