Big pharma may not be the most glamorous sector but it’s where design can change people’s lives

Stephen Minasvand is co-founder and head of design at the New York-based agency minds + assembly. He’s on a mission to change the narrative when it comes to design for healthcare, pointing out what the sector has above others and why its design doesn’t have to be clinical or void of humour.

20 October 2021


Many young designers know what they want to do when they graduate from university – work for the likes of Nike or Apple or some other kick-ass consumer brand. I was no different. Back in the mid-2000s when I was studying for a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York, that was exactly my mindset too. Over the next decade-plus, I did just that, working for huge agencies on some of the world’s biggest accounts in the beauty, fashion, finance, and technology sectors. But I couldn’t help feeling that something was missing. Privately, I began to think there was no real purpose to my work. 

Like many of my peers, I considered pharmaceuticals and healthcare to be almost completely lacking in style, creativity and appeal. But underneath this judgment was a nagging realisation that pharma, or rather health, had something that all the Nikes and Apples of the world could only aspire to: meaning. Strip away all the tired design and hackneyed concepts and what I found was the human story at its most dramatic: sickness and health, life and death. The powerful and universal stuff that binds us all.

For me, the difference between health and other sectors is that your heart is more involved. When something is threatening your health, it’s threatening the foundation of your needs as a person as a human. Without the latest trainers, you’re simply just without the latest trainers, you still possess the thing that matters most.  

This perspective unlocked an entirely new belief: if there were a category deserving of the absolute best we have to offer in design, creativity and invention, it’s this one. I was determined to challenge the way the world looked at creativity, branding and marketing for healthcare. For me, design was the solution to do more than just make things beautiful; it was and is a way to improve the relationships that people, both patients and physicians, have with treatments, with their own health, and with each other. 


minds + assembly: Society of Valued Minds (Copyright © minds + assembly, 2021)

So, I left a very secure senior role to form minds + assembly with two people who shared my belief and the joy of invention. Of course it felt risky at first, leaving something I knew in pursuit of something that didn’t exist yet. When you think about it though, that’s the definition of invention: stepping into the new, with nothing but a belief in yourself, your idea, and the people around you. 

Designing for healthcare is not without its challenges. You have the unavoidable requirements for large blocks of legal copy, type and real estate, accompanying so much of what we do. I’m still working on how to make that which is in itself, a beautiful experience. The biggest challenge we face though is simply low expectations. People (designers, writers, producers, marketers) in this domain are so used to accepting less than beautiful designs and experiences. In turn, the sector is saturated with mediocre and tepid work, so much so that those involved may not see the worth of the effort. And that fucking sucks. 

Finding good designers is hard because of this. Oftentimes, it's a lack of knowledge, exposure, and understanding. I believe most designers just don’t know how rewarding this work truly can be. I’d love designers to know the impact they can make in this sector right away. In consumer design, you have to toil away at resizing digital banners right out of school (exactly how I did it) for a couple of years before your cursor touches anything worth mentioning. There’s a hunger for innovation and a desire to create something new, that truly doesn’t exist on the other side of the fence. 

I spend my time now trying to understand how patients and doctors are communicated to, how they live and what they need most. I’m thinking more carefully about the use and the accessibility of a product or experience – the intricacies of every connector and detail of every touchpoint. I’m considering the human being at the other end of it. I’m trying to make design work harder so they can get the truth, treatment, and trust they deserve. 


minds + assembly: Connect the Swells (Copyright © minds + assembly, 2021)

So many brands in the pharma and healthcare sectors take the easy route and focus on functional benefits, rather than doing the work necessary to understand the reality of what a person actually experiences. Context is everything. But by showing the brand in its proper perspective, we give it meaning and purpose for everyone involved. This is the only way to build strong, credible relationships. Most importantly, it’s the way to create something more than just brand users or customers or even endorsers, it’s the way to build believers. 

Central to our philosophy is putting people first. It’s important to think about the challenges they face, of course, but also the opportunities. Our Connect the Swells campaign gives visibility to the experiences of patients suffering from hereditary angioedema (HAE). Whilst the symptoms of HAE are hard to miss, for many, pinning down the cause remains a challenge. Our campaign puts the patient first, giving visibility to their experiences so that others can finally connect their questions to answers, and connect their swells to a diagnosis. 

You also have the urgent mental health crisis young people are currently facing. Society of Valued Minds is a platform created to spread the truth that every single human mind is valuable. By blending the power of artistic expression with breakthrough moments in culture, our vision for this campaign was to create a movement that changes people’s beliefs about mental health conditions and what it means to live with one. A movement that celebrates the value of every mind. We invite people to reclaim their lives from mental illness, share their stories, seek out support, and embrace what makes each and every single one of them special.

Boulder is another great example of a brand making a difference to the experience of healthcare as they ground telehealth addiction treatment in kindness, respect, and unconditional support. It’s serious stuff, sure, but that doesn’t mean you have to have a humour by-pass. Just look at the way brands like Hims and Roman use design and tone of voice to deal with baldness and erectile dysfunction in a modern, refreshing way.

Today, I’m on a mission to let other people know about the very real rewards of working in pharma and healthcare as a designer. People need to see the promise and the drama of this field. We haven’t completely solved our image problem, but as the work gets more attention, that’s starting to change. The industry’s currently undergoing a mini-renaissance. We’re not there yet, but I’ve seen huge leaps forward in the last few years – the investment in health (rightfully so) is bigger than ever. And I plan on bringing as many designers as possible with me on this journey. 


minds + assembly: Society of Valued Minds (Copyright © minds + assembly, 2021)


minds + assembly: Society of Valued Minds (Copyright © minds + assembly, 2021)

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minds + assembly: Connect the Swells (Copyright © minds + assembly, 2021)

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About the Author

Stephen Minasvand

Stephen Minasvand is co-founder and head of design at the New York-based agency minds + assembly.

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