Graphic design in pharma ads traces the history of healthcare – Nature Medicine blog post
Modern-day print ads for medicine are hardly worth a glance, with their universal fine print detailing drug side effects amidst stock-photo graphics and vague illusions to disease. However, such ads would be unrecognizable to their predecessors in the mid-twentieth century. At the time, pharmaceutical advertising was a new frontier for American artists working in marketing. And with a heavy influence from the European avant-garde movement, drug ads became bold, colorful statements for the nascent field of graphic design.
“The industry was just being born, and there was a feeling that this was something new and something really exciting,” says Alexander Tochilovsky, a graphic designer who teaches at the Cooper Union in New York. “It attracted a lot of young designers who were all trained as artists who created really interesting things without too much guidance and restriction.”
At the Cooper Union earlier today, I wandered through ‘Pharma’, a new exhibit curated by Tochilovsky detailing the history of pharma advertising and design — from the penciled advertisements for cure-all snake oil drugs of the early twentieth-century to modern ad campaigns starring ambiguously happy men and women with taboo diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome and sexual dysfunction disorder.
In the 1940s and 50s, pharmaceutical design came with a compelling set of challenges. Artists had to visually explain complex medical conditions and drug applications, and they often turned to avant-garde abstraction. The shift to the conceptual also came at a time of changing infrastructure in healthcare, in which medicines were no longer peddled to consumers, but rather to hospital-based doctors. And according to Tochilovsky, artists were thrilled to design for the “sophisticated and highly-educated” doctors, who did not require hand-holding to understand the abstract designs and cultural references.
Image: Ad for Roche by Aldo Calabresi for Studio Boggeri, photo by Sergio Libis, 1959. Courtesy of Cooper Union