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Thursday, November 13, 2014

Exclusive Interview: Samantha Lukens, Designer and MFA Candidate

By Aaron S. Robertson

Inspired by an accident a number of years back that could have proven truly tragic, graphic designer and long-time friend of this author is on a noble mission to educate people about health insurance with her master’s thesis.

Samantha “Sami” Lukens is on a mission. A serious one. The MFA (Master of Fine Arts) candidate and old college friend of mine has decided to tackle the subject of health insurance for her thesis. The subject, by all outward appearances, seems more fit for an MBA student, or a student of the social sciences. Not a designer. How does a graphic designer take such a seemingly cold, sterile, but certainly important and relevant topic, and make it lively, interesting, engaging … even fun? Well, for starters, you have to have the passion. And for Sami, this topic is deeply personal.

At the age of 23, Sami was attending a party on a lake here in the Milwaukee area. Out of nowhere, as she was sitting on a picnic bench facing away from the beach, a jet skier hit her from behind. She was about 15 feet inland, and the jet ski actually pinned her to the bench. Another half of an inch to the left, and Sami would have cracked her spine. She could have certainly been paralyzed.

Now 31 and living near San Francisco, where she studies at the Academy of Art, Sami still feels the aftermath, both in terms of her physical health and the battles she’s faced with insurance companies, bill collectors, healthcare providers, and the credit bureaus.

Samantha Lukens, Sami Lukens, CareAware
Samantha Lukens
“I’ll forever have a pinched sciatic nerve as a result,” Sami told me during our conversation by phone the evening of September 11, continuing on, “And possibly difficulty with childbirth.”

At the time of the accident, Sami and her parents were confident that her student insurance would have her covered. After all, they concluded, she was enrolled in a summer course at the time, and had just returned from a student trip overseas. However, the insurance, they discovered, would not cover the incident. The next logical move, then, would have been to pursue the insurance of the jet skier, but the jet ski had no vehicle coverage. With options dwindling, Sami turned to a law firm, which successfully won a civil case on her behalf against the operator of the jet ski. The case, at least on paper, has exonerated her from the medical debt, but Sami has yet to see that money, however. In the meantime, bill collectors are still pursuing her, and her credit has been dealt major setbacks.

“All of this has left my parents and I wondering, ‘What if we paid a few more dollars for this student insurance? Would I be covered?’”, Sami told me. “Often times, people who purchase health insurance, especially younger people, simply go with the least expensive option, not knowing the potential consequences.”

But if anything remotely good can come out of all this pain and hassle, it’s Sami’s thesis project, which she is calling CareAware.

“My goal is to educate others on health insurance. While health insurance is certainly not new, I’m working on developing a new way to communicate it,” Sami said, continuing, “A lot of people really struggle to understand their insurance. It’s all in medical jargon. There’s no centralized resource. That’s where my work hopefully comes into play. But it can’t be boring. It has to be real, and it has to capture peoples’ interests.”

Curious to know how Sami is working to incorporate her artistic talents into something that traditionally seems, well, sort of dry and boring, she told me, “As graphic designers, we take boring, mundane topics, and make them interesting. We figure out how to make them fun, exciting, visually appealing, and making large amounts of information digestible. I like to call myself a ‘conceptual designer.’ Right now, health insurance isn’t being communicated well, and I want to change that.”

Sami’s vision for CareAware in a nutshell: She wants to produce a new educational Web site to help communicate health insurance. Along with that Web site, her thesis will include advertising and social media use. There is talk of an app, as well, but that has yet to be determined. Right now, she is currently working on the content that surrounds her thesis until her next thesis class, when she will begin building those deliverables.

The response for her efforts so far has been great. “There’s been a lot of interest. I’m actually surprised how much interest there is,” Sami said. And her research is turning up surprises, as well. “Only 14 percent of people who have health insurance actually understand their insurance. Instead of being divided among various risk pools, we’re all in one risk pool now. I didn’t realize how many business contracts are involved between insurance companies and health care facilities. Some of the stories have been shocking, in both good and bad ways,” she went on to tell me.

Asked about advice for those interested in entering the field, Sami said possibilities are virtually endless. “When I first started in the field of graphic design, my first initial thought was that I would be creating beautiful things around me. After a few semesters at the Academy, I’ve come to understand that we are really visual storytellers, communicators, and problem solvers. You will find graphic designers working in entertainment, at innovative consulting firms, small businesses, corporate offices, and much more.” Sami has been fortunate to embark on a number of interesting and meaningful adventures in her work so far, including stints with RDI, an independent photography and film studio, as well as the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Alaska and Washington, and Smart Design in San Francisco.

For those interested in helping Sami with CareAware, or to learn more, follow along on the journey at Sami is interested in talking with health insurance agents, healthcare providers, and those who want to share their stories and battles with health insurance.

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