Why Are Medical Devices White?

gravatar
 · 
11th September 2023
 · 
8 min read

Ever wondered why medical devices are always white?

Source

While the simple answer could be that that's just what colour medical devices are, it's never as simple as that. Medical devices are the colour they are for a series of very valid reasons. Before pursuing other colours it is worth understanding exactly what those reasons are.

This is an extension of my post from last week about how design lies to you. But goes deeper on the practical application of manipulative side of design, and why that may actually be a good thing. In this example I'd like to look at colour specifically, but the same applies to other elements of design such as shape and proportion.

Before we get into it, it is worth remembering that design is a means of communication. Design communicates with the user on a number of levels. Through visual, audible and tactile cues the design informs the user on what the device is, what the device does, and how to interact with it. As with all forms of communication however, it is open to interpretation.

Colour is the single most significant element of a design to impact how we perceive a device. Colour occupies a large percentage of our first impression. Even before we've begun understanding the shape and proportion of a product, we're already producing responses to its colour. Of course, as the user spends time with a device, other elements such as form, function, and ergonomics can be fully appreciated. Yet you only get one first impression. If the colour of a device is incongruent, then the rest of the design must work very hard to make up for it. As far as design elements go, you get substantial 'bang for your buck' by picking the right colour (and by extension materials and finishes (CMF)).

Colour is also an easy element of the design to tweak and experiment with, even when the design is otherwise fairly advanced. It is trivial to throw the CAD model into rendering software and experiment with colours and finishes until the desired effect (read: response) is achieved. Doing this late in the development process can also mean your renderings are more detailed and therefore more realistic, giving you (and users you may ask for feedback) a better idea of the end result.

So why are medical devices white?

White has been the 'uniform' for medical devices for decades. Surely it must be time to buck the trend. For the trailblazers out there to go against the status quo, and to revolutionise the medtech game with fresh colours. As much as we as designers want to push boundaries, to go against the trend (especially in medtech) is to invite trouble. Here's a few reasons why medical devices are white, and why you might want to stick with it:

Psychology.

There is a whole body of scientific study around colour psychology. It is well documented that certain colours evoke certain responses from a viewer. Red; alertness or danger. Green; calmness. White; cleanliness and purity. Not just the hue, but saturation too. In Faber Birren's 1950 book Color psychology and color therapy; a factual study of the influence of color on human life, he goes into quite a lot of detail around the history, cultural relevance, and psychology of colour. Our perception of colour, and the impact of colour on our perception, is not made up. There have been countless studies over many decades to better understand how we interact with colour both psychologically and physiologically.

p143 Color psychology and color therapy

First and foremost, medical devices are white because the designers want you to believe the device is clean (yes, even if it might not be) and pure. White is emotionally neutral - it does not evoke a specific response in the user.

That is the simple answer; medical devices are white in order to be as visually inert as possible.

However, medical devices are usually not totally white. There can be too much of a good thing. As Birren states:

If chaos and disorder are mentally and emotionally distressing, unrelieved monotony is probably worse.

While white serves to create an unbiased visual platform, it is also a platform onto which other elements of the design can be built.

Hierarchy.

Accent colours are used to break up the monotony of white, and assist in reducing the amount of reflected light in bright environments (like a hospital). Most importantly however, the use of accent colours creates contrast and hierarchy in the design to improve usability.

This hierarchy is made most effective by the use of white as a 'blank canvas' onto which the accents are placed. In medical devices where every design decision is made with a risk-based approach, the use of white is a risk mitigation for usability as much as it is for cleanliness control.

The addition of accent colour permits specific functions or points where the user must interact with the device to be highlighted for ease of identification and use. As an example, Smith+Nephew is known for TiN coating all the touch points on their surgical instruments; it allows the surgeon to quickly identify points that must be interacted with in order to streamline operation. To further create visual hierarchy between functions, these may also be grouped by colour to better communicate types of functions. In addition, by controlling the strength of the colour for each group of functions, their hierarchy can be visually defined in order of importance too. Bright colours as important, and muted colour less so. However, ensure that too much colour does not undermine an otherwise effective hierarchy in design elements. As the saying goes:

If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.

Some functions not intended for the user (controls for servicing for example), may be white themselves so they are not confused and user-facing touchpoints, and only identifiable by those who know where to look.

The use of an accent colour also permits the leveraging of some of the phycology of colour, without becoming overwhelming to the user. We can lean into the specific colour of some accents to give a certain feel to the device, without overwhelming the user with too much of it. As an example of the application of specific colours, Birren says this about hospitals:

Warm tones such as peach and rose are desirable for the maternity division where the patient may not be seriously ill, and where a will to get better is the spirit to be encouraged.

Cool tones of blues, greens, greys become appropriate for chronic patient who should be reconciles to a more prolonged stay.

Context.

Context matters a lot.

As Birren points out above, why you'd want to use peach or blue on a device is heavily dependant on the context in where the device is to be used. Warm colours are exciting and cool colours tranquilising. Thought needs to be given to where the users are, what they may be feeling, and what you want them to feel. Thorough consideration should be given to how strongly you wish the user to feel these things. More and stronger colours will intensify the response in the user.

There are of course lots of good reasons to go against the 'medical device' colouring convention. Perhaps a device used in the field for emergency situations may need to be bright orange for visibility. Perhaps it needs to be black or dark grey to reduce reflectivity under theatre lights (the example at the top likely has a black faceplate to reduce reflected light). If the device is intended for children, then brighter colours may also be employed.

Consideration should also be given to whether the device should look like a medical device at all. In certain environments such as take-home devices, there may be stigma attached to carrying or wearing a medical device. While neutral, black has associations with mourning, death, negativity, and emptiness. It may not be appropriate in the context of a hospital ward, but entirely appropriate for a take-home device where it is desirable to be discreet. In such cases there can be strong justification for abandoning the white uniform for something bolder.

Convention.

No, a medical device doesn't need to be white, but the convention is that they are. By this point users are extremely familiar with the medical device aesthetic. Except in specific contexts, if the device doesn't look like a medical device it will be incongruent to the user. It will create uncertainty in how the user should interact with the device because it will not match their expectations. Something that has been ingrained into them by years of similar devices. This would take decades to change, if at all. If you choose to pursue a colour other than white, then there must be strong justification to do so.

Actual Cleanliness.

It's important for medical devices to be clean, right? In a purely functional sense, the use of white makes the cleanliness (relatively speaking) of a device easy to determine with a quick visual glace. Colours, especially dark colours, can hide or obscure the presence of slime and grime. As with all aspects of medical devices, the risks associated with your choice of colour must be evaluated.

Choose wisely.

So if you do choose to shift the medical device paradigm with bold colouring, ensure you're delicate in the application. Pick the right colours with the right justification, and test it relentlessly before committing it to production. Make sure you provide plenty of design cues so the user does not become uncertain about how to interact with the device.

Make an informed choice, and it's perfectly ok for your device to be white.


I'm writing every week on the topics of design, medtech, and my journey in it. If you'd like to follow along, feel free to either subscribe to the newsletter or give me a follow on LinkedIn.

Tagged: colour · conventions · design · honest design