Medically Speaking: Design Makes a Difference

With Physician Turned Designer, Yolanda Ng


Mountain View, CA


The Design For A Difference project at Community Health Awareness Council, sponsored by IDG member Fred Wee of Interiors & Textiles, was graced by a team member with a unique tie to the design community and the concept of Evidence Based Design. Meet Yolanda Ng, genius of not only creating calming color palettes and peaceful waiting rooms,

but a talented physician who embraces the benefit of a well-conceived design plan just as importantly as a diagnostic whiteboard as a vital part of the healing process, in search of the optimal outcome.

Yolanda was brought to Design For A Difference after attending the NKBA Student Design Symposium featuring the movement’s spokesperson, Mark Brunetz.  New to design, Ng was impassioned by the idea of making an impact through design, and quickly jumped onboard Fred’s team and never looked back.  Today, she’s sharing her story, along with 3 parallels she has bridged from the medical world to the design world— with the diagnosis being very clear: Design indeed makes a difference.

The Interview:


How did you come to design?

I knew from the time I was in the 6th grade that I wanted to be a designer. I had an art teacher who made the distinction between design and decorating, and once I understood the value of how design could impact lives, I was hooked. Unfortunately, as a first generation American of Asian parents, they didn’t see design as a sustainable career option and I ended up going to medical school and earned a BS in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics with a Masters in Immunology, MD.  In layman’s terms, I was a Pediatric Nephrologist (kidney doctor for kids).

Once I finished school, my friends and colleagues moved on to their respective residencies and fellowships, many pursuing academic positions. For me, I never felt ready to commit to one job and instead worked as a locum tenens physician, which allowed me to travel (which I love), and set my own schedule (I only worked 10-14 days a month).

During that time, I was working at a children’s hospital that happened to be undergoing a large renovation. I was immediately intrigued by all parts of the project, and after talking to multiple people working on the project, realized that healthcare design is indeed a real career option that I could put my heart and medical knowledge behind. And that’s when I decided to go to design school to finally pursue my dream.


Where are you now?

That was about 4 years ago.  I am currently balancing motherhood, working for an architectural firm, and finishing up classes to receive a certificate in interior design.


Bridging the Gap: Yolanda’s 3 Parallels Between Medicine and Design


1. Design and Medicine are Both Data Driven:

I understood the concept of Evidence Based Design (EBD) starting from a young age- it’s what drew me to interior design. But my exposure to the children’s hospital renovation really illustrated the science behind EBD for healthcare. Everything from creating calming spaces filled with soothing color and artwork to a floor plan that serves the sick as well as the working staff… It was a complete game changer, in my decision to switch careers.

Like EBD, every decision I make as a physician relies on looking at data to determine how to best care for the patient. The scientist in me loves to access a case, the data, and make an informed decision to pick what will best serve the patient.


2. It’s Imperative to Have Good Communication Skills From the Top Down:

In both medicine and design, the physicians and designers need to consider themselves as the treatment plan pilots of their craft. We are responsible initially for making decisions, but then next to communicate down the chain of command to ensure that everyone on the team is working together to get the job done.

When I write a prescription, I am responsible for indicating the dosage, how my patient should use the medicine, and ensuring that the pharmacy has the correct instructions and to avoid negative interactions. As the designer, I always email changes to everyone on our team, and want to talk to the contractors to make sure they understand our end goal. It’s not always easy to bring the contractors on board for extra communication, but I think in the end they appreciate the time and money it can save should something go wrong, without hazardous side effects.


3. Intelligently Considered Design Plans and Healing Treatment Plans Make for a Holistically Optimized Experience for the Client and Patient:

Think about it: When a space is thoughtfully conceived and supports the needs of the end-user, it makes for a gratifying, fulfilling day. When it is not, and it is true that the client may or may not notice, but the data indicates that clients and patients invariably adapt to their surroundings as necessary to thrive. Imagine a workspace that may be too hot or too cold, or one that requires the user to continually get up to access files throughout the day. They will make it work, but it creates added stress and inefficiencies that they may not even be aware of.

This parallels into the medical world because there are many different ways to manage a sick person. If there is a well conceived plan, everything will go smoothly. If not, the patient has to bear the burden of compromise and adjust accordingly in a less than optimal fashion. For example, if multiple diagnostic lab tests are called for, it’s best for the patient to have them completed in one day as opposed to added costs, stress and fatigue of multiple visits to the same facility. This eliminates extra stress throughout the process, and makes for a better healing experience and outcome overall. Like designers, physicians can play a critical role in meticulously thinking through the myriad logistics for their patients, just as designers do their overall design.


What would you like to share about your DFAD experience?

I enjoyed my role with Fred’s team as it was my first true group project. Being a mental health facility, I was able to use a lot of EBD to ensure that the space did not trigger counter-productive negative responses such as anxiety; instead creating a calm, restful environment for the clients. On the flip side, we had to be thoughtful about the spaces the staff would be using— keeping them brighter and functional while blending the overall design.


And, what do you see in your near future as a full-time designer?

I currently love my position with Kobza and Associates, and once I receive my certificate in Interior Design I look forward to becoming certified as an interior designer in the state of CA, and finally having the freedom to practice my dream career as a health care designer.

Yolanda, thank you for sharing your story— it’s both thought provoking and inspiring to learn how interior design diagnostics parallel the medical field on so many levels. As we’ve demonstrated, Medicine and Design both share the mutual oath and creed of Do No Harm. As professionals, we take pride in giving our all to help effect the best outcomes, each and everyday. Both disciplines clearly care about people, their health and well-being, and happiness; whether via DFAD or Rx.

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