Can graphic design save your life?

Can graphic design save your life? asks a new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection. Quite possibly, says senior account director, Louise Harris.

An arresting, illuminated green cross greets visitors to the north London institution that is the Wellcome Collection, leaving those in search of its newest exhibition in little doubt that they were in the right place.

Exactly what endowed that commonplace shape and hue with its seemingly ‘obvious’ connection to pharmacy care, is just one of the questions the thought-provoking new exhibition seeks to answer.

Curated in partnership with publishing house GraphicDesign&, ‘Can graphic design save your life?’ looks at the role illustration and graphic design have played in everything, from informing early studies of human anatomy and myth-busting around the AIDS virus, to ensuring ambulances are distinguishable from other emergency vehicles. It looks at the tricks, tactics and techniques employed by ‘Big Pharma’ in their drive to market medications, at cigarette brands pushing their products and later, the public health initiatives seeking to counter those pro-smoking campaigns.

Quite aside from being simply a feast for the eyes (although it absolutely is), the exhibition offers important food-for-thought for communicators about why good graphic design – while if not quite always life or death – should, at the very least, be considered as part of an effective communication mix.

Take the display that focuses on the development in the 1920s of the International System of Typographic Picture Education (ISOTYPE). The role this standardised, pictographic mode of communication played in transcending language barriers (and high levels of illiteracy) is beautifully illustrated – pun intended – by examples from the Nigerian leprosy epidemic of the 50s, and more recent uses during the Ebola crisis.

If ISOTYPEs help to distil complex messages to their simplest component parts to aid understanding, at the other end of the design spectrum, we find graphic design that uses sophisticated visual concepts to create meaning in the minds of the viewer.

The Samaritans’ “We listen” campaign, designed to reduce suicides on the rail network and prepared in partnership with Network Rail, is an award-winning example of one such campaign. It sees people making seemingly innocuous remarks about their lives, which are only revealed as major disclosures of mental distress by the graphic design - what’s written isn’t, in fact, what’s being said. The graphic design concept underpins the campaign’s key message in a subtle, yet understandable way.

Freshwater has reaped the benefits of embedding in-house graphic designers into our team for over a decade. We see first-hand the benefits to our clients of integrating high-quality graphic design into our work – be that web design, events, PR, corporate communications or digital – across a variety of sectors, not just health.

If you need further convincing of graphic design’s impact, do visit the exhibition (or give one of our designers a call for a debate!). High-quality graphic design might not always save your life, but it can almost always save your communications campaign.





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Impact Report 2017

Impact report 2017