How graphic design saves lives

From persuasive public health campaigns to bright designs that help patients get better more quickly, we explore the powerful posters and projects in the Wellcome Collection’s new exhibition.


Graphic design and healthcare have long worked together hand in hand as a way to educate and persuade the public to take care of its health (and in the best way possible).

We’ve all seen graphic design for healthcare perhaps without even realising, such as the horrific cigarette anti-smoking packaging and 'Don’t Drink and Drive' billboards.

Visual explanation of disease and pharmaceutical products cuts through what can sometimes be a scientific fog that separates doctors from the public.

In a new exhibition in London, persuasive strategies used in these public health campaigns and advertisements over decades are explored. It's at the Wellcome Collection – just down the road from the Digital Arts offices, and we've just been to check it out. Over 200 posters, signs, teaching aids and more will showcase how graphic design can empower and inform for recent outbreaks such as Ebola and Zika, to education about safe sex.

Works on show include this anti-malaria poster by Abram Games from 1941.

Abram is a name associated with the golden age of poster design, producing both Allied WWII propaganda posters and ads for the post-war Festival of Britain. He was the master of powerful composition, integrating images and lettering to convey complex ideas with enormous clarity and appeal. Commissioned by the War Office, this awareness-raising malaria poster was one in a series aimed at soldiers. 

Graphic design has been used widely when a society is battling epidemics – the most recently Ebola and Zika in Africa and Brazil. But it also occurred in the form of Renaissance plague notices and Victorian quarantine bills, and global health campaign sparked by the emergence of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. The Wellcome Collection says these examples show the immediate significance of graphics in conveying information as medical crises unfold.

Here street artist Stephen Doe paints an educational mural about Ebola in Liberia.

Stephen painted this mural to raise awareness of the Ebola symptoms in the capital of Liberia (one of the most heavily affected countries). He was trying to communicate with a population whose literacy levels are low and who speak more than 30 languages. 

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Some of the older campaigns are still shocking today, for example this The Silence = Death project from 1987. 

The pink triangle was appropriated as a pro-gay symbol in 1970s New York. It rotated the triangle badge that identified homosexuals in Nazi concentration camps. The poster was created by six gay activists as a call to action for the gay community to unite against indifference to AIDS. The creators donated the image to protest group ACT UP, of which it is now closely associated. 


You might think that as time has gone by, it's become harder to cause offence – but some social networks have their own ideas.

In 2016, the Swedish charity Cancerfonden created an animated cancer-awareness film that included a feature on how to conduct breast examinations. After Facebook removed it because it was "offensive", Cancerfonden changed the shape of the circular breasts to square. The charity found media coverage of this ultimately increased the film's audience. Facebook apologised for removing the original post. 


Of course, not all posters in this field need to shock. Equally important is to reassure – as seen in this poster illustrated for HET Nederlandse Rode Kruis by Dick Bruna in 1986.

Dick is best known for creating Miffy in 1955. Bruna's colouring book, written by a mothers group at the New Castle Haemophilia Reference Centre uses simple drawing to comfort readers, and to educate children about haemophilia (a genetic condition affecting the blood's ability to clot). 

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The exhibition also covers pharmaceutical branding and marketing. Items from Burroughs Wellcome & Co.’s archive show how strategies such as direct marketing to doctors and rigorous enforcement of trademarks and brand were first introduced. Further studies include the Bayer identity. 

Bayer's original name was horrendous, and too confusing for the international market. Simplifying it resulted in the creation of the Bayers cross, seen here. This came to be the world's biggest illuminated sign above the company headquarters in Germany. It measured 72 metres in diameter. There is still a Bayers cross there today, now lit by LED lights.  


The exhibition is curated by graphic designer Lucienne Roberts and design educator Rebecca Wright, founders of publishing house GraphicDesign&, along with staff from the Wellcome Collection itself.

Can Graphic Design Save Your Life opens (for free) on September 7, but you’ve got plenty of time to check it out. It closes on January 14 next year.

Image: An anti-smoking poster by Indian designer and educator Biman Mullick. He founded the anti-smoking organisation CLEANAIR. He was awarded a World Health Organisation Medal for making posters that 'politely, strongly and humorously' argue that 'non-smoking is the norm'.