Modern Fertility branding | Image courtesy of Wolff Olins.

Going to the doctor has always required a level of visual patience. Forms need second reads; digital interfaces require rebooting; clip art logos must be tolerated. We’ve been trained to expect it—the healthcare industry has never been particularly design-minded, almost, it seems, as a point of pride.

But lately, things have started to change. Trendy wordmarks are replacing staid logos. Drab waiting rooms have given way to spaces filled with mid-century furniture and Memphis-inspired decor meant to put patients at ease, as if they’re in a friend’s living room, or better yet, a cool coffee shop. 

Over the last couple of years, a new generation of healthcare startups has emerged with branding and experience design that’s aiming to reach a new, more design-savvy audience—one that’s most likely on Instagram. Today, companies spanning the spectrum of the healthcare industry, from membership-only clinics like Tia, Parsley Health, and One Medical, to medical companies and projects like Sage Therapeutics, Modern Fertility, and Yona Care, are embracing a trendier and more customer-friendly aesthetic. This style feels, in many cases, like it could be transplanted onto any number of current digitally-focused brands.

Branding for Yona Care | Image courtesy of Frog

The chubby serif fonts and
Matisse-like illustrations that have seeped into every corner of contemporary branding look like a dramatic shift from the healthcare industry’s bureaucratic, design-agnostic past; but it was a long time coming. The American healthcare system has always operated primarily as a privatized industry that’s based on—and rewards—the same capitalistic drive found in so many other industries. In the more consumer-centric corners of healthcare, like pharmaceuticals, design and marketing has played an important role for decades (let’s take a moment to appreciate the beautifully modernist designs from Swiss graphic designer Max Schmid for pharma company Geigy). But that same focus on the design experience has started to seep into the less obvious touchpoints for healthcare, too.

“Traditionally, healthcare has been optimized not for the end consumer but rather for a series of intermediaries, whether that be a health insurance company, or government, or for regulations,” says Viral Shah, a strategy director at Frog, whose colleagues Rachel Hobart and Fran Wang started Yona Care, a platform reimagining the speculum with better industrial design and branding. “What we’re seeing now is the major sea change in the healthcare industry where through increased competition, there is a realization that in order to remain competitive, healthcare companies need to think much more like a consumer-oriented company, perhaps for the first time ever.”

In order to remain competitive, healthcare companies need to think much more like a consumer oriented company, perhaps for the first time ever.

That the healthcare industry as a whole wants to reach new customers, make more money, and hope to do so through the persuasive powers of branding, isn’t shocking. Healthcare is feeling the pressure to shift towards offering services that do more than meet the bare-bones functional needs. Blame it on the Millennials, who recently eclipsed Boomers as the largest U.S. population group, and whom the healthcare industry is eyeing as its next big customer base. Younger consumers of healthcare and its related goods are beginning to expect healthcare to feel like the other services in their lives. They want an experience—streamlined, individualized, and well-designed. 

Those words are rarely used to describe the typical OB-GYN experience. For many women, a trip to their gynecologist starts and ends with discomfort. A few years ago, two Google alumni launched an app called Tia that served as an on-demand women’s health advisor. Today, Tia has evolved into an in-person clinic where members can pay $150/year to access gynecological services that come with a high-design touch. Tia’s waiting room, with its trendy furniture, soft lighting, and shelves filled with feminist books, has commanded much of the attention the company has gotten since launching its first NYC clinic in 2019, but that same attention to design detail follows throughout the entire service.

Tia branding

Its branding centers around a hand-lettered word mark made of wonky serifs and a giant, bright pink dot above the “i.” “It has a crispness and seriousness, but there’s also this very intentional feeling of ‘we’re bold, we’re loud, we’re here, we’re not shy, we’re not going away,’” says Allison Ball, Tia’s current creative director. “I think that scale between crisp serifs and this aggressive playfulness is just very Tia.” 

Ball was brought on to streamline Tia’s visual identity, which aims to strike a careful balance between light-hearted accessibility and seriousness. Before Ball joined, Tia’s team developed a series of illustrations, internally called “Tia ladies,” that adorn the clinic room robes. They draw on the same style as the faceless, amorphous bodies that Silicon Valley has come to use as a stand in for inclusivity, which Ball says is becoming increasingly less effective as a marketing tool as Tia grows and its clientele expands beyond the millennial crowd.

“We’ve gotten a little feedback that our brand might be alienating to people over 35,” she says, adding that she’s interested in steering Tia away from the “Chobani” effect—big, bubbly personality, ’70s influence—towards something a little more grown-up. “I think we need to take it in just a little bit more of a buttoned up direction.”

Sage Therapeutics branding | Image courtesy of Wolff Olins

Ball’s observation gets at one of the big tensions around designing branding for healthcare: How do you ensure a brand feels friendly but also reliable? After being conditioned to expect a lack of design, the sudden emergence of glossy identities and trendy typefaces can breed an unexpected sense of untrustworthiness. “I think there’s a danger of almost over-designing,” says Forest Young, creative director at Wolff Olins.

Young worked on the branding for Modern Fertility, an at-home kit for fertility testing, which features a clean capital M logo highlighted by shades of red and blue. Like Wolff Olins’ work for biotech company Sage Therapeutics, the branding for Modern Fertility is youthful but not juvenile. With inspirations like Ellsworth Kelly and Jean Arp sculpture, the logo obliquely ties to the culture its customers might identify with. “We were just thinking, ‘Well, who would you invite into your home?’” Young says. “What kind of brands deserve to be in your living room?”

What kind of brands deserve to be in your living room?

More and more, those brands happen to be healthcare related, which is why this moment of individualized, hyper-branded companies feels so omnipresent right now. In a piece for Metropolis on the designification of healthcare offices, Kyle Chayka questioned the value of dedicating limited resources to the physical appearance of a healthcare experience, citing a study that showed the healthcare industry spends $30 billion a year on marketing, a number that has doubled in two decades. “Would the U.S. health system be more efficient if health-care companies didn’t have to worry about the specific shades of their design, if they didn’t have to invest so much in marketing, advertising, and midcentury Modern furniture?” he asks. Perhaps. But it’s hard to separate the industry’s ballooning marketing costs with the expectations around how any company can successfully break through the noise in an over-crowded marketplace. 

In theory, marketing was just as important in the years before the internet and Instagram, but today, consumer-centric healthcare companies can’t really afford to not play the game. All branding is, at the end of the day, a visual shorthand for a company to communicate that whatever they’re selling—a subscription to a doctor’s office, fertility treatments—is for you. Of course, in the process of making something feel relatable, it can often start to feel contrived. It’s the problem we brush up against anytime we feel targeted—what is the balance between being seen and being manipulated? It just happens to feel a little weirder when it comes to our health.