It's just pictures, colours and words, right? Challenging thinking series 6.

Like oxygen, graphic design is all around us. Indeed, it’s so all-pervasive, I wonder if it’s even possible to assess the scope of its impact on society as a whole.

As a result, just like oxygen, graphic design is so much part of the fabric of existence that it often goes unrecognised and taken for granted. In fact, does anybody care?

So, what role can graphic design play in an on-demand society where the stresses are high, work-life balance is a constant battle and wellbeing is only now being given the consideration it deserves? What positive effects can design have and does it really hold the power not only to change our decision making, but also our views, and in turn better our lives?

I can’t help but think of the breakthroughs and opportunities that great design can and has delivered – from something as simple as distilling information into understandable and universal formats, to campaigns that have changed the world.

Graphic design leads the way

When graphic design is right, it will last forever, and this is a perfect example.

The London Underground map is probably the most well-known map in Britain. In fact, it’s probably one of the country’s most recognisable pieces of graphic design. Designed by Harry Beck in his spare time, the map has stood the test of time (it’s been tweaked and added to, but never fully redesigned) since 1931.

Beck’s design was inspired by the circuit diagrams he drew for his day job as an Underground Electrical draughtsman. It stripped the sprawling Tube network down to a neat diagram of coloured, criss-crossing lines.

When he first put his map forward to London Underground they rejected it – considering it far too radical, but a successful trial print-run showed that it was just what the public wanted. Beck realised people didn’t care how far apart stations were, still less their physical relationship to each other, they simply wanted to know how to get from one station to another in the easiest way possible.

His design eliminated everything else. And there was its success. Its focus on a single thought. His design had clarity and purpose. Beck’s design was certainly challenging the thinking of its time.

This iconic piece of design continues to help people, making the experience of moving across the city, easier, slicker and therefore less stressful. With around 2 million passengers travelling on the London Underground every day, it has certainly proved its worth.

Graphic design creates change

Design can sway large organisations, with reputations and finances at stake, to reconsider their thinking. Yet, more than that, it can engage with the masses to reconsider out of date opinions and address stereotypical behaviours. This next campaign is a great case in point where design and advertising are used to steer positive change and articulate a great insight.

Sport England and FCB Inferno’s This Girl Can. This campaign is a favourite of mine – I gave it a nod as I drove past the billboards on my way to the office after the battle to get up for boot camp on a Tuesday morning.

The insight at the centre of This Girl Can was incredibly powerful – fear of judgment from others is the primary barrier holding women back from participating in sports. This fear covers concerns over their appearance, ability, or the simple fact they are choosing to spend time on themselves, rather than on their families. Tackling this fear was seen as key to tackling the gender gap. As a working mum-of-two young boys, I am very conscious of how I divide my time and the role I have to play in shutting down gender stereotypes – in both the school and industry playgrounds.

This powerful insight, however, is nothing without a designer who can translate it. The creative execution was simple, empowering and inclusive – the marriage of the hard-hitting copy lines placed over authentic imagery of real women, cast from parks, gyms, swimming pools and football pitches all over the country well and truly engaged with its audience.

“Sweating like a pig, feeling like a fox”, “I kick balls, deal with it” are among the tongue-in-cheek lines used in the campaign to drive a change in attitudes. These copy lines addressed real, tangible fears, such as the fact that 48% of girls say that getting sweaty is not feminine.

The campaign was a runaway success. 1.6 million started exercising and the number of women taking up sport and being active is increasing faster than the number of men. That’s the power of challenging thinking, where a design and advertising campaign can act as a positive enabler.

Graphic design saves lives

When I discovered that the Wellcome Collection had put on an exhibition exploring the relationship between graphic design and health and wellbeing I realised exactly just how entrenched our industry is. The title of the exhibition asks the deliberately provocative question ‘Can graphic design save your life?’.

Comprising over 200 pieces, including hard-hitting posters, illuminated pharmacy signs, and digital teaching aids, the exhibition considers the role of graphic design in constructing and communicating healthcare messages around the world. From posters to advertising, packaging to information graphics, its focus is public facing design, engineered to persuade, educate, prevent, and ultimately protect. The exhibition shows how graphic design has been used to inform, to empower, and has perhaps even been instrumental in healing.

So to answer the question the exhibition posed, yes, I believe it can certainly help to save lives. The medical world is packed with examples of preventative, cautionary, and explanatory graphic design saving lives. The exhibition highlights the widespread and often subliminal nature of graphic design in shaping our environment, our health and our sense of self.

Within the exhibition, there are some wonderful contemporary case studies. And it’s not just the big brands which are showcased. Morag Myerscough’s interiors work in children’s hospitals features prominently.

Sheffield Children’s Hospital is currently in the midst of a £40m redevelopment but has already embraced graphic design. When Artfelt, an arts programme funded by The Children’s Hospital Charity were challenged with the task of improving the environment for patients and staff, they commissioned one of the UK’s most prolific designers Morag Myerscough, who transformed a series of rooms and wards into uplifting and colourful spaces. Morag created 4 designs, across 46 wards.

According to Myerscough, who was quoted in Design Week, the designs are of “different degrees of brightness and intensities” to help children of different ages and medical conditions. For example, one was pale blue, designed for children with conditions like autism, who may find bright colours contribute to sensory overload.

Sheffield is part of an increasing trend in hospitals adopting this design thinking. The San Carlos Hospital in Madrid has recently made big changes, making its hospital more inviting and less scary through its work with children’s charity the Aladina Foundation and artist Okuda San Miguel. They have redesigned both its paediatric intensive care unit (ICU) and children’s wards with fun and vibrant illustrations.

Design Week cited Lorena Diez, hospital director for the Aladina Foundation, as saying, “We seek to humanise hospitals, helping reduce the trauma of a young person’s stay as much as possible. This project will help improve the quality of life for children in the hospital.”

Graphic design revolution

It might be a stretch too far to suggest that design can save the world, but design can certainly give us the inspiration, the tools and the means to try. After all, it’s already having a huge impact in every aspect of life, and helping to make significant improvements to everything around us.

It’s time for graphic designers everywhere to champion the role of good design and the power it holds. On the surface it may be pictures, words and colours — yet teamed with the skill of the designer, a killer insight, the power of creativity, and challenging thinking, design can literally save lives, change behaviour, influence thinking, and if you’re lucky, it’ll even safely get you from Amersham to West Croydon.