Leprosy, poster leaflet, 1955, Otto and Marie Neurath. Isotype Collection, University of Reading

Both the design and the non-design community alike are familiar with the stark clarity of a prescription pill packet or the internationally recognized cross that marks a pharmacy. While the role of imagery in public health awareness campaigns, such as those for HIV/AIDS prevention or anti-smoking, has varied over time and across country borders, what doesn’t change is what a powerful tool graphic design is for the healthcare field. Yet for all this, we’ve seen remarkably few exhibitions that explore the interplay of graphics and health: institutions like London’s Design Museum have long championed design’s role in healthcare technology through the product and build side of it all, but rarely the graphics aspect.

This is all set to change thanks to a new, boldly titled exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London, Can Graphic Design Save Your Life? The show is curated by graphic designer Lucienne Roberts and design educator Rebecca Wright, founders of publishing house GraphicDesign&, with Shamita Sharmacharja at Wellcome Collection. Roberts had previously worked with the Wellcome Collection as a graphic designer for shows including Brains, Madness and Modernity, and An Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition, and put in a proposal to design and curate her own show a couple of years ago.

Her aim, as with most of the work she does, was to create something that was inclusive and democratic in its portrayal of graphic design as a vital part of the fabric of people’s everyday lives.

This importance is something the design community is well aware of, and hopefully the show will bring those already familiar with things like Isotype and Pantone books to the door. It’s also vital to make the exhibition “just as arresting” for non-designers, adds Roberts.

“People use graphic design all the time—it’s probably the most prevalent visual art—but they don’t realize that’s what it is, or how it works,” says Roberts. “We’re interested in foregrounding that and being more explicit about how it works in this field.

“I think it’s an understandable mistake to think that graphic design is about selling things, or making something pretty. We’re coming at it from the other end, to show that it can educate and raise awareness. It’s just such a core aspect of human life: we’re making a claim for the value of graphic design.”

El hombre como palacio industrial. Man as palace of industry. Wellcome Library, London

The Wellcome Collection proved to be the perfect site for these sorts of revelations. The museum holds the artefacts gathered during the career of Sir Henry Wellcome, the pharmaceutical entrepreneur who invented the tablet format of taking medicine in the 1880s, then dubbed the “Tabloid.” His wealth of ephemera relating to the marketing of medicinal products, coupled with Roberts and Wright’s relationships to the graphic design of today, made for a curation process centered more on what to exclude, rather than what to select for display. Roberts describes the task as being “gradually inching towards an edit. It’s very sad leaving things out.”

The show presents a vast range of around 200 objects, comprising everything from posters and pharmacy signs to digital teaching aids, packaging design, and anti-smoking postage stamps. The earliest exhibit is a 16th century anatomical pop-up book, while recent years are represented in the wealth of 21st century app designs for healthcare, as well as more traditional formats, such as graphic campaigns sparked by the emergence of diseases such as Ebola and Zika in Africa and Brazil, respectively. As the Wellcome points out, these pieces “reveal the immediacy and importance of graphics in conveying information as medical crises unfold.”

Among the designers whose work appears in the show are Fritz Kahn, Abram Games, Marie Neurath, F.H.K. Henrion, Karl Gerstner, Margaret Calvert, Dick Bruna, Astrid Stavro, and Ken Garland; which appear alongside pieces by current agencies such as Pentagram, Studio Dumbar, PearsonLloyd, IDEO, Studio Myerscough, and Kenya Hara’s Hara Design Institute.

Tiger, Hospital Sant Joan de Déu, Barcelona © Rubio Arauna Studio, Rai Pinto Studio. Picture by Victòria Gil.

The exhibition will end with a modern take on Ken Garland’s 1964 First Things First manifesto, published with the input of 20 other designers, photographers, and students as a call for a return to the “humanist” aspect of design. It railed against the follies and trivialities of the advertising industry of the era, and looked to realign design with education and public service—things that benefited society, rather than sold to it. No wonder Wright and Roberts chose that as the powerful endnote to the show.

As Roberts points out, designing to inform is a rather different beast from designing to sell—though of course, the two aims do meet in the marketing of medicine to the doctors and institutions that prescribe them.

Stylistically, she noticed that in packaging designs in particular “a lot of material uses the same design language. There’s a sort of clarity that people aspire to, because that is a kind of subliminal message about authority and competence. With everything we’re looking at, even aside from the awareness raising campaigns, there has to be an honesty and integrity to it.

“There’s also often a degree of abstraction, as that can be an easier way to explain things that are scientific but also public-facing. I guess there’s a balance to be struck with warnings about things and not wanting to be put off: when we looked at all the HIV and Aids stuff, you see a move from panic to information. Initially they’re trying to warn things and bring about behavior change, but then that moves to clarity and so the information–the organization of text and images—needs to be calmer and have authority. It needs to look like it’s come from someone who knows what they’re talking about.”

Elsewhere, the importance of hand-drawn illustrations became evident. “Even with the advent of photography, photos of things inside the body can be very confusing,” says Roberts. “Drawings are much more clear, and even in books for medical students or apps it’s still much easier to use drawings rather than photographs to show the bits of the body we can’t see from the exterior.”

Roberts’ agency LucienneRoberts+ will naturally be creating the graphics for the show, working with Universal Design Studio, which is creating the exhibition design. “We’re keen to make the show quite graphic in a three-dimensional form, and make 2-D and 3-D merge in terms of the build, which I think will be interesting and arresting, it has a sort of unusual spirit about it.” For Roberts, being her own client has been something of a learning curve, too; and she’s keen that the show displays the process of commissioning design for healthcare, and how designers work on such projects, as well as the end result.

“It’s been a dream project,” she says. “We’re really, really, really lucky.”

Tote bag and t-shirt,
designed by Paula Scher, 2016, for The Heart & Stroke Foundation of Canada