There isn’t a catch-all response to the question posed by the Wellcome Collection’s new exhibition, ‘Can Graphic Design Save Your Life?’ The answer, as curator Lucienne Roberts has discovered after several years of sifting through the archives, is contradictory to say the least. As co-founder, with Rebecca Wright, of GraphicDesign&, a publishing house that explores graphic design’s social role, Roberts has long been interested in ‘demonstrating the value’ of the discipline. ‘There are very few subjects that are as essential as health,’ she says. ‘We knew the pharmaceutical industry was a really rich area to explore. It lends itself to quite a minimal, abstract approach.’

Drawing on Wellcome’s own massive collection, as well as loans from companies and individuals, Roberts worked with Jason Holley and Satoshi Isono of Universal Design Studio to shape the exhibition. ‘We looked at it as a graphic space,’ says Holley, ‘using composition, architecture, colour and iconography.’ From the (freshly fashionable) hospital pastel colour scheme to a sprinkling of supergraphics and a clutch of totemic forms (cigarette, cross, warning triangle and question mark), the stage is set for hundreds of items that chart our relationship with the desires, demands and dictates of buying, selling and applying healthcare.

The exhibition begins with the cross, crescent and crystal, the three symbols of the International Red Cross movement. ‘These are powerful emblems,’ says Roberts, ‘so it’s a good way of introducing graphic design to a non-graphic audience.’ The juxtaposition with Raymond Loewy’s Lucky Strike cigarette packaging is stark; the show’s ‘Persuasion’ section lays bare the creative battles that still rage between pro- and anti-smoking lobbies. The undeniable bursts of creativity and visual allure of the former (think Saatchi & Saatchi’s Silk Cut) have given health campaigners an unenviable uphill task. Ironically, in recent years designers have also explored the simplicity and discipline of ‘unbranded’ cigarette packaging.

Universal Design Studio’s model for the exhibition, with graphic symbols as sets for themed sections

01 Education: modernism deployed to inform consumers and promote health
02. Hospitalisation: the art and design of treatment and recuperation
03. Medication: the role of design in building brands and selling drugs
04. Contagion: a warning triangle to explore safety and security
05. Provocation: design with a conscience, aiming to reshape attitudes
06. Persuasion: a cigarette shaped display infers the power of design

Drug packaging has long provided artistic inspiration. Bayer, the German chemical multinational, pioneered stamping its logo on the pills themselves at the turn of the century, giving Aspirin, its new miracle drug, a distinct, inimitable style. From the 1920s and 1930s onwards, the psychology of health and healing and the vast amount of new drugs on the market transformed packaging design. The show’s ‘Medication’ section revels in these crisply medicinal corporate identities, annual reports, packets and posters from companies including Bayer, Geigy, Teva and more.

Other key pieces include a classic French pharmacy sign, with its flashing green patterns reprogrammed to display the name of the exhibition, and the ‘Battenberg’ markings from the side of a British ambulance, which form a ghostly imprint of the vehicle on the gallery wall. The signage throughout is set in New Rail Alphabet, the Margaret Calvert-designed typeface that was the default option for the NHS for many years.

Designing for healthcare ticks all the boxes for the socially conscious designer – it seeks to arrest, inform and ultimately change behaviour. Roberts cites Ken Garland’s 1964 ‘First Things First’ manifesto, an influential attempt to create a moral framework for graphic design’s ample powers of persuasion. The show’s ‘Contagion’ and ‘Provocation’ displays demonstrate how vital visual communication is and how impactful health propaganda can be (the 1980s Aids ‘gravestone’ advert, included in the exhibition, is a totemic and ominous item for those who recall it).

The exhibition name is repeated, plastered across the gallery walls. ‘It is a provocative title and we wanted to maximise it,’ Roberts says. As with all the best medical messaging, it lingers in the mind long after the last pill has been popped.

As originally featured in the October 2017 issue of Wallpaper* (W*223) – on newsstands 15 September

RELATED TOPICS: GRAPHIC DESIGN, LONDON EXHIBITIONS, LONDON DESIGN, HEALTHCARE DESIGN