Graphic design can save your life – here’s how

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In 2013, I went to Zambia to report on a public health campaign aimed at persuading African men to get circumcised to help reduce the spread of HIV.

Driving through the streets of the capital Lusaka, it was hard to miss the roadside walls painted with the campaign slogan and logo – a man standing tall, holding his belt. The image was intended to counter the local perception that circumcision would make you less of a man. I remember thinking it was clever, but I didn’t link it to any formal discipline.

I’m reminded of this at the Wellcome Collection’s latest exhibition, Can Graphic Design Save Your Life? The show brings into sharp focus the complex and often subliminal relationship between graphic design and health.

One exhibit in particular echoed that scene. During the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, Liberian designer Stephen Doe painted walls red to show danger and used simple iconography to convey the disease’s symptoms to a population among whom more than 30 languages were spoken – and few people could read or write.

It is not unusual for graphic design to take a back seat where public health is concerned: bigger issues are at stake, after all. But the craftsmanship is vital, with a lot more to lose than just a poorly designed advert in a commercial campaign. Take the infamously hard-hitting “Don’t die of ignorance” AIDS campaign, with that message dropped onto every UK doormat in the 1980s. The original sell, “Don’t aid AIDS”, was deemed too soft. Had it not been, the outcome might have been very different.

Visual protection

So graphic design can save your life – and it could also stop you from getting punched in the face. In 2010, the UK’s Department of Health and the Design Council asked for ideas on how to reduce levels of violence in accident and emergency departments. The winning brief was a signage system that filled the information gaps driving patients to lose their cool. It explained, for instance, the triage system so those waiting knew why someone else might get seen before them. After a year-long trial, violence in A&Es dropped by 50 per cent.

As Lucienne Roberts, a graphic designer and one of the curators, puts it: “We don’t just sell things, we do things.”

But while this exhibition is a celebration of the vital role of design in health, there’s an unexpected flip side: it shows us just how much influence public health and big pharma can have over design.

In the 1950s and 60s, for example, pharmaceutical company Geigy became known for commissioning talented graphic designers to produce what would become iconic branding and promotional materials aimed at doctors. These became highly collectable and had a strong influence over future generations of designers.

Or take the role of design in cigarette branding. When UK legislation banning named tobacco advertising was threatened in the 1980s, Saatchi & Saatchi came up with what went on to become one of the most iconic of cigarette ads – the surrealist-style Silk Cut campaign, in which each advert featured a piece of silk, cut in ever weirder ways.

Not only did the adverts cleverly subvert the new legislation by implying the company’s name using cuts in the silk, they also flattered the audience by suggesting viewers were smart enough to be in on the joke.

Then health legislation changed again. When plain packaging came in, designers working for the UK health department had to concentrate on how to dissuade rather than sell to would-be consumers.

In Australia, market researchers tested various Pantone colour palettes for packaging to find out which were the biggest turn-offs. It turned out to be the murky Pantone 448, which evokes tar and pollution.

Space to breathe

Wellcome’s exhibition benefits from an intelligently curated area and pared-back selection of exhibits that have space to breathe. Among the familiar – the soft, squishy green font of the Macmillan Cancer campaign, designed to convey a sense of warmth and approachability – are hidden delights.

For example, who knew that Florence Nightingale, with her bold pictorial representations of the unavoidable deaths in the British army, was one of the first to make use of the infographic? So effectively, in fact, that her drawings led to life-saving hospital reforms.

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What makes this exhibition so successful is that health is perhaps the perfect field to help visitors don the shoes of the designer. How do you convey intermittent pain, for instance, in a way that transcends language? Design an anti-smoking campaign that will fit on a postage stamp? Or explain how leprosy spreads with simple pictures?

In the final section of the exhibition, an even bigger question is posed: do designers have a responsibility to use their talents for the public good rather than consumerism? That’s an important decision for all of us, because in the end, it’s not just graphic design that’s going to save your life, but the designers behind it.

Can Graphic Design Save Your Life? is at the Wellcome Collection, London, until 14 January 2018