Exhibition | Wellcome Collection - Can Graphic Design Save Your Life?

An impromptu day trip to London and a two hour wait until my train departure for my return journey to Manchester initiated a quick internet search of art galleries and museums within the vicinity of Euston train station. Being London, finding something to pass the time with is not challenging and with both the British Library and the Wellcome Collection within a stone's throw of my location, eventually I was seduced by the title of the exhibition showing at the latter venue: 'Can Graphic Design Save Your Life?'

In under three minutes, I had reached the Wellcome Collection on foot. Founded by Sir Henry Wellcome, the exhibitions and collections at the free museum and library create connections between science, medicine, life and art. I had a previous fleeting visit to the gallery and thoroughly enjoyed the permanent Medicine Man exhibition that displays a selection of wonderful curios belonging to the founder whose passion for medicine led him to collect more than a million objects. Items such as the ram's head snuff box and mummified remains of a Peruvian male are genuinely captivating and perhaps on the cusp of drawing interest akin of a Barnum & Bailey circus, but I was excited to view one of the temporary exhibitions on this occasion.

Comprising over two hundred objects including posters, illuminated pharmacy signs and digital teaching aids, 'Can Graphic Design Save Your Life?' encourages visitors to "explore the relationship between graphic design and health".

The exhibition guide states:

"Graphic design surrounds us. Using words, images, signs, symbols, colour, scale and format, graphic design shapes and mediates our experience of the world. It is ubiquitous yet often overlooked. This exhibition illuminates the ways in which graphic design influences our health every day. From packaging that instructs you to take the correct pill to awareness campaigns that stop the spread of infectious disease, the pervasive power of graphic design and its underlying methods of communication are explored."

Featuring items from public and private collections around the world, the displays are grouped into distinct themes:

  • Persuasion: The relationship between advertising and smoking,and questions the ethical responsibilities of graphic designers.

  • Education: The ways in which infographics and illustration have been used to inform people about how their bodies work and the best way to take care of them.

  • Medication: Bringing together ideas about the development of brand identities in the pharmaceutical industry and how that influences what people buy and trust.

  • Contagion: Contemplating how graphic design can be employed as part of the frontline response in preventing the spread of epidemics.

  • Provocation: Reflecting on contemporary campaigns that provoke action and support health worldwide.

The displays include the work of infographics pioneer, Peter Grundy (above), n+m medical journal cover illustrator, Erwin Poell, and Biman Mullick (below) who founded anti-smoking organisation CLEANAIR and created and distributed thousands of posters highlighting the harmful impacts of smoking and passive smoking.

One of the most revealing exhibits focussed on National Health Service (NHS) visualisation projects which included the Design Council and Department of Health design brief aimed at reducing violence in accident and emergency (A&E) departments in hospitals.

Research suggested that what most frustrated patients was a lack of information about the A&E process. Design consultancy, Pearson Lloyd, created a comprehensive system that informs and orients patients through their A&E experience, from the waiting room and triage to consultation, as well as providing live waiting times. After a one-year trial of the system, recorded violent incidents fell by 50% in A&E demonstrating the influence of graphic design to people and their environment.

I was particularly interested in the work by Geigy pharmaceutical company's design studio (above), which is now part of now part of Big Pharma giant, Novartis. Geigy spearheaded the use of graphic design to create a corporate identity across many different products in the mid twentieth century. The influential design studio helped pioneer the ‘International Style’ associated with visual simplicity, sans-serif type, abstract imagery, strong colour and asymmetric layouts determined by a grid. Even today design associated with medication continues to be minimal, precise and clean, suggesting that when it comes to the promotion of medicine, less is more.

I was fortunate to have viewed the exhibition in its final week with its closing date being 14 January 2018, but for information about upcoming exhibitions and events at the Wellcome Collection, visit their What's On page.

Images of display works are via the Wellcome Collection website.

#graphicdesign #communication #exhibition #artgallery #museum

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