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Tiger, Hospital Sant Joan de Déu, Barcelona | © Rubio Arauna Studio, Rai Pinto Studio/Victòria Gil
Tiger, Hospital Sant Joan de Déu, Barcelona | © Rubio Arauna Studio, Rai Pinto Studio/Victòria Gil

Wellcome Collection's New Exhibition Explores the Healing Power of Graphic Design

Picture of Charlotte Luxford
Home & Design Editor
Updated: 12 September 2017

Possibly one of the most important and powerful forms of advertising is that which can inform and empower society for the better; this is the premise of Wellcome Collection‘s latest exhibition that investigates how graphic design has shaped our perceptions surrounding health issues over the centuries. From 16th-century anatomical pop-up books to Planned Parenthood comics promoting safe sex, this major exhibition has more than 200 fascinating and powerful examples on display.

If you’ve not been to the Wellcome Collection before, this free museum’s unique selling point is the connection it makes between medicine, life and art, and Can Graphic Design Save Your Life? is no exception. Exploring the persuasive strategies of advertising campaigns and the work of some of the most influential 20th-century graphic designers, this exhibition is intriguing from both an aesthetic perspective as well as its humancentric and psychological aspect.

Mixing a wide range of material from both public and private collections, there’s everything from the universally recognised green-lit pharmacy signs and powerful Red Cross emblems to a recent hand-painted mural that depicts Ebola symptoms and a range of anti-smoking postage stamps from around the world.

Street artist Stephen Doe paints an educational mural to inform people about the symptoms of the deadly Ebola virus in the Liberian capital Monrovia | © DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images

Selection of anti-smoking stamps from around the world | Courtesy of Wellcome Collection

Smoking features heavily in the exhibition as a way of exploring graphic design’s powers of persuasion, both positively and negatively. The exhibition shows how advertising isn’t always for the power of good – Raymond Loewy’s designs for Lucky Strike, which dramatically drove up sales in the US, sit in stark contrast to the bold warnings emblazoned on cigarette packets in the UK today.

‘Smoking is Slow Motion Suicide’, Biman Mullick for Cleanair | Courtesy of Wellcome Collection

From recent reactive pieces relating to epidemics like Ebola or Zika, to plague notices from the Renaissance era and Victorian quarantine bills, the exhibition also shows just how crucial the use of graphics is to convey information immediately and clearly in response to the world’s biggest medical crises.

Another element of Can Graphic Design Save Your Life? is the importance of design in medical environments and how it can dramatically improve a patient’s wellbeing, such as transforming a children’s ward from an intimidating and clinical setting to a brightly coloured, fun and pleasant space to spend time in.

Tiger, Hospital Sant Joan de Déu, Barcelona | © Rubio Arauna Studio/Rai Pinto Studio/Victòria Gil

Graphic designer Ken Garland played a huge role in the graphic design industry during the 20th century, with his 1964 First Things First manifesto, which inspired his fellow designers to consider the ethics of their profession. He asks them to forego ‘trival purposes, which contribute little or nothing to our national prosperity’ and instead be ‘in favour of the more useful and more lasting forms of communication’.

The last part of the exhibition is a contemporary reimagining of Garland’s manifesto and explores these powerful campaigns that focused on empowering society by raising awareness for conditions such as dementia and breast cancer, as well as encouraging people to become organ donors.

Poster created for Het Nederlandse Rode Kruis by Dick Bruna, 1986 | © copyright Mercis

Cancerfonden breast-cancer awareness 2016 by designer, Kalle Mattsson for Cancerfonden, Sweden | Courtesy of Cancerfonden

Alongside Garland’s work, there are key pieces from the likes of Abram Games, who has produced some of Britain’s most iconic images, including the anti-malaria poster on display, to work by contemporary studios including the world’s largest independent design consultancy, Pentagram.

The malaria mosquito forming the eye-sockets of a skull, representing death from malaria, 1941 | © Estate of Abram Games Wellcome Library, London

There are also workshop drop-ins running from November 3–12 where you’ll be able to join artists, graphic designers and public health professions to explore and discuss the link between health and graphic design in a pop-up design studio.

The exhibition, which has been curated by GraphicDesign& founders Lucienne Roberts and Rebecca Wright, runs until January 14, 2018.