Ken Garland’s prominent manifesto ‘First Things First’ encouraged designers to focus on working for the betterment of society. His message resonates with me and touches on some of the reasons I enjoy my medical communications projects here at NU Creative.

Garland’s manifesto features in the exhibition Can Graphic Design Save Your Life? The show is an exploration of the role of graphic design in communicating healthcare messages and how it is used to persuade, inform and empower.


Design for the right audience

One of the things that first struck me about the exhibition was the how the challenges of communicating to specific demographics were effectively met by very different approaches.


Health Graphic Magazine

Health Graphic Magazine is published three times a year by Japanese pharmacy chain Aisei and is given away free in their stores. The magazine’s chief editor Isao Kadota considered his audience when deciding on the communication style: “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!” Understanding his audience, Kadota uses witty imagery, infographics and and illustrated stories to make educational medical information and accessible and engaging to shoppers.

The front cover of Health Graphic Magazine, showing a wrestler crushing an office worker's head
‘Headache’, Health Graphic Magazine, Spring Issue 2015


Kill Jill

The friendly style of ‘Health Graphic Magazine’ strongly contrasts with the hard-hitting ‘Kill Jill’ campaign. Organ-donation rates in the UK are among the lowest of any high-income country. This television advert was designed break through apathy by inviting viewers to take 20 seconds to decide whether they should kill or save Jill – a child in need of an organ transplant. Softer campaigns had failed to motivate the public, whereas ‘Kill Jill’ led to an unprecedented 242% increase in registered organ donors over the course of the campaign.


Lighter than my shadow

Young people are most at risk from eating disorders and sexual abuse. Both are taboo subjects, worsening the situation as those affected often suffer in silence. Katie Green’s  ‘Lighter than my shadow’ is an autobiographical story of struggle and recovery. Painstakingly hand-drawn over 500 pages over a period of twelve years the book is a cathartic testimony to Green’s battles. The book is intended as ‘inspiration to anybody who believes in the human power to endure towards happiness’. The beautiful illustrations will appeal strongly to those who most need this book.

Lighter than my shadow, 2013, Katie Green


Children’s haemophilia colouring book

Dick Bruna, known for the cartoon rabbit Miffy, frequently donated his design services to medical causes. He illustrated a thoughtful children’s colouring book that was written by a mothers’ group at the Newcastle Haemophilia Reference Centre. It tells the story of what might happen to a child during treatment, making the process known and less scary. The narrative uses positive reinforcement: ‘He tried to be very brave’. Bruna’s simple illustration style is calm and reassuring.

Poster created for Het Nederlandse Rode Kruis, 1986 by Dick Bruna. Illustration Dick Bruna © copyright Mercis bv, 1986


Saving lives through data visualisation

If you have read my previous blog posts you may have noticed my passion for data visualisation. I was delighted to find two early examples in the exhibition that made powerful augments which brought about life saving changes.


A map that improved health worldwide

John Snow, a 19th century physician, is considered the father of modern epidemiology largely because of this map. By marking individual cholera deaths as black bars he clearly demonstrated that the cases of cholera centered around a contaminated well in Soho, London. His work correctly identified the disease as water-borne. Sadly, Snow died before his research was accepted. However, his work did inspire fundamental advances in the water and waste systems of London. This led to similar changes in other cities, saving lives worldwide.

Map showing deaths from cholera in Broad Street, Golden Square and the neighbourhood, 19 August to 30 September 1854, by John Snow


Nightingale’s polar diagrams that saved soldiers’ lives

Florence Nightingale was another early trail-blazer of ‘information design’. Working as a nurse-manager of a medical station during the Crimean War she noticed that unsanitary conditions were killing soldiers at an alarming rate. These polar area diagrams highlight that the vast majority of deaths in a given month were due to preventable or mitigable infectious diseases (blue). These far outweighed fatalities from wounds (red) and other causes (black). Using the diagrams as ammunition, she successfully campaigned to improve conditions in hospitals, leading to a substantial decline in deaths.

Diagram showing mortality statistics of the British army in the Crimea, 1858 by Florence Nightingale


Safety through visual identity

At NU Creative we often act as guardians of our clients’ visual identities, and ensure they are used consistently. Therefore, I was interested to compare early examples of medical packaging where brand was applied in a variety of ways, to the designs from the 60’s when the idea of a coherent corporate identity really took hold.

Dan Reisinger designed a very clear dual language identity for Teva Pharmaceuticals packaging. Each item carries a pictogram which represents one of ten areas of treatment; for instance, vitamins are represented by 9 squares and fertility is a square with a cross through it. This is printed in one of 16 specific Pantone colours indicating the medicine. The packaging size and shape is dictated by the dosage form, for example pills or drops. The combined elements of pictogram, colour and box shape give 800 possible packaging designs and ensured full coverage of the Teva range. This unified system aids product identification by packagers, pharmacists and users thereby reducing mistakes that could be detrimental to health.

TEVA packaging in Hebrew and English, 1986, Dan Reisinger.


Parting thoughts

There are lots of other pieces that I would love to tell you about if I had time; The Isotype Institute devising pictograms and using them to convey leprosy information to low literacy demographics, early examples of med-coms which could have benefited from modern techniques, Pentagram combining vivid pop art styles with minimalism in striking infographics and excellent examples of designs to promote or discourage smoking. I could go on, but it would be better if you took a look yourself.

Can Graphic Design Save Your Life? is a free exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, London. It is open until 14 January 2018 and has late openings on Thursdays, a free cloakroom and a café/bar.