Graphic Design – Not just a pretty face

I recently visited an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection titled ‘Can Graphic Design Save Your Life?’ which explores the relationship between graphic design and healthcare.

The exhibition specifically focuses on how design has been used to persuade, inform and ultimately play a fundamental part in the healthcare sector, whether we are conscious of it or not.

Pieces span from 16th century Plague warnings, to Ebola prevention posters of the present day. It showcases the iconic glowing, green cross that we associate with pharmacies and includes the original tombstone produced for the infamous ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ HIV awareness advertising campaign from the 1980s (Image 1).

The exhibition displays the manipulative ways graphic design has been used to influence public perception around smoking. Slick advertising campaigns for Silk Cut in the early 1990s illustrate how the brand cleverly evaded tobacco advertising constraints and dramatically improved sales. This is shown alongside more contemporary anti-smoking imagery and plain colour packaging – ‘the ugliest colour possible’ Pantone 448C – which saw smokers fall by more than 100,000 in Australia in the three years following their introduction. Thus, confirming the role of graphic design as a mean for persuasion in both selling and equally detouring the public (Image 2).

The show also explores the use of graphic design in hospitals, looking at signage, posters and typefaces. Plus the way in which colourful schemes for children’s wards can improve patient wellbeing.

The enforcement of refreshed NHS guidelines caused uproar earlier this year with many of the public believing the money could be better spent elsewhere, for example on more beds and medicine rather than signage and digital platforms. Whilst this has some truth to it; creating consistent, clear visual forms of communication eases the anxiety and stress caused by confusing displays of information. Important notices with Clipart and Comic Sans typeface on tatty bits of paper peeling off walls doesn’t inspire confidence in patients. The revitalised identity has given the NHS a broader colour palette, limited the typefaces used and given stricter rules on the commercial use and overall placement of the logos, which has ultimately cleared any potential misunderstanding from patients (Image 3).

Graphic design should not be perceived to be purely aesthetic, it can inform and explain with subtlety and sophistication. Design solutions created by PearsonLloyd are included in the display that inform and guide patients through their time in A&E, as well as working staff to support their interactions with frustrated and aggressive patients. As PearsonLloyd reveal on their website ‘for every £1 spent on the design solutions, £3 pounds was generated in benefits’. So much material in healthcare and the public sector is overloaded with information, when it doesn’t need to be (Image 4).

Time saved, equals money saved. A fully functional wayfinding solution will save a lot of time for users, and subsequently allows organisations a greater opportunity to focus on the main objectives, and in the NHS’s case – saving lives.

The importance of good design also has implications beyond health. From the controversy of the Florida punch-card voting ballots in 2000, where a fundamental design flaw of unaligned boxes confused people to make mistakes in voting for the wrong electorate – looked to have crucially harmed Al Gore’s margin against George W. Bush, to the emotive Shepard Fairey, HOPE posters for Barack Obama’s campaign that were simple and effective playing a major part in him winning the United States Presidency in 2008 (Image 5).

Design is a dynamic tool to be used to communicate and solve problems. It can be practical and lifesaving. Of course, visual communications should never trump medical research or the needs for hospital beds. But, if the world continues to regard design as an irrelevant luxury or an afterthought, we are restricting its ability to work alongside science, healthcare and every other industry to help develop our quality of life for the better.

Some clients are beginning to recognise the roll graphic design can play. At KSS, we outline the benefits of graphic design in every new project we take on. It should be a part of the entire process. For example, in sports stadia, a clubs brand can transcend throughout all exterior and interior spaces right down to something as detailed as a hospitality drinks menu (Image 6). Being involved from the beginning allows for informed decision-making and the transition from every space to flow effortlessly. It prevents disorder and confusion both visually and directionally, subsequently making the user experience clearer and more enjoyable.

The exhibition is on until 14 January 2018, find out more at: https://wellcomecollection.org/graphicdesign

Related articles