Can graphic design save lives? Six great projects from GD&’s new book

A new book by GraphicDesign& celebrates some brilliant design projects for healthcare and asks the question ‘Can graphic design save your life?’

Can Graphic Design Save Your Life? was published to coincide with an exhibition of the same name at the Wellcome Collection.

The book was compiled by GraphicDesign& founders Lucienne Roberts and Rebecca Wright and looks at the impact of over 40 designs for healthcare. Featured projects range from anti-smoking stamps to Studio Dumbar’s identity for Alzheimer Nederland.

Many of the examples featured are also shown in the Wellcome exhibition. But the book – produced independently by GD& – offers a deeper exploration of the question at the heart of the show.

Projects are published alongside responses to the question ‘Can graphic design save your life?’ from designers and people involved in the making of them. Their answers are varied but show how design can save lives or improve wellbeing – albeit indirectly – through persuading people to change their behaviour or making them aware of important issues.

The book also highlights the varied role of designers working in healthcare. Projects include digital apps and STI self-testing kits as well as graphic identities and printed publications. Here, we’ve selected six healthcare projects that highlight how design can help make us better informed, put us at ease or provoke us to take action…

Health Graphic Magazine

Health Graphic Magazine, featured in Can Graphic Design Save Your Life?
Health Graphic Magazine covers via

Health Graphic Magazine is a free quarterly magazine distributed in branches of Japanese pharmacy chain Aisei. Each issue explores a common health issue – such as obesity, headaches and eye-strain – and uses witty infographics and illustrated stories to convey medical advice.

The magazine is designed by Tokyo studio DODO. Chief editor Isao Kadota says Aisei’s customers are more likely to absorb medical advice if it’s presented in an engaging and accessible format.

“Please imagine what kind of people the visitors to the pharmacies are. They may be having a bad day because of illness or injury. Or they may be the mothers, wives or husbands of
sufferers. Do you think they want to read a lot of complex information when they are
anxious about their own or their family’s health? Maybe not!” he says. Kadota says the magazine has received “many positive comments” and Aisei’s strategy of using witty graphics “seems to be a good one”.

SH:24’s STI testing kits

Health organisation SH:24 provides free STI self-testing kits for UK residents. Created to address a rising demand for sexual health services at a time when clinics are under increasing pressure, the kits can be used to test for chlamydia, gonorrhoea, syphilis and HIV. Fill out your details online and you’ll receive a kit in the post. The kit is packaged in a plain grey envelope and includes a freepost return envelope. The service is completely confidential and lab results are sent via text within seven days.

The product was created by a multidisciplinary team made up of health professionals, clinicians and designers. End users and laboratories were also involved in the process as well as clinic receptionists. SH: 24 claims it has enabled people to identify infections and seek treatment sooner – avoiding serious health issues and reducing the number of days they spend infected.

“Left undiagnosed, some STIs can affect fertility and lead to other serious complications. Our service is discreet but easy to use, making a test for free, without visiting a clinic, possible,” says SH:24.

An identity for Paz Holandesa children’s hospital

Image: Rejane Dal Bello

Design studio Rejane Dal Bello‘s identity for a children’s hospital in Arequipa uses cheerful characters and vibrant colours to put young patients at ease.

The identity is based around a group of characters and a flower symbol which represents growth. Characters appear on wall graphics, staff uniforms, signage and utensils used by patients as well as fundraising merchandise. Studio Rejane Dal Bello donated the identity to the hospital for free. Marjan van Mourik, the founder and director of the hospital, says it has had a significant impact on patients’ wellbeing.

“The design for our identity of Paz Holandesa definitely changed and influenced lives, and still does so every day for our patients. They come from all over Peru – from the highlands, the jungle, the cities and the coast, from extreme poverty to the middle classes, from illiterate to highly educated, and speak different languages like Quecha or Aymara. Rejane Dal Bello really engaged with the idea of reaching them all via her design. She designed beautiful and strong wall illustrations, clear signs, and so on, for our children’s hospital. Now, these young patients understand, for instance, where they are and what to expect,” says van Mourik.

Umeda hospital identity

In 1998, Kenya Hara – an art director at MUJI and founder of ‘design think tank’ Hara Design Institute – used soft white cotton to create a wayfinding system for obstetric and paediatric hospital Umeda in Japan. Text is printed on white cotton cloth which is stretched over bamboo posts, creating a hygienic system where signs can be easily removed, washed and replaced. It’s an unusual and tactile system with a softer feel than traditional signage – reflecting the hospital’s focus on providing high quality care to mothers and babies.

Kenya Hara also created a minimal system for Katta Civic Polyclinic in Japan using red arrows and text inlaid on white lino floors. The length of each arrow indicates the distance of the department or ward that it points to and the bold red design cuts through the visual noise of the hospital wards.

The app that could transform medical consultations

Medical app Pocket features thousands of 3D anatomical diagrams that can be rotated 360 degrees. It is aimed at medical and nursing students and was created by a team of educators, healthcare professionals and interaction designers.

Mark Campbell, CEO of Pocket Anatomy, believes that incorporating visual learning aids and video into doctor-patient consultations could save billions by helping patients better understand their diagnoses and recommended treatment plans.

“The doctor-patient consultation is a critical engagement process because it is a point that determines the diagnosis, treatment or prognosis for a particular patient. However, even though two-thirds of us are visual learners, this vital conversation is predominantly verbal, with no visual ‘take-home’ for the patient to view later and discuss with their family,” explains Campbell in the book.

“This lack of [graphic design] visual learning aids within our healthcare systems is one
of the reasons why many patients do not understand their diagnoses…. Imagine if we, as patients, could replay a video of our conversations with doctors … so that when loved ones ask, ‘What did the doctor say?’, we could access a personalised digital consultation video recording that is interoperable with our electronic medical record system.” Campbell believes that digital consultations will become “the norm” within five years.

Kill Jill

Marketing agency The Union’s Kill Jill campaign demonstrates the power of shock tactics to provoke a reaction. A 2009 TV ad gave readers 20 seconds to decide whether to save or kill Jill – a child in desperate need of an organ transplant. The campaign was created to address a chronic shortage of organ donors: 70% of Scots had failed to sign the Organ Donor Register and 700 people were urgently awaiting transplants.

The Advertising Standards Authority received several complaints about the campaign but the Scottish government refused to ban it, claiming that softer approaches had failed to motivate people. The TV ad was supported by press and outdoor advertising and led to a 242% increase in the number of organ donors.

Explaining the campaign’s effectiveness in GD&’s new book, Louise Killough, account director at The Union, says: “The reality is that you have to die to become a donor, which explains why some people have a mental block when it comes to signing up to the Organ Donor Register. Nobody likes thinking about their own mortality. Research told us that although 91% of people claim to be in favour of organ donation, only around 23% have actually signed up. Despite all the good intentions, something stops people from adding their name to the list.”

“Our campaign needed to short-circuit this to provoke action, not just intention. A design-led approach enabled us to strip away unnecessary elements and cut through to what really mattered – that you could save a life by signing up to the Organ Donor Register.”

“We purposefully kept our design unfussy and stark. The viewer only had one thing
to do: answer the question ‘Kill Jill?’ If you pick ‘No’, you’ll save a life. If you don’t,
you won’t. Simple.’

Entrance to Can Graphic Design Save Your Life? at the Wellcome Collection. 2D design: LucienneRoberts+. 3D design: Universal Design Studio

Can Graphic Design Save Your Life? Is published by GraphicDesign& and costs £17.50. You can order copies at

The exhibition is on at the Wellcome Collection until January 14 2018. See for details.

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