Health Service Co-Design


Visual communication

Visual communication is a way of conveying ideas to people using aids such as pictures, diagrams and colours rather than just words.

Why use it

The purpose of visual communication is to help create accessible, tangible ways of talking about and designing better service experiences. Visual communication is useful for making abstract things - such as needs, issues, ideas, processes and outcomes - tangible, and can help span the different perspectives of patients, staff and other stakeholders. This tool can also capture complex interactions between people, processes, and ideas.

When to use it

You can use visual communication at any time during your project when you need to express key concepts in simple and practical ways. For example, you may want to use a visual map to explain a patient's journey through a health service.

1. Identify the topic

Do this as clearly as possible, focusing on defining what you mean and what you don't mean.

2. Identify who the communication is from and who it is for

Usually from your organisation, and for your patients.

Distinguish between how the organisation and the patients think and speak about the topic. Focus on the patients' point of view including:

  • Things they might understand already, and the ways they typically talk about them
  • Things they can agree with easily
  • Questions they might ask
  • Things they might by confused by and/or disagree with.

3. Explore similes and metaphors for communicating the topic

For example, patients often say their journey is "like a roller coaster" (a simile) or a staff member "has become a rock" (a metaphor).

Select a few options you think will work well in communicating the topic. Note that you may need to balance accuracy (in relation to service processes or clinical diagnoses) with the views, existing knowledge and needs of your audience.

4. Sketch out drafts of your ideas

Keep your sketches rough. This encourages people to engage with them and comment on them, and to try drawing ideas themselves. Ignore criticisms about the roughness of the drawing - it's not the point.

5. Use the following test to see how easy the sketches are to understand

  • Show the drawing to a patient
  • Ask them to explain in their own words what it is telling them
  • Explain what you meant
  • Discuss ways to improve the sketch so it communicates effectively and efficiently.

6. Select a draft

  • Select the version and specific elements that communicate best and document these.
  • Develop a 'good' draft
  • Trial your draft in a real setting such as a clinic or ward.

7. Decide on the final version and use as appropriate

You can ask a graphic designer or illustrator to help you complete the final version so you have a professional looking piece of work.


Make sure you do your development in the sketch phase. It's simple, quick and gets you 90% of the way to effective and efficient communication.

Example: Communication cartoon

The Breast Service at Waitemata DHB learned there were many situations where spoken interactions between staff and patients were problematic.

They knew verbal communication was fundamental, for good experiences and patient outcomes.

With the assistance of Unitec School of Design and Visual Arts staff, a typical clinic appointment was sketched out to capture key communication problems and show useful ways of dealing with them. This rapidly evolved into a cartoon-style poster, Jo goes for her first hospital appointment, to remind patients and staff of good ways of communicating.