• ← Thesis 2013
  • explores how graphic design can improve and simplify health communications for asthma management. It is Julie Sayo's thesis work for the 2013 MFA in Graphic Design at MICA.


    During my M.A. in Social Design at MICA, I met a representative from the Greater Baltimore Asthma Alliance (GBAA) who mentioned that Baltimore is one of the worst cities for asthma sufferers. The woman from GBAA mentioned asthma sufferers often lose the boxes for their asthma inhalers which contain important information about how a patient should manage her/his condition. Although this seemed like a very tempting design project to jump into-I knew that I needed to understand more about asthma and asthma treatment. I sought to uncover, how can design influence asthma management and what can a designer do to make an impact in this space.

    My brother, Chris, during a hospitalization after a severe asthma attack


    For my thesis work, I focused on designing and creating tools that can help people with asthma. The tools I created are a response to my findings during my research. The tools aim to address issues of compliance, education and prevention care.


    One of the biggest problems for asthma patients is following a doctor’s orders to take medication regularly and properly. Often, extenuating circumstances exist, such as inadequate access to health care services, which prevent a patient from taking their medication consistently, even though they know about the consequences of not taking medications.
    02. Education
    Because of the prevalence of asthma, hearsay about how to treat and manage the condition is taken as truth. I met a number of children with asthma who reported that their parents would give them their sibling’s asthma medication because it was “all the same.” The truth is, not all asthma medication is created equal, and taking one form of medication improperly during a medical emergency can be lethal to a patient. Part of the education component also requires knowledge of how parents and educators can recognize asthma symptoms early in their children and students. Preventative measures and early intervention can help minimize the impact of asthma on a young person’s life. 03. Preventative care is key
    Preventing an asthma attack is doable but patients must know about what triggers attacks in order to prevent them.

    Design Strategies 01. pollen In an effort to address the compliance issue, I have designed a concept app called Pollen. The app is a preventative tool for anyone suffering from allergies or asthma. It allows a user to check the current pollen count and in doing so, a user can determine if she/he needs to take allergy medications for the day. 2. Breathe Easy - A concept app and website that helps an asthma patient maintain her/his condition. The app reminds a user to take her/his medication on time and allows a user to record her/his peak flow readings, which can be useful in predicting when an individual would have an attack. The app has an “emergency mode” which allows a patient to call 911 while viewing a guided breathing visual intended to slow down one’s breathing pattern. 3. Trigger List - A website that allows you to choose from a list of common allergy and asthma triggers. Produces results that allow you to stay ahead of your asthma or allergies. 4. Breathing Sounds Series – Motion graphics experiment in breath sounds. Teaching tool for educators and parents to understand and identify early symptoms of asthma.

    • Education is key

    • Empower patients to play an active role in their treatment

    • Recording symptoms allows patients to have more accurate treatment plans


    Some of the earliest memories of my older brother were of him in a hospital bed hooked up to a nebulizer, an apparatus that delivers a mist of asthma medication to a patient as they breathe. Asthma runs in my family. My brother was constantly in and out of the hospital for severe asthma attacks and in 1997 my grandfather died due to complications related to asthma. As a child, my parents were very strict about not having pets and making sure that no one in the household smoked cigarettes. My brother stayed indoors and played video games instead to avoid the many asthma triggers outside. I was taught at a very young age about what to do when I saw my brother start to have difficulty breathing. My mom showed me how to measure out medication into my brother’s home nebulizer and how to help him during an attack. I did not envy my brother’s condition; his life seemed so limited. Our baby sitter would have to constantly remind him to slow down during pick-up football games and all of his friends knew to take it easy on him when they were playing outdoors.

    When I was in the 1st grade, I was diagnosed with asthma after an unexpected asthma attack. My parents, having seen the symptoms in my brother, knew exactly what to do and rushed me to the emergency room. I have no memories of the asthma attack. After that attack, my daily routine became similar to that of my brother’s. Before recess, we would have to go to the nurse’s office to do our peak flows and take our daily medication. A peak flow measures a patient’s lung capacity and is a good indicator of asthma symptoms. Each student had their own mouthpiece with their name written on it. The nurse would always remind me not to take my brother’s mouthpiece, the only other one with Sayo on it. After my diagnosis, my brother helped me set up my peak flow journal and instructed me to carefully plot my peak flow results. He knew that my penmanship wasn’t the best.

    I have been fortunate enough to have amazing access to quality health care so the impact of asthma on my life has been minimal. During a routine lunch trip to Northeast Market, a woman working at a booth for a health fair stopped me and asked if I had asthma. Our conversation left me wondering about what I could do as a designer to contribute to the asthma management space. I stayed in touch with the woman, who worked for the Greater Baltimore Asthma Association, an organization of health care providers, community health workers and public policy experts working around the issue of asthma in Baltimore.