Stephen Bayley

Vital signs

Good design can save your life, so why is all hospital branding so terrifying?

Exhibit A. It is 1958 and you are barrelling down a dual carriageway; the 70 mph limit is still eight years away. The road signs are nearly illegible. You miss your turning, over-correct, hit a tree and die.

The following year, graphic designer Margaret Calvert is driving her Porsche 356c along the newly built M1. The motorway signs are hers. It is information design of a high order, possibly even life-saving. The clarity and intelligence of Calvert’s British road signs remain unmatched nearly 60 years later. And the font she created became the NHS, and later rail and airport, standard.

Exhibit B. The French are worried about nuclear waste. Given the half-life of radio-active detritus, warning signs must be legible in 100,000 years when written language may be redundant. After all, the alphabet is simply a primitive sort of code. Nuclear sites require signs as chillingly effective as the medieval Plague Cross, a red mark daubed on the door of infected properties.

How signs and symbols warn us about danger and contagion is the subject of Can Graphic Design Save Your Life? In 2012 Australia demanded standardised packaging for cigarettes. Out went brands aiming to seduce with jolly jack tars, camels and cowboys; in came a brief that required the product to look disgusting. A drab colour known as Pantone 448C was chosen after market research determined that it was exceptionally repellent. And the law demanded that 60 per cent of the pack’s surface be covered with grisly photographs of tumours and lesions. (Rather as if, in the interests of road safety, Calvert’s Porsche were required to be covered with pictures of harrowing traffic accidents.)

But constraints can be stimulating: a wittier response to cigarette deterrence came from a British design group called Build, who reimagined Marlboro packs in machine-readable OCR-B font with a QR code linking to an anti-smoking site.

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