Can Graphic Design Get Some Respect⸮

Exhibition entrance

Over four months, the Wellcome Collection in London is hosting Can Graphic Design Save Your Life? In her fourth design-focused exhibition for the trust, curator Lucienne Roberts with Central Saint Martins design educator Rebecca Wright, explore impactful designs on health around the world.

The entrance, made of a material to evoke transparency — appears like smoky glass thanks to the dimly lit interior — though to foreshadow the dark side of design lurking inside. Further implied by the hit of cold air as you walk in through the closed doors. Forcing the visitors to engage with the environment — juxtaposing the subconscious impact graphic design has on us all.

Roberts, with more experience in 2D graphic design turned to Universal Design Studio to execute the 3D environment to showcase the provocative work. Divided into six sections each shaped to fit the theme, work ranges from LCC alumni student work to huge creative agency work, between the 16th 21st century. The exhibition has been paired with a book that reflects these sections

The first of which titled Persuasion, showcases the glorification of cigarette advertising. Saatchi & Saatchi in 1993 delivered the Silk Cut adverts to dodge the UK laws on cigarette packaging. This lead to one of the landmark moments, graphic design was formally recognised in an ethical context among legislators later in 2003, when cigarette advertising was banned.

In contrast, the award winning current PillPack design in the Medication section shows how a highly demanded product can use human-centred design to drive away unnecessary complexity. IDEO abstracted the process of taking pills down to a tea bag shaped sachet, people tear of each day, and consume the pre-organised pills inside.

The pieces on display continue the questionable ambiguity of the title. They depict a contrast between design that does and doesn’t save lives. Though not directly implied, this is a very political exhibition with an ethical design aftertaste, rather than just arguing graphic design as a lifesaving practice. Furthermore, the work depicts the long term impact and evolution of the practice, while keeping the work relatable. Including the intent to help businesses profit from the addictive degrading of customers’ health, to saving lives by feasting off our emotional guilt.

In the Provocation section, the Scottish Kill Jill campaign, controversially guilted viewers to become registered organ donors. It was argued that previous softer” campaigns hadn’t been effective. This sentiment can be applied to the exhibition. Simply the fact this exists, proves that design has not earned its place in society. Roberts said [d]esigners often undersell what they do and she is doing the same here in an attempt to encourage critical analysis in the visitors.

The implicit nature of the title, is a passive aggressive suggestion that the visitors should come to the correct conclusion in the ideals of the creator. But still walk away thinking graphic design ‘[c]an’ rather than does impact health and survival.