Get us in your inbox


Can graphic design save your life? Find out at the Wellcome Collection’s latest show


The Wellcome Collection’s new exhibition explores the graphic side of the medical world – but not in the way you might think

You’re travelling in a strange and unfamiliar land. Let’s say Penge. An angry-looking rash in the shape of Luxembourg appears on your thigh. What’s the first thing you look for (after a terrifying hour on Google Images)? Usually, it’s a pharmacy cross, with its neon green lines flashing in unison; a simple healthcare symbol that transcends language. It is examples like these that form the basis of the Wellcome Collection’s new show, ‘Can Graphic Design Save Your Life?’. Using 200 objects – a mix of posters, anatomical pop-up books and cigarette packet health warnings, the exhibition will explore how design has shaped our approach to healthcare – for better and for worse.

One display is a film about the ‘interactive’ poster used during Brazil’s zika virus outbreak. Using an odour like human sweat, the installation attracted mosquitoes, killing them with the lethal substance smeared on its surface. It shows how a rapid response campaign can impact public perception when a scary new outbreak occurs.

An advertisement for the ‘Silence = Death’ project. Used with permission by ACT-UP 1987 Wellcome Library.

There’s also a 1987 TV ad, a health warning on the HIV/Aids epidemic, where a falling tombstone chiselled with ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ intensified fear and the stigmatisation of those who had been diagnosed. Its blame-focused message makes for uncomfortable viewing today. Then, in 1986, the subverted pink triangle (used to mark LGBT+ people in the Holocaust), reclaimed in an act of resistance by artist Avram Finkelstein on the poster he co-created, proclaimed ‘Silence = Death’. By placing the pink triangle on a black background, the simple layout created a call to action, demanding an end to the silence about the ‘annihilation and oppression of gay people’.

‘If you must smoke don’t exhale’: Biman Mullick/Cleanair

The exhibition shows how design helps us make sense of the incomprehensible. It can change the mood of a children’s hospital using humour and colour, translate medical symptoms into palatable imagery, and distil complex advice on to an A4 page. You might never find yourself in a club singing ‘Last night Adobe saved my life’, but good graphic design really does matter. After all, you wouldn’t trust a health warning delivered in Comic Sans. 

Can Graphic Design Save Your Life?’ is at the Wellcome Collection, Thu Sep 7-Jan 14 2018, Tuesdays-Sundays. Free.

Too graphic for your liking? How do these museum shows tickle your tonsils? 

Popular on Time Out

    Latest news

      Read next