Can Graphic Design Save Your Life?

Eye-Opening Exhibition at Wellcome Collection.

Written by Craig Berry
Creative Intern at VBAT

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Can Graphic Design Save Your Life? Exhibition Identity

Opening as part of London Design Festival 2017, a major new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection offers an insight into the role in which graphic design places in healthcare. Focusing on multiple aspects of healthcare, the range of work is extensive with over 200 pieces, ranging from war-time posters and medicine packaging to modern day organisation identities and digital platforms.

The Wellcome Collection museum’s focus in general is to ‘explore ideas about the connections between medicine, life and art’ through its exhibitions, displays and collections of medical artifacts and artworks. It is partly made up from the 19th-century collector, Henry Wellcome’s collection – hence the name.

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Image courtesy of Creative Review.

The exhibition itself is split into 6 sections: Persuasion, Education, Hospitalisation, Medication, Contagion and Provocation, with each section showcasing a magnitude of pieces, too much to go into detail about here, but from me – 2 stand-out examples from each section.


Right away the exhibition addresses one of the most controversial and somewhat topical matters of cigarette packaging design. The role of graphic design packaging is to sell the product, be it pizza, hand-soap or cigarettes, the primary focus is to attract the buyer and sell. Although with cigarettes the product obviously has no health benefits so how do you use packaging to sell. (Although does it need to? most people who smoke don’t buy certain brands for their branding or packaging, they will still buy and smoke regardless.)

Throughout history graphic design has been used to sell and promote cigarettes and smoking but research into smoking has meant cigarette and other tobacco branding has become stricter and in 2003 the World Health Organisation introduced the Convention on Tobacco Control to govern the advertising, promotion and packaging of tobacco products. This has meant graphic designers now have to explore various methods to communicate the health risks of smoking to the audience. Graphic design is now used to prevent smoking compared to how it was used to promote it.

Leeds based agency Build was challenged with the brief to ‘rethink the cigarette packet’ by creating concept packaging for cigarettes by ICON Magazine. Using the UK governments proposal of ‘unbranded’ plain packaging they approached the design by removing any unnecessary design elements and reducing it to an ultra minimal design. Multiple products were designed using this method, each with its own rational as well as incorporating features. The packaging uses the typeface OCR-B for its clarity and ‘genericism’, it also adds to the idea of the product being ‘unbranded’ as it is an inherently digital typeface, designed to be read by machines. The other examples show the contents of the cigarettes, allowing the user to see what they are smoking i.e. Tolulene – used in industrial solvent. Other unapologetic messages are used to show the impact of smoking these cigarettes – each cigarette “reducing your life expectancy by 11 minutes” or just straight up “smoking kills”.

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Build – Cigarette Packing (2011). Source:
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Adrian Frutiger – OCR-A (1968) & OCR-B (1968). Source:

On a similar point of anti-packaging and detracting the user from buying the cigarettes, in 2016 a study in Australia deemed that the colour Pantone 448 C (also known as ‘opaque couché’) is ‘the world’s ugliest colour’ and therefore it is to be used across cigarette packing in the UK, Ireland and France. The colour was chosen by over 1000 smokers who decided it would be the best colour to create the ‘most unappealing packaging possible’. Along with this colour the packaging is all to use the same standard font style, size and position for brand names.

I remember seeing at the time that this was announced that multiple graphic designers were somewhat outraged that this colour could be deemed ‘the world’s ugliest colour’, for me it definitely isn’t my favourite but it isn’t the worst, there are plenty more out there but I can understand why it was chosen; despite not being a smoker just seeing this colour makes me think of cigarettes and smoke, you can almost taste it, its not nice but it’s doing its job.

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Prospective Cigarette Packaging (2017). Source:


Education is an important tool to teach people about the medical profession and to help us understand our bodies, it helps us to make inform choices about our health and choice of treatment. Illustrations have long been highly effective for medical students and surgeons with guides dating back to the 16th century allowing them and us to visualise the inner workings of our bodies.

n+m was a medical journal created and distributed by Boehringer Mannheim. n+m was short for Naturwissenschaft und Medizin (Natural Science and Medicine) with the journal’s aim to promote their products as well as providing doctors, surgeons and nurses with the latest scientific research. Multiple covers were designed by Erwin Poell using consistently eye-catching and punchy graphics with strong colour and varying degrees of abstraction to ensure the readers attention was caught.

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Erwin Pole – n+m Medical Journals Issues 25, 26 & 28 (1968). Source:

Illustrator and designer Kelli Anderson created over 200 animated illustrations for The Human Body app, the first educational app by Tinybop studio. The app is aimed at children and available in more than 50 languages to encourage exploration of how the human body functions. Working closely with medical professionals and inspired by historic textbooks Anderson’s illustrations started as paper models before creating digital animations. This is really nice as it has a friendly feeling whilst still being coherent and with the ability to teach.

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Tinybop & Keli Anderson – The Human Body app (2013). Source:


Hospitals can be one of the most unpleasant and confusing places to be in and around but the role of graphic design here is not only practical but also emotional. It can be used to direct and inform patients as well as making them feel comfortable and safe. In the mid-20th century influential designers proposed that design could make the world a better place which is visible in contemporary hospital design with great graphic murals for children to create less intimidating spaces.

Wayfinding is a crucial aspect of design in large public places: airports, train stations and of course hospitals. The design of these wayfinding systems often goes unnoticed which means it is doing its job perfectly – to direct you where you want/need to go to easily and without confusion. Legendary British designer Margaret Calvert (designer of the UK road signage as well as the Transport typeface with Jock Kinneir in 1963) created the typeface Rail Alphabet (with Henrik Kubel) which first appeared across NHS hospitals in the UK prior to its use on rail networks, despite its name.

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NHS Hopsital Signage in Rail Alphabet (ca. 1965). Source:

The typeface was chosen for NHS hospitals as many wayfinding typefaces are, because of their ease of reading at various sizes and clarity; it has similar style to Helvetica. The exhibition identity, signage and wayfinding is also set in a recently reworked version of Rail Alphabet.

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Original British Rail Guidelines, Typography Elements Section (ca. 1965). Source:

Morag Myerscough is well known for her ‘Supergraphics’ as her work is characterised by strong colour, large print type, shapes, stripes, spots and various other geometrical elements. She herself says that “I like interpreting spaces, really, putting narrative into spaces that don’t exist. I like stories and things.” She and her studio team have a consistent and fruitful output of work for schools, installations, exhibitions, advertising and way-finding projects. For the The Children’s Hospital at The Royal London, she and the 2012 Olympic ‘poet-in-residence’ Lemn Sissay transformed the children’s hospital dining rooms with bright colour, patterns and words through poems created by young patients; the outcome is a vibrant and lively place which children can feel comfortable and happy in.

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Morag Myerscough & Lemn Sissay – Dazzle Rooms (2012). Source:


Medicinal packaging is one of the more obvious examples of how graphic design can be used to aid. It must be difficult challenge for graphic designers to create designs which must contain complex and important information in a simple and effective way whilst looking attractive as well as differentiating itself from other products. In the 1950s and 60s Swiss pharmaceutical company J.R. Geigy A.G.worked with leading designers to create a visual vocabulary known as the “Geigy style”. This ‘anonymous’ language utilised white space, Akzidenz-Grotesk type, photographs, graphics, drawings, color contrasts and the use of a grid; all these elements helped to pioneer the ‘International Style’. Nowadays, medicinal packaging continues to be minimal and clean.

One of the leading designs Geigy chose to work with was Josef Müller Brockmann for this advert/packaging for Butazolidin. Müller Brockmann was a teacher at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Zürich, where he and other professors preached this ‘International Style’. He, his colleagues and students were notably systematic and analytic in their design thinking which is clear to see in his design for Geigy. This piece of work is clear as to what it is used for with a typically Swiss feel.

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Josef Müller-Brockmann – Geigy: Butazolidina (ca. 1958). Source:
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Igildo Biesele – Geigy: Eurax (ca. 1957) / Andreas His – Geigy: Medomina (ca. 1955). Source:

A much more modern example of medicinal packaging is that for Help Remedies; a pharmaceutical company set up in 2008 with the idea to produce single-ingredient, over-the-counter medication. With help (pardon the pun) from design agency Pearlfisher, their packaging is incredibly simple yet effective. It is immediately easy to see why it is so effective, you see what your ailment is in simple terms and it advises you what you need. Bold and bright colours allow it to be easily seen amongst various other medicinal packaging, there are symbols on the front which show the format of the medicine be it a oval pill, round pill or plaster as well as the box being a great holding device for the product inside.

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Pearlfisher–Help Remedies Packaging (2011). Source:


Graphic design’s role here is less of an immediate one in that you don’t choose something based on how it looks but it is used as a method of communicating public health messages to prevent infectious and fatal diseases. This is nothing new however, for centuries people have been writing and drawing illustrations to inform the public on diseases and how they can be avoided and prevented. Throughout the 20th century and nowadays graphic designers have been able to create poignant and eye-catching posters and awareness campaigns on a massive scale through modern media. But also more grassroots campaigns through traditional methods of simple illustration and bold typography.

Abram Games is admired as one of the greatest and most influential graphic designers of the 20th century, his distinctive style is recognisable across a magnitude of posters for various organisations and campaigns mostly in the UK; he was part of the ‘golden age of posters’. Whilst at university his daughter Naomi Games gave us a lecture on her father’s design which was a fascinating look at design from another era, a totally different view and style from today. This Malaria poster is from his best known series made during World War II; his design approach was “maximum meaning, minimum means” which meant he was able to tell a clear message immediately through complex and clever composition but never in a convoluted way.

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Abram Games – I’m Looking For You (1941). Source:

One of the most recent crisis’ was and still is the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa. Public warnings, signs and information were posted around the region with Stephen Doe painting a vast mural to raise awareness of the symptoms of the disease. His approach was to try to communicate with a population where literacy levels are low and multiple languages are spoken; the red coloured wall is instantly noticeable as announcing danger and by using few letters with simple and clear graphic illustrations he was able to educate locals about what they should be looking out for. A low-fi approach but possibly the most effective.

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Stephen Doe – Ebola Mural (2014). Source:


This section was the most difficult to comprehend as it was less about physical packaging products or physical posters, more about campaigns and organisations that exist to provoke action and support healthcare.

Graphic design is used to inform, promote and persuade and nowadays to provoke a reaction; empowering people to do something and contribute to society’s health. Its purpose is to grab attention but also provoke people to change their behaviour about certain issues. British graphic designer Ken Garland published his manifesto on this issue in 1964, titled ‘First Things First’ which challenged designers of that time to use their skills not to service corporate businesses and consumerism but to design for the public good. Updated in 2003 the manifesto has been key in promoting public health and other countries follow suit.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia and it can mean memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language, occurring when the brain is damaged. Alzheimer's and Dementia are important issues in today's society in our aging population, it is becoming more and more of something we need to be aware of. Studio Dumbar’s identity for Alzheimer Nederland is a refreshing change from their existing identity with a great rational of the vanishing logo to reflect the vanishing memory of people with dementia but being still legible it suggests light and hope. This identity was widely praised from patients and carers of the disease.

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Studio Dumbar – Alzheimer Nederland Identity (2012). Source:

Its (somewhat) similar counterpart in the UK is that of the Macmillan cancer support campaign designed by Wolff Olins where they used a hand-drawn font to look more approachable and warm yet still having sincerity and authority. The adaptable identity rebrand increased fundraising by £26 million within 2 years and it is as effective in person as it is online, instantly recognisable by its style. Although as it was designed in 2006 it has been around for a while and it does look dated and at times awkwardly clunky.

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Wolff Olins – Macmillan Cancer Support (2006). Source:

Overall the exhibition is a great insight into a role that graphic design plays in society, one of many along. Here we almost take it for advantage that our medication packaging tells us straight away what we need and what it contains, we subconsciously read posters which tell us to donate or contribute to charities and health campaigns and we often don’t think twice about how hospitals are designed to make us feel more comfortable – it’s almost the norm.

But to the question of the exhibition: “can graphic design save your life?” In my opinion, not really. It can help you look after your life in terms by educating and informing you but it will never save you. In your dying needs graphic design will not be your saviour. I know this is a literal viewpoint of the exhibition but it is my opinion. In the words of the exhibition curator, graphic designer, Lucienne Roberts: “Obviously, graphic design cannot save lives on its own. But I do think it’s key. Designers often undersell what they do and the public end up thinking it is just something that makes other things more expensive, and is added on at the end — but it shouldn’t be.”

The exhibition ‘Can Graphic Design Save Your Life?’ is on at the Wellcome Collection in London until the 14th January 2018 so plenty of time to check it out.

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written by
Craig Berry, Creative Intern at VBAT
edited by Connie Fluhme, PR at VBAT

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