Visual language and healthcare

While the packaging of medical products can be a life and death affair, Jeremy Owen suggests that designers can play a role beyond the purely functional

Roche ad, Aldo Calabresi for Studio Boggeri, photo by Sergio Libis, 1959

Consider the humble surgical glove, perhaps a slightly comedic request given certain associations but, putting those behind us, see instead a high volume consumable, essential to clinical practice but one with a health warning attached. In this sector even a seemingly innocuous product can have massive implications. Key ingredients may provoke an allergic reaction in certain users: the resultant responsibility for overcoming the issue falls on graphic design.

The perpetual challenge for healthcare manufacturers is to ensure that in the stressful, time-poor environments of clinical practice the correct product will be easily identified. The method to best achieve this is graphical demarcation. This need for utility gives rise to what we might call the ‘clinical aesthetic,’ a visual language that aggregates the myriad of potions and applications but also the processes, regulations, collateral, architecture, vehicles and other material of healthcare.

Geigy Physicians’ sample kits, Fred Troller, 1964-66

It is one of the most definable and complete visual vernaculars ever devised. Hear the words ‘healthcare’, ‘medicine’ or ‘hospital’ and an immediate image is brought to mind, one of stark sterility and a vague suggestion of ‘science’, the overall effect being a distilled authority that seems to say ‘trust us, we know what we are doing’. It was not always this way however. Prior to the 18th century, the common image of healthcare was ramshackle quackery or the brutalism of the barber-surgeon. By the time of the Enlightenment, medicine had emerged as a venerable profession. The paradigm shift necessitated a visual identity to support this new authority.

The evolution continued, arriving at the highly competitive industry of today but, as the example of surgical gloves demonstrates, here is a visual culture that goes against what we expect of commercial creativity. It is not about beautification for the sake of shifting units. As Deborah Williams of medical device manufacturer Intersurgical says: “Healthcare considers the end-user to be the clinician not the patient: clear product information and identification always comes above corporate branding.” Indeed, whether we engage with therapeutic products bought over-the-counter or within a clinical environment, the purely functional user experience remains the same.

Mailer for Smith Klein French by Paul Rand, 1943

So used are we to this approach we might be forgiven for thinking that creative development in this field has reached its end-point but certain recent projects point to the potential of a new philosophy. Superformula, created by JWT Brazil for the AC Camargo Cancer Center, styled treatment packaging with the iconography of popular comic book superhero characters. In a similar vein, Portuguese agency Torke & CC took the design cues of a genre TV programme, NBC’s Walking Dead, and applied them to public health to create Bloodstore, a pop-up that allowed volunteers to trade blood donations for themed goods.

In both examples, the usage of pop-culture mythology inserts positivity into complex and difficult situations. There is no doubt that the need for chemotherapy is a frightening prospect but through Superformula the youngsters no longer felt in danger, rather that they were taking on the super-powers of their favourite characters. Similarly Bloodstore exploited enthusiasm for a fictional world to overcome very real public apprehension about hypodermic needles. Their success is important to recognise as it questions whether, once necessary practical details have been communicated, the rest of the clinical aesthetic’s authoritarian visual language is necessary.

Covers for intravenous bags in the Superformula project were based on characters from the Justice League

An answer might be found in the thought-provoking manifesto Art as Therapy. Here Alain De Botton and John Armstrong explore how ‘art’ in the widest sense (a category that they suggest also includes design, architecture and craft) should be thought of as less of a mysterious enigma and more a practical tool with the definable purpose of helping us to achieve personal rebalance by ‘distilling and concentrating the hope we need to chart a path through the difficulties of life’.

Recent research supports the supposition. One example that comes to mind is a paper exploring whether patients surrounded by bucolic imagery might exhibit a faster and more complete recovery than patients not exposed to such cerebral stimulus. This evidence suggests that positive content external to immediate clinical surroundings could be beneficial to health due to neurological responses that stimulate physical recovery.

Companies such as Skylight, who create ‘blue sky’ AV technology for hospitals, and projects such as Brian Eno’s sound installations for London’s Royal Chelsea and Westminster Hospital certainly seem to apply the theory, as do the many specialist clinical architecture practices that base complete complexes on the principle. However, laudable as these may be, architectural writer Sebastian Redecke rightly points out that this is an area where the medium is unfortunately the message. There is always the danger that a patient “will feel afraid, even though the goal of the institution is to lessen such fears”. The problem is that these approaches are ultimately only dressing, the treatment itself remains unchanged. In contrast, Superformula and Bloodstore apply De Botton and Armstrong’s theory more completely. In both cases semiotic stalwarts of ‘art’ such as symbolic association directly change the meaning of the therapeutic act. Both could be easily dismissed as glib impositions of entertainment licensing on medicine but in practice they have demonstrated new, culturally relevant alternatives.

Both take away some of the importance of scientific discipline and replace it with the as yet unquantifiable maverick element of the emotional. Could the next stage in the development of clinical practice prove that the most effective treatment is one that offers ‘cultural enrichment’ as an active ingredient?

In the Bloodstore project, agency Torke & CC used merchandise from TV show Walking Dead in a pop-up blood donation centre

Pop- up Viagra

In Russia, Viagra is becoming a lifestyle product, leading design studio Pearlfisher to an innovative pack design.

We may think of Viagra as a drug aimed primarily at males over 50, used to treat a medical condition. However, in Russia, it is widely used by younger men for whom it has become part of a night out.

Viagra is technically a prescribed medicine in Russia but it is routinely available over the counter at pharmacies. According to Jonathan Ford, CCO of design studio Pearlfisher, “whilst it is still for dysfunction … the targeting of the product is shifting to a younger core consumer – aged 30 to 45.” In a new pack design, “the pharmaceutical filter has been removed and reinterpreted with a fresh lifestyle-led execution” but Pearlfisher’s research also highlighted a fascinating insight into how the product is being used. It “showed that people would buy the product on a night out and take it as soon as they got out of the pharmacy,” Ford says, which conjures the somewhat grim image of drunken men necking the pills before heading home to their partners.

Pearlfisher’s design response was to add an “easy opening mechanism” to the pack, allowing consumers to tear the whole thing open along the line of the final ‘a’ in Viagra. “The new ‘snap, crack, pop’ feature answers the need for immediacy,” says Ford. Well, quite.

Pearlfisher will be presenting a case study on their work for Viagra at the Lions Health conference at Cannes in June 2015. See

Thanks to Deborah Williams of Intersurgical, Pamela Ford, Library, Archive and Museum Services at the Royal College of Physicians and Alec Ward of the London Museums of Healthcare & Medicine for their assistance with this article. Jeremy R. Owen is a senior creative and independent author on visual culture. At the time of writing he was working with Ego Creative, an agency servicing the healthcare industry.

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