Created a visual identity for mental health, designed to streamline Veteran access to mental health services while also reducing stigma.

Fall 2016 - Spring 2018

Depending on how a designer wishes to explore and organize experience, the sequence could just as reasonably be regarded as a descent from chaotic environments to the unity provided by symbols and images. In fact, signs, things, actions, and thoughts are not only interconnected, they also interpenetrate and merge in contemporary design thinking with surprising consequences for innovation.
— Richard Buchanan

Contextual Research

The project began with an observation at the G.V. Sonny Montgomery VA Medical Hospital in Jackson, Mississippi: Veterans with non-emergent (i.e. suicidal or homicidal) mental health related needs were showing up to the Emergency Room, as opposed to the myriad of mental health support options that exist at VA. Not only were people showing up to seek mental health treatment (at a place not ideally staffed or suited for a positive mental health experience), patients seemed to not be connecting to ongoing services post-visit. Where was the hang up? Where were Veterans falling through the cracks?   

In order to understand the root issue, we moved our offices into the ER and watched both veterans and doctors work. We created a series of prototypes that brought the pertinent information to the forefront of the work area, for both key user groups (VA staff and veterans).


The Theory of Change

We needed a design that tied the front-stage and back-stage prototypes. We needed a consistency across the system that would shield the complexity from Veterans while streamlining it for staff. We needed to not spend any money or create new clinics or full time roles in doing so.

Inspired by private sector branding campaigns, we began developing and testing a visual language for mental health at VA.


The System Pilot

We launched the Universal Symbol for Mental Health pilot in Jackson, MS and Kansas City in Spring 2017. Fueled by a system of wall decals, pins and badges, the whole pilot is pinned on a series of 15 minute trainings where we train staff on a simplified decision tree for where to send someone who is looking for mental health services.

As is so often the case, along with streamlining the systems around mental health, this pilot also proved be effective in the following ways:

  • The small amount of stakeholder conversations required to launch this pilot forced conversations amongst leadership that, in a world of competing priorities, had in both cases gone un-spoken.

  • This symbol combats stigma often surrounding mental health


Role: Lead Designer



Dr. Kelly Buckholdt, Psychologist | G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery VA Medical Center [Still working on the project and expanded the pilot from 2 sites to 9 in 2018]  

 Amber Schleuning, Deputy Director | VA Center for Innovation

 Shurice Robinson, LCSW | Kansas City VA Medical Center