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What drew you to a career in brand design and advertising? Nothing else was truly a fit for me. Growing up, I was a C+ student at best. Design has always been something I enjoy, and this drove my vision and career. Whether I knew it at the time or not, I loved creating to help people feel something. Maybe it was to feel connected to them or to give them a moment of joy in their day. I loved that it was possible to achieve this through design. I graduated with a BFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York despite being told by teachers, parents and guidance counselors that there’s “no money in creative.” Most importantly, I chose—and continue to choose—to do what makes me happy, and this has led me to where I am today.

Why did you leave big consumer brand campaigns and move to the arenas of big pharmaceuticals and healthcare? I lost interest in consumer goods and products somewhere along the way because there was never a reward. There was no sense of accomplishment or a tangible result. At the time, pharmaceuticals and healthcare were the farthest things any of my colleagues would consider in their design careers; the pride and ego of the design community would not touch it. So I said fuck it. If everyone is going left, then I’m going to go right. There was plenty of room in this industry for me to stretch, learn, experiment and practice. I spend my time understanding how patients and doctors are communicated to, how they live and what they need most. Most importantly, I consider how I can build empathy to help connect patients and doctors to the products they use—this notion fuels and feeds my design. By following my instincts and recognizing that design has the purpose of elevating people’s lived experiences in genuine ways, I have been able to carve my own path without the clutter of consumer design.

What motivated you to start up minds + assembly with your two cofounders, Joelle Friedland and Ben Ingersoll? I believed there had to be more of everything: more intent in our work, more fun, more creativity and more laughter. I left the consumer world exhausted and wanting something fresh, and I knew everything had to change. I wanted to design purposefully to change people’s lives for the better, but this needed to be supported by people who shared the same goals and thrived off the same uncompromising passion. Alongside Ben and Joelle, I set out to show the health and pharmaceutical world that this industry can be beautiful. It can have a purpose. It can foster true connection. And it can not only compete with consumer work but surpass it. To accomplish that, we needed to be in control. We had to leave the holding-company model and large corporate organizational structures behind. We had to build something ourselves to make the change that people deserved. At the heart of it, how we work as an agency is key to making a difference in pharma and healthcare. Without that sense of fun, intentionality and radical creativity, we cannot make the kind of disruptive impact that we set out to.

If anyone needs to relate to a product, it has to reach them through authenticity, a raw and unfiltered look at life and those who live it.”

How does a more authentic representation of patient experiences lead to better outcomes for brands? How could I ever believe in a product if they don’t understand me? If they don’t recognize, appreciate and empathize with what I go through every day of my life? We have to do our best to capture the heart, anguish, strife and love that people feel, and that sincerity is what connects our work to humanity. We want to convey a sense of life lived to its maximum potential, regardless of the challenges people face, because illnesses do not define people. People are so much more. They are complex, charismatic, unique and driven. That needs to be communicated telegraphically and beautifully so that others who feel as though their disease defines them can believe they are so much more. This approach inspired people to fight, take hold of life and defy the limitations of their disease.

When you see what people with life-threatening diseases live through, you have to ask yourself: What does it take for them to get up every day and fight, and then to get up and do it again tomorrow? It’s a monumental effort and a feat I’m always in awe of. This is defiance. It’s the survivor mentality. It’s the mentality we had to capture. If anyone needs to relate to a product, it has to reach them through authenticity, a raw and unfiltered look at life and those who live it. That’s how you build empathy and ultimately connect.

What are some pitfalls you see in creating work for the healthcare sector, and how do we need to address those? Convincing others to join our cause was difficult—and still is. We’re not after the glamorous facade that consumer design offers. It’s the persevering truth and reward of designing for humanity. A common misconception is there’s too much regulation around developing beautiful work. We believe limitation breeds creativity. The biggest pitfall is believing you can’t do more. We have to adapt and evolve the world of pharma and health through innovation. We have to teach ourselves to look at problems through the eyes of our stakeholders: humanity. We need to connect design with the needs of the people who will ultimately rely on this product because, in some cases, their lives depend on it. Empathy is everything.

The ongoing obstacle is finding and building trust and partnership with clients willing to face Big Pharma with us. Starting our own company allowed us to be selective. We have chosen clients who want their work to feel connected and beautiful as much as we do. Once we set out on our own, all those obstacles were gone. We were in control to say yes and to say no. And the clients who we said yes to have, in partnership, helped create work that we’ve been most proud of.

Stephen Minasvand is a designer, collaborator and maker. As cofounder and head of design at minds + assembly, Minasvand is inspired by the perspectives and experiences of those around him. He thrives on creating value for his clients and believes beauty and innovation deserve to be brought into the lives of the people who need it the most. Having studied as a visual and experience designer at the School of Visual Arts, Minasvand approaches creative thinking with his passion for how technology, systems and design can be integrated into a single, powerful force for positive change. He believes in creating things that matter. Much like minds + assembly, Stephen focuses on human-centered design. Driven by empathy, his ambitions are set on building brands and believers. 

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