Child centred

In children’s hospitals, art and illustration take on an important role in helping to calm and distract patients. Two very different recent examples from Sheffield and Manchester reveal how play is often at the centre of the design approach

Sheffield Children’s Hospital

A patient’s journey to the anaesthetic room is made a little easier thanks to an installation of geometric shapes by studio Thomas.Matthews.

By Mark Sinclair

The centuries-old ‘tangram’ – the Chinese ‘dissection puzzle’ where seven shapes are used to make a range of different patterns and forms – provides the inspiration behind a new series of art installations at Sheffield Children’s Hospital, created by studio Thomas.Matthews. Commissioned by Artfelt, the arts programme funded by The Children’s Hospital Charity, the geometric works line corridors, theatres and treatment rooms and are intended to both soothe and distract patients from the anxious moments before going under anaesthetic. The studio constructed various scenes using tessellating shapes of animals, plants and buildings, while a Perspex mobile also hangs in one of the corridors, its transparent shapes making colours cascade onto the walls. The work culminates with a lightbox in the ceiling of each new anaesthetic room, which, say the studio, can be used by staff to encourage children over the daunting threshold.

Image © India Hobson
Image © India Hobson

“Patients range from aged 0 to 16 years, so it was important any scheme acted on multiple levels,” says Cat Powell of Artfelt. “It needed to be an aesthetically pleasing uplifting piece, providing tools for improvisation and dialogue, but without being patronising to older patients.” The graphics work across several different zones with each of the pieces designed to be easy to clean and replaceable should they become damaged. The end result offers “a visual experience that worked a bit like ambient wayfinding,” says Thomas.Matthews designer, Jack Bardwell. With sustainability a key part of the studio’s operations, it also plays a part here, too. “Sustainability in design is about much more than recycled paper,” says the studio’s creative director, Leah Harrison Bailey. “In the case of Sheffield Children’s Hospital it was about understanding the needs of the space, emotionally and practically, and creating work robust enough to ensure that it won’t need wholesale replacement every two years. We look forward to seeing these designs work hard, alongside new technology and amazing care, to brighten the day of poorly children for many years to come.”

See artfelt.org.uk and thomasmatthews.com. Images © India Hobson

Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital

Manchester design and marketing consultancy Hemisphere has worked with typographer Jeremy Tankard and local illustrator Hammo to make Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital a more welcoming space for young visitors – with the help of a group of aliens known as the Queezies.

By Rachael Steven

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Typographer Jeremy Tankard has created a graffiti-style Queezie font for the hospital, which will be used to explain medical terms in simple language

The Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital was founded in 1829. In 2009, it moved into a new, purpose-built home with the city’s Booth Hall Children’s Hospital and St Mary’s Hospital for Neonatal Services, creating the largest single site children’s hospital in the UK.

Designed by Anshen & Allen architects, the new building offers better facilities for patients (the hospitals were previously housed in separate Victorian buildings, which had become unsuitable for modern use) and is designed to look bright and spacious, with a large atrium and wide, open walkways. But with little decoration, wards can feel cold and clinical to young visitors. In an attempt to put patients at ease, staff would put pictures of film characters and animals on the walls, but this did little to improve the atmosphere: in patient feedback, parents said there was a lack of things for children to do, and cited a need for “less scary” and more child-friendly decor.

To help address these issues, and give the hospital a stronger identity, design and marketing consultancy Hemisphere has worked with typographer Jeremy Tankard, illustrator Hammo (Nick Hamilton), interior design consultants and hospital patients and staff to devise a concept that will be used to create wayfinding, murals, comic books and puzzles, as well as staff badges and uniforms. The concept is based on a story about a group of aliens called the Queezies, who send their best scientists to RMCH to find a cure for a disease that has rendered young Queezies, or Queezlings, sick. Each Queezie is tasked with investigating a different ward and will act as a mascot for that ward, appearing on artwork and literature explaining procedures and treatments to patients in simple terms.

“Our theme started with the fact that hospitals are an alien environment for children – they look very clinical and sterile, and you’ve got signs pointing you to things like an elective treatment centre or a urology ward,” says Sue Vanden, managing director at Hemisphere. “This is language that many adults won’t understand, not just children. We just asked ourselves what an alien would make of the hospital, if they arrived here?”

Hemisphere hopes to use the Queezies to create larger, more impactful signage for RMCH. (The wall shown above currently features different-shaped stickers with no reference to ward numbers)
Hemisphere hopes to use the Queezies to create larger, more impactful signage for RMCH. (The wall shown above currently features different-shaped stickers with no reference to ward numbers)

In researching other children’s treatment centres, Hemisphere discovered that most use a theme for different wards and floors to create a narrative for the hospital. “Often the theme’s about nature – you might have the forest floor or the sea, with the wards named after the animals that live there. But we wanted to do something different … that was uniquely Manchester,” she says. “We treated it as we would a normal brand development, identifying the issues and then devising a brand story to tackle them.”

Each Queezie is named after a famous scientist or engineer linked with Manchester and has a unique appearance and personality. Mallory, for example (named after explorer George Mallory) is ‘straight-talking, no-nonsense and trained in ‘Qung-Fu’, while Fairbairn (after engineer Sir William Fairbairn) wears goggles and a leather apron and can ‘build an amazing contraption out of almost anything’. “They had to be cute and endearing, but they also had to be individual enough for the children to feel an affiliation with the specific character in their ward or clinical                                   area,” says Vanden. Images of Queezie characters will appear on the entrance to wards and on everything from staff name badges, to illustrated instructions explaining different medical procedures.

Mock-up for an end graphic depicting a space workshop, created by illustrator Hammo for the day case unit at the hospital.
Mock-up for an end graphic depicting a space workshop, created by illustrator Hammo for the day case unit at the hospital.

With Hemisphere unable to change the hospital’s existing wayfinding, it commissioned Tankard to create a graffiti-style Queezie font, which will be used alongside clinical descriptions to translate medical jargon. Graffiti on the door of the nephrology and urology ward, for example, explains that it deals with kidneys and ‘wee’. Consultants’ scrubs feature the words ‘very senior doctor’ while advanced practitioners’ uniforms state that they have ‘super powers’. Tankard also created a corresponding Queezie language, Queezoid, devising an alphabet, numbers and symbols which can be used to create puzzles and games for children (for example, asking children to translate Queezie messages or write their own names in Queezie).

After months of consultation with patients, staff and the Central Manchester University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, Hemisphere is introducing the Queezies to Manchester this spring. New Queezie handwashing instructions are being installed across the hospital, a website and comic featuring the Queezies is due to launch in April, and the oncology ward will be given a Queezie makeover this summer.

“The money to implement the Queezies in different areas will come from fundraising activity over the next few years, so it’s going to be a gradual roll-out,” explains Vanden. “But having a complete backstory means that everything that the children’s hospital does as part of its normal life-cycle replacement – such as bed curtains, uniforms and crockery – can be ‘Queezified’ as appropriate.”

Long-term plans include transforming the plant room in a play area on the roof into a Queezie spaceship and decking out the Oncology Day Case area as a space design workshop. Child-friendly pre-admission information will also feature the individual Queezie for the ward or outpatient area that a child will be visiting, giving an introduction to what to expect in the hospital.

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Hemisphere hopes to create illustrated ceiling tiles to add visual interest to thumb-prick areas (where children’s blood is taken)

“The idea is to make the whole process of coming to hospital less scary for kids before they even get here,” says Vanden. “If we can lower the anxiety factors at all stages through the patient pathway, we can hopefully create a positive impact on health outcomes.” After work on the oncology ward is complete, Vanden hopes to begin transforming the paediatric emergency department, “which is currently one of the worst areas for the quality of the patient environment,” she says. “The staff do their best, but there’s only so much you can do with A4 photocopies of Spongebob SquarePants!”

In the long term, the project also aims to raise the profile of RMCH both locally and nationally. “You can go into a newsagents round the corner from the hospital and see a charity collection box for Great Ormond Street, but not one for Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital. It’s the biggest and busiest children’s hospital in Europe but people just aren’t aware of it in the same way they are of GOSH or Alder Hey in Liverpool. Giving the RMCH its own distinctive identity is one way we plan to start changing that,” she says. Funding for hospital improvements is scarce but in time, Vanden hopes the Queezies will appear at every step of a patient’s stay at RMCH.

“With many patients having a long-term connection with the hospital, there are very active family groups and fundraising activity is often targeted at raising money for specific interventions, so little or no money is coming from core NHS funds. The only things that are being paid for out of normal expenditure are things that are planned anyway – for example, there was a recent project planned to replace all the hand gel dispensers across the four-hospital site, so we designed a Queezie version of the dispenser instructions for use in the Children’s Hospital and they were installed as part of the normal project,” she says.

“There will undoubtedly be some compromises to be made, but if we can use each planned project to come up with an application that can be employed in other areas too, then they’re not reinventing the wheel every time, which has to be more efficient. For instance, we are doing a pilot project in one ward to make all the door signs pictorial so that they are more easily understood by kids with autism and other learning impairments. Once these are designed, it’s quite an easy and cost–effective job to use this signage approach in other wards as they make environmental improvements over time. The hospital has signed up to a long-term approach that won’t happen overnight, but eventually, they will have a unified, user-focused environment which will enhance the experience for all the kids that get treated there.”

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The Queezie characters created by Hammo

For more of Hemisphere’s work go to hemispheredmc.com; Jeremy Tankard’s site is at typography.net; Hammo’s, thehammo.com

This article was published in The Health Issue of Creative Review, April 2016

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