In medical product design, proper, robust functionality is paramount. The product simply has to work. In this market, is aesthetic design of any importance? And if so, how can designers incorporate aesthetic design into their highly engineered products? This article will attempt to answer both of those questions.

Are Aesthetics Important in Medical Product Design?

Unequivocally, yes. And, for a number of reasons. Emotion plays a large role in how we make decisions. Our response to beauty is an emotional one. Though some would deny that they are influenced by emotion when choosing between one product and another, scientific studies have shown that emotion plays a large role in how everyone makes decisions. All things being equal, we would rather interact with an elegantly designed product than one to which little thought was given to aesthetic aspects of the design. Given a choice among products with similar functionality and usability, we often choose one product over another for purely aesthetic reasons.

Beauty also adds considerable economic value that should not be underestimated. Many early-stage, cutting edge medical device companies believe that their product will succeed in the market simply because their technology is stunning. Revolutionary technology might be enough to get you established. But invariably, competition will show up. One of the tactics competitors can and do employ to take market share is to wrap similar technology/functionality in thoughtful aesthetic design. To not invest in aesthetic design up front is simply bad business strategy.

The first MP3 player was a plain engineered box marketed by Eiger Labs (right—never heard of them). But the lion’s share of the market was taken by Apple years after the launch of the Eiger product, due in no small part to the iconic design of the iPod. If you invest in aesthetic design at the beginning, you take away an opportunity from your potential competitors. Great technology combined with great industrial design yields a product that will command the market, not only from the outset but for years to follow. That is a profitable strategy.

One of the major trends in health care is that care once provided in the hospital or clinic is increasingly being provided at home by caregivers or by the patients themselves. Medical products used in the home will achieve greater market acceptance if they have an aesthetic that fits in the home environment. The move from hospital to home also provides an opportunity to use aesthetic design as a differentiator. As with consumer products, where similar functionality is packaged in many different ways to appeal to different market segments, design can be used to provide medical devices with different aesthetic qualities that will appeal to different lifestyles.

In addition to medical products increasingly being used in the home, they are also being used in public spaces. The Federal Aviation Administration has been approving oxygen concentrators that can be used by individuals on commercial airline flights. When someone is carrying a medical device/product around with them in their daily activities, the appearance of the product is extremely important. In those contexts, people will have very negative feelings about products that have a look that screams “medical device”. They’ll want to use products for which the appearance has been carefully thought out and designed to reflect their values, needs, and self-image. They’ll want products that are stylish and discreet, that don’t call attention to themselves and say, “Hey, this person is sick!”

Finally, predictions are for the wearable health device market to continue to grow. Aesthetic design will be key in capturing share in markets that are targeted more at consumers than at health care professionals.

What Is Aesthetics?

From Wikipedia, “aesthetic judgment refers to the sensory contemplation or appreciation of an object.” That is as good a definition as any. It is important to note that aesthetic appreciation exists separately from the appreciation of art. When we speak of aesthetics with regard to a medical product, we’re not referring to it as a piece of art, but simply as an object that is (or isn’t) aesthetically pleasing. Are we emotionally attracted to it or repulsed? “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is a valid consideration here. We all have different standards regarding what we consider beautiful. Furthermore, objects can be evaluated aesthetically using various measures aside from beauty. We can speak of objects as having a high-tech aesthetic, or a rugged aesthetic, or a calming aesthetic, or any number of other characterizations. The point is that even though aesthetic judgment is subjective, there seem to be visual design elements that, when combined in a certain way, yield a common emotional response. Skillful designers combine design elements such as form, texture, scale, color, symmetry, and emphasis in different ways to evoke different emotions.

Fig. 1 – Here is an example of gross texture.
For example, we worked on a project for which the desired aesthetic was “rugged intelligence.” How did we communicate “rugged intelligence” and achieve that aesthetic? Our process involved examining existing products and objects of all kinds, compiling images of those that spoke to us as being either rugged or intelligent or both, and then studying what it was about the design of those objects that communicated a sense a ruggedness/intelligence. We found there were a number of factors involved, but the most important characteristic was the presence and combination of what we termed “gross texture” (gross in the anatomical sense of macroscopic/large) and “fine texture” (small, precise). By giving parts of the product form fine texture detail, for example, an array of small vent holes, and other parts gross texture detail, such as large corner bumpers with the visual characteristics of knobby tires or other rugged industrial forms, we were able to communicate both ruggedness and intelligence. (See Figures 1 and 2)

Which Aesthetic?

Fig. 2 – This watch face is an example of fine texture.

A smart product development team will not undertake a project without first knowing what the potential users of their product want. They will want to conduct research with users to uncover as many insights as they can regarding what the product should be: What functionality is critical? How might users interact with the product? How might the product be misused? What lockout/ safety features will it need? It is just as important to learn which aesthetic your potential product users will find attractive/compelling. What do users value? Intelligence? Accuracy? Robustness? Stylishness? Status? Differing user groups will have differing needs. What they value will be reflective of that. What a nurse values, for instance, might be different from what a surgeon values. A product designed for a nurse might require a different aesthetic than a tool designed for a surgeon. What that aesthetic should be will be governed by values that are most important to the particular user set, which you will uncover in your user research. The context of use will also have a bearing on the product’s aesthetic. Should it be calming/reassuring? Is it a therapeutic product that should be active/exciting? Design can be used to instill medical products with various aesthetic qualities. It is important to uncover what those qualities should be so that the design team can aim for the right target.

Fig. 3 – Inhaler design for MannKind Corp., incorporating blue color.
Medical devices and medical products are predominantly used in situations in which patients are anxious, even fearful. Often they are experiencing pain. Products used in that context should generally be designed to calm and reassure the patient (with the proviso that user research has not uncovered more compelling needs). The reason that blues and greens predominate in medical environments and in medical products is because those are the colors that are most calming to us. (See Figure 3)

In contrast, reds and oranges are active and promote excitement. Does that mean that all medical products should be blue or green? Not at all (although they are both safe choices!). Pastel tints of bolder colors can be used to lessen their impact, for example. Areas of bold color are important for attracting attention. They can be used to draw the user’s attention to critical areas of the product—the first required interaction point, for instance, or the safety shut-off. Using the design element of color in such ways not only contributes to the product’s aesthetic, but also helps the user understand intuitively how the product should be operated.

Tastes change over time, and medical product design is subject to trends, just as in other markets. Over the past several years, more medical products are incorporating black to a greater extent than in the past. Bolder colors are also showing up more often as companies try to break out of the crowd (of calming blue-green products). The verdict is still out as to whether those will be successful strategies. Although it suggests sophistication, black is also psychologically associated with death.

Techniques for Applying Aesthetic Principles

Dieter Rams is an icon of consumer product design. His work is based on simplicity and economy. Many of the designs he did for Braun in the 1960s are as fresh today as they were then. Medical device designers can learn a lot from the way Rams approached the design of consumer goods. The minimalist, clean aesthetic his approach generates is entirely appropriate for the medical market. Here are his ten principles of good design:

  • Good design is innovative. Innovative design always develops in tandem with innovative technology, and can never be an end in itself.
  • Good design makes a product useful. A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy certain criteria, not only functional, but also psychological and aesthetic. Good design emphasizes the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.
  • Good design is aesthetic. The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products we use every day affect our person and our well-being.
  • Good design makes a product understandable. It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product talk. At best, it is self-explanatory.
  • Good design is unobtrusive. Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained.
  • Good design is honest. It does not make a product more innovative, powerful, or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.
  • Good design is long-lasting. It avoids being fashionable, and therefore, never appears antiquated.
  • Good design is thorough down to the last detail. Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the user.
  • Good design is environmentally friendly. Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimizes physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product.
  • Good design is as little design as possible. Less, but better, because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with nonessentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.

“Good design is as little design as possible”. Adhering to that rule alone will help you design an aesthetically pleasing medical product. Examine every discrete element of the design and ask yourself “does this serve a purpose”? If a feature or design element doesn’t serve a purpose, get rid of it. Good design has no place for decoration. Simplify, simplify, simplify.

Achieving an aesthetically pleasing medical product design takes knowledge, skill, and the possession of a good aesthetic “eye”. I believe all of those things are within the reach of everyone. Knowledge can be obtained in any number of ways. Skill is achieved through practice. And even if you think you don’t have an “artistic” sensibility, everyone has the ability to cultivate an eye for beauty and pleasing aesthetic form: There are things that just seem right. Proportions feel perfectly balanced. Colors, textures, and forms are subtle but interesting. The object is simply easy to look at. Find those objects that give you the feeling of “rightness”. It could be a building, a landscape, a product, a sculpture—whatever. Study it closely. Contemplate what it is about the object that makes you have the reaction to it that you do. Soon you will get an internal sense of why one thing is visually pleasing and a similar thing is not.


I hope this short article has given you an appreciation of why aesthetic design is important even in products whose functionality is of the utmost concern. I hope also that I’ve demystified somewhat, the process by which pleasing aesthetic design can be achieved. A good industrial design firm, experienced in medical device/product design, can help you greatly in that regard.

This article was written by Dan Stipe, Senior Director of Industrial Design, Forma Medical Device Design, Raleigh, NC. For more information, Click Here .