When most people think of graphic design, one aspect dominates their thinking: Advertising. We are familiar with the exciting albeit outdated imagery of cut-throat ad agencies working to promote, sell, and sponsor in a bid to outperform the competition – images of Madmen and cigars, newspapers and print spring to mind, all engaged in a consumer arms race.
While graphic design is a tool to bring to life the advertising industry’s messages, one often overlooked aspect of graphic design is its role in educating and informing the public. And so I refer back to the question in hand, can graphic design save your life?
One industry that benefits from the integration of design thinking is public health. When reaching for our medicine we often overlook how the packaging has been meticulously designed to convey life-impacting information as concisely as possible. Is this not the true intention and purpose of graphic design?
In a tangible example of how design can save lives, Gabriele Meldaikyte re-designed the standard home First Aid Kit. Meldaikyte explains that most people who use a first aid kit have little to no medical experience, and struggle with understanding the first step when opening a kit. Meldaikyte’s kit divides common household injuries into categories, making it easier for a user to find the appropriate equipment and to correctly, and most importantly, safety administer first aid. In this case, graphic design has improved the user experience of a highly important and commonplace product, with the potential to have life-saving impact.
Design agency Poulin + Morris produced another example of how graphic design can improve user experience in the medical industry. The “CommuniCard 1 and 2” was developed in cooperation with the Patient Representative Department of Mount Sinai Medical Centre. The cards are described as visual communication tools for speech-impaired patients and allow non-native speaking patients to convey symptoms directly to a care giver or medical professional. The cards have coloured infographic-styled designs that depict medical symptoms as well as a dual-language alphabet and a human body diagram to point to areas of pain. The CommuniCards are now employed in over 150 hospitals in North America and Canada. The design is widely acknowledged as a success and has become a critical tool for medical professionals in the US.
The CommuniCards are another example of how design thinking has opened new pathways for communication and directly contributed to patient care in the health industry.
One element of public health that graphic design has been involved in from the start, both positively and negatively, is smoking campaigns. By 1970 over 45% of the British population were active smokers, with many PR campaigns and advertisements promoting smoking as a harmless activity, with some PR suggesting that even doctors smoked!
The award-winning designer Biman Mullick, explains that he became concerned about the effects of passive smoking and began creating posters to combat the British smoking culture. By 1984 Mullick created and distributed over 186,000 striking anti-smoking posters with eye-catching and controversial messages such as “Passive Smoking Kills” and “Smoking is slow-motion suicide”. Mullick states that “I don’t have any evidence of the impact of the designs but I hope to think people stopped smoking because of my posters and I’m sure some people became more aware of the harmful effects of smoking and passive smoking on health and the environment.”
In 2011, the British Government proposed changing the legislation on cigarette packaging to inform the public about the health effects of smoking. London-based design company, Build, created a cigarette packaging design with branding stripped away, with shock-value titles such as “Smoking these 20 Malboro Reds will reduce your life expectancy by 3 hours 40 minutes (11 mins per Cigarette)”. While arguably much more aggressive messaging than typical advertising, the intention in these designs is the protection of public health.
In more modern times, graphic design has adapted to thrive in a digital market. Online videos, shared on websites and social media have become a strong element of the ever-expanding digital graphic design repertoire. Swedish cancer charity fund, Cancerfonden created an informative video to educate the public about correct physical examination for breast cancer.
The animation uses simple circle shapes to represent breasts, minimising and reducing the potential for the video to break community guidelines by showing nudity. Although our society is becoming more aware of the value of educational videos, the campaign still received criticism and was ‘deemed offensive’ due to the gendering of shapes associated with the female body, and the sexualisation as a result.
While a disappointing criticism, the animators quickly updated the design by changing circles into squares and rereleased the video, demonstrating the flexibility and innovation that designers bring to the table. This is a reminder of how designers can present medical information in new and innovative ways but must be responsible and educated in our approach.
In our own contribution to health industry design, Whitenoise produced a short animation promoting and explaining the use of the Health and Social Care “Hospital Passport”.
The Hospital Passport is a document developed by the PHA and Regional General Hospital Forum for Learning Disability, intended to improve the experience of hospital visit s for people with learning disabilities. Each passport is unique to the owner and provides hospital staff with important information about the person, how they prefer to communicate, their medical history, and any support they need while in hospital. Hospital staff are then equipped with the information they need to provide to best possible care for individuals with a learning disability. The animated explainer video has been shared widely with internal hospital staff, stakeholders and the public to raise awareness of this vital support.
It is clear that throughout time, graphic design has played a key role in the education of the public on matters of health and medicine. Through packaging, posters, videos, signage and branding, graphic design has informed, educated and shaped the medical environment which we are familiar with today. Graphic design cannot be undervalued, from smaller, overlooked examples such as the use of the accessible typeface, Rail Alphabet being used on hospital signage to ease wayfinding, or the recent UK Government’s “Stay Alert” campaign during the Coronavirus pandemic.
In conclusion, the health industry relies on the innovation, creativity and accessibility that good graphic design offers and our industry will continue to prove itself invaluable in assisting the public in matters of health, and most importantly, saving lives.
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