What does mental health look like?
In the case of Headspace, the meditation, mindfulness and sleep app, the answer is weird and friendly.
According to the ONS, one in six adults in Britain experienced depressive symptoms in the Autumn of 2022, which is higher than pre-pandemic levels.
While no applications can fix people's most profound problems and their struggle with mental illnesses, they can help with feeling stressed or overburdened by allowing us to keep a regulated structure to our day. According to a Mintel survey, 62% agree that "Daily rituals are an important way to lift mood". Apps that take a holistic view of all the inputs that affect moods, such as healthy diets, exercise and sleep, can play a crucial role in helping users regulate negative behaviours.
How Headspace mastered its design
Headspace, fronted by Andy Puddicombe, a former Buddhist monk with ten years of Tibetan spiritual training, is arguably the most popular well-being app of this kind. It is used in 190 countries worldwide and has over 70 million members. As well as the app and website, Headspace has a guide to meditation on Netflix and can be viewed onboard some transatlantic flights, where we first discovered it in 2017.
At first, meditation and mindfulness may feel unfamiliar, intimidating or excessive; however, Headspace makes the practice immediately fun and accessible. The simple, welcoming design with playful illustrations is a key element of its success. In addition, the meditation coaches’ conversational and relaxed voices complement the friendly visuals wonderfully.
It’s hard to imagine Headspace being as effective and making as much impact had they taken a photographic approach.
The impact of photography
In 2021, the Journal of Visual Communication in Medicine published a study on “reducing mental illness stigma” by Roma Subramanian & Jonathan B. Santo. They hypothesised that the type of image used to depict an illness could influence how it is perceived, affecting how people with the illness are treated. They investigated, via a randomised online experiment, whether mental illness narratives about depression illustrated with photographs are more effective than those illustrated with cartoons at reducing stigma. It found that the photographic compared to the cartoon narrative, increased a feeling of closeness with the protagonist and a greater willingness to donate to mental health services.
Weird, relatable illustrations
But what if you are the protagonist? How can a mental health app represent you as an individual and appeal to everyone? Headspace would look more like a public health campaign with a photography-led app and images only representing certain people – which contradicts Headspace’s belief that meditation is for everyone. Let’s face it, we are all a little weird, which is relatable. Our uniqueness, difficulties and experiences define us as individuals, and Headspace wanted to embrace this. So they created illustrations showing the inside of the mind – where our innermost thoughts and feelings are produced.
The brand and its creative team were spot on in their choice of charming illustrative approach. It shows the immeasurable impact of great branding and a clear vision on a company. Design in mental health is a topic we follow closely at Cobo because it literally evolves with how we think.
Cullum Attwell, R.M. (2022) Cost of living and depression in adults, Great Britain: 29 September to 23 October 2022 – Office for National Statistics. Office for National Statistics. Click to view the article here (Accessed: February 17, 2023).
Joe Birch, Technology is transforming mental health in the UK (2021) Mintel. Click to view the article here (Accessed: February 17, 2023).
Roma Subramanian & Jonathan B. Santo (2021) Reducing mental illness stigma: What types of images are most effective? Journal of Visual Communication in Medicine, 44:2, 52-61, DOI: 10.1080/17453054.2021.1901561