2017 SEGD Insight Award Recipient M.D. Anderson Cancer Center

2017 SEGD Insight Award: M.D. Anderson Cancer Center

The SEGD Insight Award recognizes entities that consistently commission environmental graphic design programs that significantly enhance or promote opportunities for the field and experiential graphic design education and demonstrate a long-standing commitment to recognize the field. Recipients of the award are the visionary design clients behind years of outstanding museum exhibits, innovative hospital wayfinding systems and rewarding partnerships between architects, developers and designers. Past winners include Taubman, Portsmouth City Council, TATE, Apple, Amtrak, Herman Miller and the National Park Service.

The M.D. Anderson Cancer Center launched their groundbreaking integrated wayfinding system in 2004 with the help of fd2s, inc. and have funded an active, respected Graphics and Wayfinding Group within their organization that has maintained and enhanced the system (with the help of user research and prototyping) over the last 10 years as facilities doubled from 9 million to 18 million square feet. Today they are piloting indoor location technology—another big leap in usefulness for patients and visitors. They have worked with SEGD members for years.

We spoke with Amber Felts, a wayfinding designer and Senior Facilities Project Manager at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, who has been instrumental in the wayfinding programs there, to discuss the organization and its unique approach. 


Can you briefly describe what the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center is and does?

The M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, located in Houston on the campus of the University of Texas Medical Center, is one of the world’s largest and most respected centers devoted exclusively to cancer patient care, research, education and prevention. The Center employs more than 21,000 people, including more than 1,700 faculty members. In addition, a volunteer workforce of 953 contributed more than 121,000 hours of service in 2016. Together, they work to fulfill M.D. Anderson’s mission of eliminating cancer as a major health threat and provided care for approximately 135,000 people in the fiscal year 2016. With employees working in more than 50 buildings in the greater Houston area and in central Texas, M.D. Anderson is the largest freestanding cancer center in the world. Its facilities in the Texas Medical Center cover more than 18 million square feet and feature the latest equipment and facilities.


What is your background in experiential graphic design?

I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Visual Communications from The University of Texas at Austin and began my career as an environmental graphic designer at HOK, where I learned the principles of wayfinding and the best practices in signage design. After HOK and a few stints in hospitality design, self-employment and construction management, I found my way to fd2s. At fd2s, I managed integrated wayfinding projects for healthcare clients including the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and Methodist Hospital in Houston. When fd2s launched a suite of award-winning wayfinding tools for M.D. Andersonin 2005, I shifted from "consultant" to "client" as Wayfinding Administrator at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, ensuring that the wayfinding system would evolve with the changing needs of its community. At M.D. Anderson, I lead a signage, graphics and wayfinding team that includes designers and signage production technicians. The team includes Facilities Project Managers Sharon Silversand Margarita Walker, Production Supervisor Tammy Farnsworth and Graphics Technicians Gary Waymire, Michael Murphy, Travis Washington, Tony Gonzales and Sergio Robles.


After you formed your signage and wayfinding team at M.D. Anderson, did you still work with outside XGD firms?

For the first three to four years, fd2s was still on board as a consultant to help with growth projects, like building a logic for staff and adding technology, while I was building my staff internally to handle more tactile projects like signage production, management and maintenance. We have an ongoing relationship with Leslie Wolke as a consultant to help us with managing technology changes. Also, we are currently working with HOK on an exhibition and donor recognition project dedicated to the history of philanthropy at the institution, which will open November 2017.


What has been yours and the institution's involvement with SEGD?

I’ve known about SEGD since I graduated from college but wasn’t involved with the association until after we won the SEGD Global Design Award in 2005. Since then, I have consistently maintained memberships for myself and my two designers so we can both stay current with the field and maintain our connection to the larger creative world.


What’s the role of research, prototyping and testing in your work?

We’re always trying to make improvements, whether self-initiated or as a result of feedback from patients or staff. Starting with that feedback, we will look at the existing part of the system, examine the area and compare industry standards and best practices to determine a course of action. We also do a lot of internal testing and prototyping with the help of our patient population. There’s a group here called the Patient Advisory Council; they are comprised of patients, volunteers and also some department heads—it’s a focus group of sorts. For example, recently we redesigned the look of all our signs, so we changed the layouts and in doing that. We took them to patients for feedback on what’s working, what’s not and if it’s better than the existing signage. We do that a lot here with the patient groups, as well as committees of nurses and staff. 


How did M.D. Anderson come to the piloting of an indoor navigation system?

In 2012, M.D. Anderson launched an app, managed by the communications department, where patients can log in to get their appointment and patient information. Obviously, it would be great if they could get directions through that app, right? One of the things Leslie Wolke helped us with was putting a feed of our data into the app, so patients could get static walking directions to their destinations from on campus. That was the earliest iteration.

In 2014, we started talking about adding indoor navigation. We ran a pilot in 2015 for one our more complex buildings with the vendor, Phunware. Phunware came to the site and we mapped an area then had patients test it to make sure it was usable and understandable. Everyone loved it; we just had to find the funding for it. That project was going to be mapping 450,000 square feet of indoor space on the main campus. 

Today, we are upgrading and merging our data management system with the facilities information management group's in order to create a new back-end system that will integrate floorplans, signage locations and data. It will make the internal teams happy and also sets us up nicely to move forward with the indoor navigation. 


Will it use beacons?

It will use beacons as part of the phase-two rollout. For now, we’ll get all the data up and running and get the routes managed through Phunware’s interface—mostly as an improved version of the static walking directions we have today. 


Is what you’re doing industry standard for large hospitals?

I’ve seen other hospitals doing indoor navigation, but I think the scale of our hospital is unusual and sets us apart. Other institutions just aren’t as large and may not be as dynamic in terms of spatial change. We have a lot of ongoing renovations and movement of departments or clinics. I don’t know if it’s the same at other institutions, but it’s one of the reasons this job is such a good fit for me—I love problem-solving and constant change.



>>> More about the "access" system and M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

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