The Story Economy Blog

My Conversation with a Hospital Room

I’ve spent a pretty sizeable chunk of the last week inside a hospital room. My dad fell a few weeks ago (why do Kettelers keep falling?), which led to complications. There were some days of serious crankiness, but he’s doing well now and will hopefully be going home very soon. Still, my mom and brothers and sisters and I tag-teamed to make sure that someone was with him almost the entire time. (Having a boatload of kids must be looking like a pretty smart decision to my parents right about now.)

But anyway, back to it: the hospital room. The only other times I’ve been inside a hospital room involved having babies—so I was a little bit distracted. This was the first time that I found myself with time to just stare at the walls and very unexciting decor.

So naturally, I thought about branding. Specifically, I thought about what this seemingly non-branded space was communicating.

Think about it: When you’re inside a hospital room, as either a patient or a visitor, you’re probably either (a) afraid or (b) in pain. You want something to reflect neutrality and normalcy back to you. The drab walls, shiny linoleum floor, basic wood wardrobe and drawers, and white linens say: “Hey, nothing exciting here. Just same-old, same-old.” Aesthetically, it’s as boring as a grey pebble. But that boredom is comforting because it’s just terribly normal. And in this case, normal is good. Normal is what you want to get back to.

A hospital room communicates comfort too, but in a very temporary way. It’s like home (there’s a bed, after all), but not really. In fact, everything about a hospital room communicates temporariness. Everything is adjustable or on wheels. “No need to personalize this for you: you won’t be here long,” it tells you. You get a window too: usually a fairly large one. “The world is still going on out there,” it tells you. “You’ll be joining it again soon.”

We have a tendency to think it’s just about the function. Of course the food tray has to be on wheels: it has to move out the way easily. Of course the bed has to adjust: it serves the masses. Of course the floor has to be durable: it gets messy. But even when choices are born of function first, they communicate something to the outside world. Leopard-print linoleum says something very different than a white and grey speckled pattern. A wall of mirrors communicates something entirely different than a matte eggshell finish.

No Escape, Just Opportunity

Everything is a brand, and everything communicates something. There’s no escape hatch from branding: we’re in it all of the time, even when it least seems like we are. I used to think it was sort of awful that we were stuck in this thing (“society!”) and at its “mercy.” And the only way to change the world was to somehow escape from it, so things could just be purely what they are.

But now I see that we are creating it all of the time, which means that there is opportunity around us. Sure, there are forces greater than us from institutionalized ways of thinking. I’ve studied those smarty-pants German and French theorists. I get it (well, some of it). But I still choose to believe that we can each make choices that communicate the stuff we think is important information for the world. And we can make meaning from the stuff we see in front of us.

Okay . . . that started with linoleum and got existential really fast. So I’ll bring it back home: your brand is an opportunity to communicate important stuff. Cool, right?

But here’s the flip side: even if you make half-hearted choices that really don’t feel that important, they’re still communicating something. Even if you’re just going for function (“I just need the links on my site to work!”), you’re still communicating something. For example, if you just threw a font together for your logo, slapped some copy on a page, and created a shell of a site—just to get started—that’s exactly what your stuff is communicating (“I just needed to get started with this!”). That’s a perfectly fine thing to communicate, because getting started is awesome. But then one day, it’s not the right story anymore.

Nothing is ever just what it is. It’s created in people’s minds. But that opportunity is yours first, whether you are designing a hospital room, a soda marketing campaign, a piece of jewelry, or a city government subcommittee.

You have way more power than you think.

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