Graphic Design in Healthcare: An Inconvenient Truth

Posted by: in Healthcare Insights, Medical Communications, Thinking Creatively on April 25, 2013

As a young design professional in London, I can give you an extensive list of companies and organisations that graphic design students would really like to work for after graduation. You could even have a look at mine if you want.  You won’t find many differences among our lists, what you will find is one big similarity: none of them are usually in healthcare. Why? Because with all the ‘cool stuff’ around in marketing, healthcare isn’t associated with graphic design and creativity. But the truth is, working in healthcare requires a unique type of creativity at the intersection of compliance with brand strategy, creative integrity and regulatory stringency.  Sure, it might not sound like the trendiest sector to work in to a recent design grad, but in many cases it requires more creative drive, input and support than the traditional ‘cool’ industries.

Working with a ‘good looking’ brand is somewhat easy. Just take a look around. Billboard posters for cars, beers and deodorants, magazine ads for bags, shoes and watches, TV ads for phones, sofas and holiday packages; the list goes on. You can make pretty much make any kind of work look good if you’re working with something that isn’t very serious. But cancer or wet age-related macular degeneration are not good looking diseases. In fact, they are devastating.

So, how do you approach a project that requires a creative solution in order to communicate a message to an audience of stakeholders, scientists, advocacy organisations, doctors, caregivers and patients? They all have different needs. They all react to different messages.  They all are reached through different channels.

You start to wonder, ‘how does the graphic design I dreamt of doing fit into this picture?’ Well, let’s be honest, it doesn’t. It’s not Vanity Fair and it’s not Wallpaper*; it’s not even Scientific American. Designing for healthcare is a completely different arena, and you have to be prepared to change the way you’ve been playing the game. The way you use your tools, your thinking process, even your language has to adapt.  For me, the biggest challenge came when I realised I had to change myself and the way I work.

So I did it. I changed. Here’s how:

Step 1

I realised and accepted the fact that I work in a non-design related area (or at least the way I had initially thought of design and healthcare). Most of the people I work with probably don’t share my enthusiasm about grids, Pantone mugs or the Monocle magazine. They don’t even know what CMYK is. But that doesn’t mean they don’t care about what things looks like. And the truth is, if I can make the design AND the non-design people like what I have done, I have accomplished so much more.

Step 2

I learned to talk about my work like I did in university. I remembered the importance of presenting appropriately, explaining thoroughly and elaborating precisely. Most of the times I’ll hear one question, ‘why?’ I have learned to answer in a way that genuinely supports the strategic design decisions I made and the work I executed. And when I do that, they’ll mostly agree. Not always of course. But if they don’t agree, I have learned to listen and take their feedback, whether it be a colleague or a client, to make the next version something that excites all of us. Disagreement is part of the creative process in any industry– the only difference is in how we articulate and evolve the work.

Step 3

I embraced the challenges.  Anyone can make a nice ad for a Prada bag. But in pharma, the inherent limitations require us to be even more creative to bring the client’s messages to life. You might feel like you could have done more without the restrictions and guidelines, but then you remember that the design you just created has a purpose. That ad encouraged someone’s grandmother to get her eyes checked after her recent vision change, or someone’s dad to not just let the warning signs for a stroke pass him by without talking to his healthcare provider.

While I set out after university to make design for companies that I thought were ‘cool’, I am instead part of a creative process that aims to improve or save patients’ lives. And while that’s not what I had envisioned, it is something I don’t want to change anytime soon.

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  1. OK, so I do know what CMYK is, and may have owned a Pantone mug at some point. But That doesn’t negage my appreciation of this post! Good one, EZ.

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