An Inevitable Frontier

Dying well is the ultimate design challenge,” observed Dr. Bon Ku, Associate Professor at the Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University and an emergency room physician. It was Ku who instigated the founding of JeffDESIGN, a human-centered design program for medical students that is the first of its kind.“We have all experienced it [death] in some way and definitely will experience it.”

In the face of physically aggressive end of life medical protocol, impenetrably complicated systems (health care, insurance, social services etc.), and a prevailing, culturally-confused relationship with mortality, the usefulness of design innovation in matters of death and life edges ever closer to a social imperative. Coupled with 10,000 boomers turning 65 every day concurrent with a rising tide of chronic, life-threatening illness overall, the challenge seems to be moving ever closer to being a civic calling.

“I firmly believe that dying is not a medical issue. It's a human issue,” states Dr. Shoshana Ungerleider, the founder of End Well, a platform to bring people across all disciplines together to ignite a conversation about how we live and how we die. The organization’s second annual symposium, taking place on December 6, 2018 in San Francisco at the SFJAZZ Center, will convene people on and off the stage from design, tech, healthcare, policy, patient advocacy, media, the arts, activism, and faith communities to explore the challenges and the opportunities inherent to this burgeoning movement. “We focus on bringing diverse voices together to listen and to learn from each other,” adds Ungerleider.

One of the major challenges of better addressing the process of death and dying is that few of us have any experience with it until we’re personally plunged headfirst into its chaos. There is no learning curve, and, for most, there is often not much of a personal, compassionate or easily accessible support system of care to address new physical and spiritual needs. Compounded by clinical environments, stilted communication, and unknown financial tolls, the experience can be needlessly tortuous, prompting decisions that too easily veer from the life goals and values of the individual.

End Well envisions a better experience and takes care to showcase fresh perspectives across a spectrum of relevant touchpoints. Crafting the built environment with compassion for the patient and their orbit of care is one solution that comes to the fore in the work of architect Michael Murphy, founder of MASS Design. Even when built among challenging circumstances in remote corners of the world, his sophisticated projects fully consider the most fundamental of human needs for wellbeing, from natural light and freshly circulating air to instilling a sense of community.

Though seemingly on the opposite end of the spectrum, artificial intelligence pioneer and founding president of Google China, Kai-Fu Lee, sees this technology, in part, as a tool of reckoning for our shared humanity. By offloading tasks to machines, we open the door to a deeper reverence for work that simply cannot be replaced by an algorithm. Caregiving, in Lee’s view, stands to become one of society’s most precious skills —and not a moment too soon, given rising populations of individuals who would prefer to spend their final days at home.

How might virtual reality, sound therapy, behavioral economics, linguistics, altruism, aesthetics, and other perspectives meet and mutate to create a better ending for all? End Well endeavors to find out with a roster of presenters and a dynamic audience that care. “People who work in this space, or who have sat by the bed of someone dying, know that something sacred is happening at end of life, that a window is opening to the mystery of what it is that binds us together as part of a huge and wondrous whole,” says Ungerleider. “I know that, for me, being reminded of mortality makes my life immeasurably sweeter, richer, and miraculous.”

End Well takes place on December 6, 2018 in San Francisco at the SF JAZZ Center. AIGA members can receive a 10% discount for a limited time using the code AIGASFEW10 at checkout when purchasing tickets. Register here: