August 2022

Meet Helen Sanematsu

Helen Sanematsu, M.F.A., is an Associate Professor of Visual Communication Design in the IUPUI Herron School of Art + Design. As the Associate Director for Communication for Community Health Partnerships (CHeP)—the community-centered initiative of the Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute (IndianaCTSI) - Professor Sanematsu oversees a staff of four designers on projects that help ensure relevance in university-community partnerships. She is the founding designer/design researcher for the Patient Engagement Core, which assists health studies at Indiana University, Purdue University, and the University of Notre Dame with people-centered approaches that integrate patient perspectives into research. Her work extends the reach of design for communication and design research into health services through the application and exploration of best practices and new methods.

She has been a co-investigator or project partner on a number of interdisciplinary studies with the IU School of Medicine, the IU Fairbanks School of Public Health, the IUPUI School of Liberal Arts, and the Indiana State Department of Health. 

Professor Sanematsu teaches intro level courses in visual communication design and upper division courses in service design. In the studio, she combines design fundamentals with a ‘learner-centered’ approach. She emphasizes the importance of the studio as a learning community, and teaches her students to see the potential in their work to impact society-at-large.

In her free time, she enjoys cooking, spending quality time with her two teenagers, and watching movies.

I love to be where best practices and daily life meet.

Professor Sanematsu
Image Courtesy of Professor Helen Sanematsu

Q and A with Professor Sanematsu

My interest in my field of study goes way back to my childhood. First, I loved books, and I loved to draw. Second, I went to the doctor a lot for allergies and asthma, which was bad news if you lived in smoggy Southern California, like I did with my family. My dad was a truck farmer, so I don’t come from a family of means, and we only had what was then called ‘major medical insurance,’ meaning all of my doctor visits came out of pocket. I became aware of this during grade school, and I thought it was deeply unfair that your health depends on the size of your wallet. Once I learned that other countries didn’t work like this, I became really passionate about health as a human rights issue. This is where my commitment to social justice through medicine began.

Design was a way for me to put together my skill and love of books (and subsequently, other things that were beautifully designed), and my commitment to solve problems of inequity, especially in regards to health.

I’m trying to help improve health by making best practices more relevant and easier.

My best example of my research making an impact in the community is the Patient Engagement Core, or Research Jam, which I started with Dr. Sarah Wiehe. Research Jam is part of Indiana CTSI, and helps researchers across the IU School of Medicine find research methods that make their work more relevant to patients.

I truly feel like I’m translating health solutions into daily life by translating real life experiences back to clinicians and health professionals. I love to be where best practices and daily life meet.

My students have frequently done projects in class with Indiana CTSI researchers, and with researchers at the Regenstrief Institute. They’ve also worked projects for me after graduation. Also, the Patient Engagement Core (Research Jam), is made up of 4 designers, all of whom were my students.

Community members have been at the heart of my research. I've worked with at-risk adolescent girls on the West Side of Indianapolis, elderly residents of Midtown Indianapolis, pregnant teens, and families of children with Type 1 diabetes.

I’ve just started working on a project to improve brain health by treating burn-out. It’s a new area for me, and I think it’s a critical need.


Conversation with Professor Sanematsu

On Friday, August 26, 2022 from 12 noon to 1:00 p.m. Professor Sanematsu gave a virtual presentation about her work on “Designing to Serve: Using Design to Translate Research into Practice.” Professor Sanematsu's research in service design helps tailor interventions in medicine and community health by focusing on an individual’s real-life actions, environment, thoughts, and emotions. During this discussion, she shared examples of her work in service design from collaborations with the IU School of Medicine, and show how her research and teaching overlap.