Can Graphic Design Save Your Life?

A new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection offers a fascinating look at the role of graphic design in healthcare, with life-saving posters, beautiful hospital graphics and safe sex comics

Through their publishing venture GraphicDesign&, designers Lucienne Roberts and Rebecca Wright have spent the past few years researching graphic design’s connection to every aspect of our lives. They have published a visual guide to the nun’s habit, a book on typography and literature and now, they have teamed up with the Wellcome Collection’s Shamita Sharmacharja to curate a fascinating exhibition on design and health.

Can Graphic Design Save Your Life? features over 200 objects highlighting design’s ability to educate, inform, persuade and even save lives. Items include anti-smoking stamps, anatomical pop-up books, a 17th century plague notice and a mural that uses illustration to explain the symptoms of Ebola to people in Liberia.

AIDS: Don’t Die of Ignorance (1987), designed by Malcolm Gaskin / TBWA for the Department of Health and Social Security. Don’t Die of Ignorance was the world’s first public-health campaign relating to HIV/AIDS. TBWA created a film, billboards, newspaper ads and leaflets that were delivered to homes throughout Britain. The campaign – particularly the TV ad – proved controversial but hugely effective, as outlined in this BBC report

The exhibition is divided into six sections. The first explores the persuasive power of design, with seductive cigarette packaging placed alongside powerful anti-smoking communications. Others look at design’s ability to educate (through teaching aids and digital apps about the body), to orient and make people feel more at ease in medical spaces (via hospital graphics and wayfinding), to deliver instructions (for example, on how to take medication) and to convey important information during public health crises through pictograms, safety notices and a hard-hitting TV ad warning of the dangers of AIDs.

The final section of the show highlights design’s potential to inspire people to take action. It includes Ken Garland’s manifesto First Things First – in which he calls for designers to use their skills for the public benefit – alongside innovative campaigns designed to raise awareness of cancer and dementia.

Don’t Rush Me! by Gillian Crampton Smith and Sarah Curtis. The pair worked closely with the London borough of Wandsworth to create these comics promoting contraception and safe sex to London teens in the style of stories from popular teen magazine Jackie. They promoted the use of contraception and family planning clinics, explaining how to use both condoms and the pill. They also highlighted the stigma surrounding teen pregnancy at the time and aimed to warn teenagers against being pressured into sex
Hand-painted Ebola mural 2014 by Stephen Doe. Photographer: Dominique Faget. Doe painted this mural to raise awareness of the symptoms of the disease in the Liberian capital of Monrovia, an area where literacy levels are low and more than 30 languages are spoken. A red wall symbolises danger and graphic illustrations highlight signs such as vomiting, coughing, diarrhoea and bloodshot eyes. Image: Dominique Faget /AFP/Getty Images

Wright and Roberts have spent several months curating the exhibition, scouring the web and the Wellcome Collection archives for interesting artefacts.  “We’ve had some amusing moments – we started collecting condom packets because we were interested in how the packaging of condoms reflects the periods in which they come from, the moral stance at the time, and the groups [manufacturers] were trying to talk to, and we managed to find a World War Two pack which included an army issued condom. It arrived with a little handwritten note from the seller saying ‘not for use’,” says Wright.

She hopes the exhibition will make visitors more aware of the design thinking and strategy behind everyday objects – from pill packaging to hospital signage – and highlight the varied role of designers working in healthcare. “The idea is that somebody coming in off the street can walk into the show, and will leave – we think, and we really hope – knowing more about how graphic design works, and understanding more about what it is,” she adds.

The list of objects is diverse – “[Graphic design] is such a broad, and ever-expanding discipline and we’re definitely trying to be very broad with this show,” says Wright. “We’ve included animation, photography, advertising, design, comics, illustration, packaging, type design … and that was really intentional,” she says. “We wanted to ensure that [the exhibition reflects] the dynamic nature of the discipline, and the fact that communication isn’t static.”

With objects arranged by theme rather than chronologically, visitors can see how certain communications strategies (such as bold headlines, or the use of shocking images to grab attention) have evolved.

There are plenty of historical examples – including the map that led John Snow to discover the cause of a cholera outbreak in 19th century London – but the show is not rooted in the past. It has a strong focus on contemporary design and includes technological innovations such as an open-source design for a billboard that kills mosquitoes and an augmented reality ad campaign encouraging people to give blood.

Alongside the exhibition, Graphic Design& is publishing a book which delves deeper into many of the stories featured in the exhibition. It will be available to buy from the Wellcome Collection’s shop and at graphicdesignand.com.

Malaria – I’m Looking for You poster, 1941. Designer: Abram Games for Her Majesty’s War Office, UK. The late, great Abram Games was one of the most celebrated and prolific designers of the 20th century. Among his other achievements, he is the only person in the history of the British Army to have been appointed an Official War Poster Artist. Working from a small office in Whitehall, Games produced maps, book covers, insignia and over 100 posters for the army – from recruitment campaigns to health and safety notices for soldiers and posters encouraging people to grow their own vegetables. Games described his technique as maximum meaning, minimum means – using stark and concise images to startling effect. This poster was created to warn soldiers of the potentially deadly impact of mosquito bites
A ‘mosquito killing billboard’ by NBS and Posterscope

“The Wellcome show is talking to an audience much broader than those who are interested in graphic design, so there’s a limit to how much of the design story we can tell,” explains Wright. “The book was an opportunity to explore [those stories] in more detail and show projects that we think are some of the trailblazers,” says Wright.

Can Graphic Design Save Your Life? opens on September 7 until January 14 2018. For details, see wellcomecollection.org 

DESIGN ASSISTANT

Wandsworth, London

ACCOUNT EXECUTIVE

102 Petty France, London

ART DIRECTOR

Brighton, East Sussex