Can Graphic Design Save Your Life? This is the question raised by an exhibit at the Wellcome Collection in London, running from September 7, 2017 to January 14, 2018.

The exhibit features everything from innovative medical packaging, to powerful awareness campaign material. Among these are posters, as well as flyers mailed to UK households, from the 1980’s “Don’t die of ignorance” AIDS awareness campaign.  Like many other ad and awareness campaigns on display, it’s one of many examples of effective medical messaging. But it also raises questions for those of us who think about conveying messages on an international scale.

Could this exact campaign, with its exact imagery, have worked in a culture outside the UK or its European/Western counterparts?  With HIV and AIDS still a major world health issue, the message is understandable, but the symbols and cultural norms don’t necessarily translate.  For example, in cultures where funerary practices don’t involve coffins or tombstones, the imagery might not be immediately recognizable, or evoke the same amount of dread. This is the type of challenge translators, transcreators, and graphic designers have to deal with whenever medical devices or any healthcare-related communication is shared across borders. As journalist Catherine de Lange aptly puts it,

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.

One thing that makes the challenge of adapting visuals a little easier is desktop publishing, or DTP. This is software that translators and transcreators can use to help them adjust layout for everything from websites, to print ads, to packaging.  It’s an amazing tool, but using it correctly requires a lot of human knowledge about cultures and local language(s).

In addition to fairly obvious cultural differences (like burial practices), there are several subtler ones to consider, like:

– Medical information regulations. Some countries require more information on medical packaging, than others. Graphics and layout will have to change because of this.

– The meaning of color. We all have an innate sense of significance of colors, but it’s not universal.  Each culture can give a color radically different meanings. For example, in most Western cultures, red is often associated with warnings or alarm.  In China, on the other hand, red is a color of celebration and good fortune.  It’s the color worn by brides, while white, the traditional Western bridal color, is associated with death and mourning.

– The consumer’s role in society. This fascinating, in-depth study highlights some unexpected ways culture plays a role in consumer perception. Take, for example, balance of power: In countries where there is more equality in society – for example, a society with elected leaders and a relatively trustworthy government – people will respond to a website with lots of information and choices, whereas people living under an authoritarian or corrupt government will prefer a straightforward site with less options and details.

Collectivism versus individualism is another factor, with individualistic cultures like Americans preferring more personalized web content. Other issues in the study include masculinity versus femininity, and consumers’ preference for content that’s predictable and trustworthy, versus new or innovative.

Literacy levels. Most marketing publications, websites, and studies seem to only address literate markets.  But if a company is looking to expand worldwide, it’s essential to remember that not all populations can read.  In fact, a recent UNESCO report shows that despite amazing progress in reducing illiteracy, there are still an estimated 750 million illiterate adults around the world today.

A lack of awareness about this issue can be downright dangerous. For example, while many leaflets and posters about Ebola symptoms and prevention were distributed in several West African countries during the 2014 Ebola outbreak, not everyone could read them.  Luckily, local artists like Stephen Doe spread the word around their communities, with signs and murals that used easily understandable visuals to convey the same messages.

– How people get information. There are lots of studies out there about how different groups use smartphones to surf the internet, or whether they prefer reading or watching videos — but in some places, a majority of the population doesn’t have access to the internet at all.  It’s vital to know how the people you’re trying to reach, can be reached.

– How medications are used. Whether because of regulations, laws, or cultural practices, medications and devices may need to be packaged differently.  One recent example is the change in the Russian version of Viagra.  Because studies show it’s usually taken shortly after being purchased (often as part of a wild night out, rather than by someone who necessarily is suffering from erectile dysfunction), the company opted for a new box that features a single dose, a more stylish logo, and a tearaway top that gives easy access to the pill inside.

There are many considerations when it comes to medical messaging. This makes the successful medical products and awareness campaigns featured in the Can Graphic Design Change Your Life?  exhibit even more impressive – and shows just how important local knowledge and tools like DTP are when it comes to communicating often vital information across cultures.

 

by Alysa Salzberg

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