gilbert velazquez gvcerv communications

What It’s Like To Be a Health Literacy Designer

Gilberto Velazquez, BFA, is a creative/art director and a health literacy designer. He’s the founder of GV CERV Communications, a digital design and creative development studio. He has published several Medium articles on such topics as health literacy during COVID-19, design principles, color blindness, and patient education.

Gilberto spoke with IHA on March 22, 2023. His answers have been lightly edited. 

How did you get into the field of health literacy design?

Gilberto Velazquez: It actually happened in two different ways at two different times.

My background was initially in pharmaceutical and biotech marketing communications as an art director. I started to get more involved in creating patient education materials and materials for clinical trial recruitment. As I worked more with medical writers and project managers, I noticed that my design skill set needed to be approached differently. As my interest in finding ways to better communicate with patients grew, I stumbled upon doing further research on health literacy in the 1990s. 

What further enhanced my concentration in health literacy design as a creative lead was when I began working with the Institute for Healthcare Advancement (IHA) in California. Working on various initiatives with IHA has helped me strengthen my focus more.

How have you grown your health literacy design knowledge and skills?

Gilberto Velazquez: Collaboration, collaboration, collaboration! 

An excellent mentor, Jann Keenan, whom I began to work with on a variety of different projects even before I started to work with IHA, really opened my eyes to the essential importance design plays in communicating, supporting, and engaging people to pursue better health behaviors and empowerment. Traditional, contemporary design is, for lack of a better word, not very in tune with what needs to be done to support the correct health outcome in the language and approach that health literacy principles require.

How does being a health literacy designer differ from being a general designer?

Gilberto Velazquez: As creatives, we always envision the end product to represent the best of our creativity based on our design background or design influences. What I have come to realize from one project to the next is that a health literacy designer needs to wear many hats. Several of those hats have nothing to do with being creative or being a designer but instead with putting yourself in the position of someone who is trying to either take control of their health or care for someone else with challenges—or dealing with the frustrations of not feeling well and wanting to understand what to do to strive for better health. Once you do that and remove your ego, you can grow more to understand how vital your role is when it comes to health literacy worldwide.

What are some challenges of using a health literate approach to design?

Gilberto Velazquez: It truly comes down to understanding what needs to be communicated and how to approach the visual elements of the text in the context in which it is being written and presented and supporting the message graphically. It isn’t so much that you’re looking to be designing, but rather you’re looking to package something that the reader will engage with. 

How are colors used? How is the photographic imagery supporting the message rather than just filling space? Take the time to understand things not as a designer but rather as an individual caring for yourself or for another.

How have you overcome these challenges?

Gilberto Velazquez: I’ve worked with some fantastic health literacy professionals, such as Jann Keenan and Janet Ohene-Frempong, which has nurtured my awareness and growth as a health literacy designer. 

It is imperative that you continue doing your reading and research. Be observant when you’re out and about in healthcare settings. For example, if you’re sitting in a doctor’s office, watch how people engage at the front desk when they’re filling out forms, or when you speak to a doctor. 

If you are in an ER environment, try to notice how healthcare providers are communicating back to patients, and if you observe patients understanding the message, the discharge, and the intake process. In addition to being in a position in my life where I had to care a lot for my mom and help her navigate the healthcare system, I started to pay more attention to the methods of communication and how well she understood what a healthcare professional was telling her. 

I used to design a tremendous amount of materials for clients such as Merck, Pfizer, and other pharmaceutical companies. And I would watch the sales reps take those materials and have conversations with the physician about their products. That is an entirely different side of the healthcare fence. 

What else would you like to share about your work as a health literacy designer?

Gilberto Velazquez: Over the years, as I’ve focused more on health literacy design principles and applied them in a variety of assignments that I’ve had, I’ve found that it truly does enhance your value as a designer. Sometimes design serves the purpose of entertaining or attracting attention. But how well does your design communicate in form, and what is the retention of the information based on your target audience? 

Healthcare overall is a very challenging field for us as designers when we are targeting a variety of demographics, reading levels, and cultural differences. But at the end of the day, everyone deserves a guide to better health outcomes.


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