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Graphic design can save your life – here’s how

Graphic design to help save lives

Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images

In 2013, I went to Zambia to report on a public health campaign aimed at persuading African men to get circumcised to help reduce the spread of HIV.

Driving through the streets of the capital Lusaka, it was hard to miss the roadside walls painted with the campaign slogan and logo – a man standing tall, holding his belt. The image was intended to counter the local perception that circumcision would make you less of a man. I remember thinking it was clever, but I didn’t link it to any formal discipline.

I’m reminded of this at the Wellcome Collection’s latest exhibition, Can Graphic Design Save Your Life? The show brings into sharp focus the complex and often subliminal relationship between graphic design and health.


One exhibit in particular echoed that scene. During the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, Liberian designer Stephen Doe painted walls red to show danger and used simple iconography to convey the disease’s symptoms to a population among whom more than 30 languages were spoken – and few people could read or write.

It is not unusual for graphic design to take a back seat where public health is concerned: bigger issues are at stake, after all. But the craftsmanship is vital, with a lot more to lose than just a poorly designed advert in a commercial campaign. Take the infamously hard-hitting “Don’t die of ignorance” AIDS campaign, with that message dropped onto every UK doormat in the 1980s. The original sell, “Don’t aid AIDS”, was deemed too soft. Had it not been, the outcome might have been very different.

Visual protection

So graphic design can save your life – and it could also stop you from getting punched in the face. In 2010, the UK’s Department of Health and the Design Council asked for ideas on how to reduce levels of violence in accident and emergency departments. The winning…

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