What can the healthcare community learn from art history? This is the question I was asking myself while attending a public talk by Oxford Professor Martin Kemp called Christ to Coke: How image becomes icon.
The focus of the lecture was on Kemp’s new book which explores 11 iconic images and the creative trends and cultural implications we may derive from them. As a healthcare communicator, I was pleased to see the double helix make Kemp’s elite cut of iconic images.
The concept of his lecture that struck me as an opportunity in medical education & communication is the idea of image literacy. People are consuming information and media at a faster and more constant rate than ever before. We also have evidence that people retain medical information easier when it is accompanied by an image and this is especially the case in populations with low literacy rates. With all of this evidence, shouldn’t we be actively seeking opportunities to shift written disease awareness materials to simple, emotive images and information graphics?
Healthcare communications professionals have a role to play in identifying an image or information graphic that has resonance and explains the disease or condition clearly in order to gain the attention of a global audience. The aim should be to incorporate fundamental principles of iconic art & photographs in order to inspire action or behaviour change to improve health.
Kemp highlighted some of the shared associations among his iconic images. Here are a few that are interesting from a healthcare communications perspective:
- Visual presence beyond material existence
- Simplicity of message that is both definitive and compelling
- Openness to various kinds of engagement
- Shared human values
- Robustness in degraded reproduction
- Good repetition of the image
- Images are still ‘living’
Some may argue that modern icons are rooted solely in commerce (i.e. Coke, Disney, McDonalds), yet there are examples of medical images that are becoming icons that we can all identify with; for instance the pharmacy/medical cross and disease awareness ribbons.
Clearly, the current challenge is to find ways to gain the public’s fleeting attention in a 24-hour, online, multi-media cycle. However, with digital global communications, an emotive & thought provoking image has the power to cross language and societal barriers and deliver its message of health and wellbeing to multiple publics simultaneously.
I hope that the double helix remains an iconic image for future generations as it is at the core of modern science. But I also hope that we will see increased collaboration across the arts and sciences to develop new meaningful icons that deliver to the educational needs of the public.